New Classical Tracks: Music from the Melting Pot

by Valerie Kahler
February 1, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks - February 2, 2011
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Boston Symphony Chamber Players: Plain Song, Fantastic Dances (BSO Classics 1005) (Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players)

The other night, I was trying to describe a piece of music to my husband. While he loves music more than any ten people I know, he doesn't come from a classical background, and we often get bogged down until I remember to translate music-speak into English. Finally, I struck upon an analogy.

"It's like Esperanto!" I said.

"Um...what?" he replied.

Esperanto is this totally-made-up language that has been used, albeit infrequently, to create other works. Poetry, songs, even a movie. Esperanto used the same elements we know, but in a new and very intentional way.

By the same token, Aaron Copland used the same musical scale that we know, but created an entirely new language, which the late Lukas Foss then to write his homage to Copland. It's one of four pieces by American composers on a new CD from the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.

Lukas Foss used Copland's unmistakable vernacular to create "For Aaron," a piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its 2002 Tanglewood festival. Tanglewood is where a 16-year-old Foss first met Copland and established a lifelong friendship. Foss, who was born in Germany, never took lessons from Copland, but said that he learned a lot from his music. He said, "It made me fall in love with America." Foss returned to sketches from his early days at Tanglewood as the basis for his new composition.

Though the language is Copland, the accent is Foss. There are some turns of phrase - a combination of instruments, or a particularly un-Coplandesque rhythm - that remind you just who is narrating this story.

"Story" is an important element in all Michael Gandolfi's compositions. He uses an early Gregorian chant (or "plainsong") as the theme of "St. Botolph's Fantasia," a tribute to 7th-century St. Botolph. It's the opening movement of his "Plain Song, Fantastic Dances" (the album's title track), a commission for the BSO from the 125-year-old St. Botolph's Club in Boston. The name "Boston" is actually a corruption of "Botolph's Stone," so Gandolfi pays tribute to the club and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players while enriching the story of the city itself.

A number of different cities have influenced the personal narrative of Osvaldo Golijov. He is an America,via Argentina (where he was raised, by way of small Jewish towns in Russia and Romania (where his folks were raised), and his music is a moveable feast of source material. Just as you're embracing the rhythms of the Roma, the clarinet rises into prominence and it's clearly klezmer...until the tango takes possession.

Golijov's music is the perfect metaphor for America: unabashedly proud of its varied and colorful heritage; exotic in places and familiar in others. He's one of four American composers featured in the newest CD from the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.