American Harmonies: ASO plays the Music of Walter Piston

Last night the American Symphony Orchestra treated a regrettably small Carnegie Hall audience to a revival of music by Walter Piston (1894-1976), a member of that almost-lost generation of prominent American composers of tonal music at mid-20th-century.  Those who wrote tonal music, who delighted in lush orchestral textures, sumptuous harmonies, and long lyrical lines, did not fare well with critics in those bygone days when dodecaphonic, aleatoric, and utterly chaotic music were all the rage with the taste-leaders.

But actually the public wouldn't follow, and today most of that music is not heard, while neoromanticism and neoclassicism are getting a serious look-in.  Surely Piston's music is overdue for revival.  Surely, some directors of major orchestras (other than Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony) could profit by taking up the best of Piston and presenting him to their audiences.  So thanks to the enterprising spirit of Leon Botstein, we got to hear some "live Piston."

Was it worth the effort?  Definitely, although I would hardly pretend that everything on a very full program was of equal interest.  They began with a Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1937), with Blair McMillen at the piano and a reduced string ensemble.  I thought this was the weakest of the four works they presented, and did not make the best introduction to Piston and his music.  There is an artificial quality to it, at least as played last night.  Lots of formulaic writing, spiky figurations, but without much pay-off in terms of emotional satisfaction.  McMillen is technically facile and seemed well in control of the notes, but I thought the music could have used more shaping from the keyboard and the podium to make a more effective statement.  Perhaps that wasn't really possible, given the heavy overtones of not-totally-absorbed influences from Stravinsky.

The following Symphony No. 2, from just six years later, is a completely different kettle of fish.  The high point of this symphony is the middle (adagio) movement, a nocturne of rare beauty and eloquence.  Piston is not necessarily a creator of memorable tunes, but he can create a mood and sustain it, quite memorably, based on textures, tone colors, and little turns of phrase.  The surrounding movements seemed less effective.  I remembered an old recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony and wondered whether a more effective case could be made.  Returning home, I located that and transferred it to my ipod.  One listening showed the difference between a good rendition (ASO last night) and a fantastically exciting rendition (Thomas/BSO).  An exciting and excited youthful conductor, early in his career, with a first-rank orchestra, can just do things in a piece like this that the ASO can't quite accomplish.  But that recording was made about 40 years ago, Piston is rarely played today, and the chance to hear this live was not to be missed.

After the intermission, we had a very fine rendition of the Violin Concerto (1939) by Miranda Cuckson, and this concerted work struck me as ready for the active repertory.  More violinists should take it up.  Not only does it have a gorgeous slow movement (Piston is at his best in the slow movements) but the outer movements are quite tolerable and in the case of the Allegro con spirito finale, rather better than that.

But the real hit of the evening, from my perspective, was Symphony No. 4, a distinct advance from 1950 over the composer's pre-war work.  There is more emotion on display, more guts in the writing, and a more developed lyrical voice in this piece.  I have an old mono recording by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra which also just got transferred to the ipod and I look forward to hearing that.

What this concert proved to me is that there is lots of really first-rate 20th century American orchestral music to be played, and it's up to our major orchestras and music directors to see that it is.  I think any major orchestra that programs Piston's 4th will have a potential hit on its hands, and it is time to do something about making a place in the active repertory for this composer.

2 thoughts on “American Harmonies: ASO plays the Music of Walter Piston

  1. While Piston may not be a memorable writer of tunes, in general, the one notable exception is, surely, the gorgeous Tango from The Incredible Flutist. Does this score ever turn up in concert programmes in the US ?

  2. Nothing by Piston shows up with any frequency on American concert programs. The program note writer for this concert speculated that his music might be due for a revival in light of the current interest in tonal 20th century music, and I’m hoping we get to hear more of it.

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