Thursday, November 12, 2015

More On Centennial Music On Both Sides of The Border

It is remarkable that Harry Somers' opera, Lois Riel to a libretto by Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand was produced, on commission, for the Canadian centennial in 1967.   It was produced as part of the centennial celebrations, that year, by the Canadian Opera Company with funding from sources that included the Canadian government, through the Canadian Council and the Province of Ontario.  It included performances in Toronto and Montreal, that year, a revival the next year and was broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, funded by the Canadian government.

What is so remarkable about that is the subject matter of the opera, the rebellion led by the Métis school teacher, Louis Riel, against the theft of their lands by the Canadian government under its Prime Minister, who, if you wanted to make some kind of comparison from a Stater POV might be seen as the George Washington of Canada and many of the other founding fathers of Canada as an independent country.   It delves deeply into issues of rampant criminality and corruption, the theft of the land and destruction of First Nations and those of mixed First Nations - European culture (especially French language) and, inevitably, the huge issue of Quebec nationalism.   If its production had anything to do with the subsequent events in Quebec over that issue might be interesting to know, the timing of it might be coincidental either way but I suspect those involved in the opera's creation were picking up on current events, instead of the other way round.

I think the production of such an opera for such an occasion should be an event for Canadians to be proud of.   I can't think of anything similar happening in relation to the American bicentennial (we called it the buy-centennial) nine years later.  Unless I'm misremembering something, the only piece of music I can think of produced in relationship to that which had anything like the same realistic or critical content in 1976 was William Bolcom's very fine Piano Concerto which, since it had no text, had to make its criticisms by implications and askance.

Other than that there is Roy Harris' 13th Symphony (he superstitiously numbered it 14, his estate renumbered it) for orchestra and chorus which was played by the National Symphony Orchestra,  savaged by the local press - the WaPo called it the worst piece of music ever played by the National Symphony - and immediately forgotten.  Its inspiration was, perhaps similar to that of Louis Riel, perhaps, themed around the American Civil War.  Which, I imagine, was a shock to those at Cal State who commissioned its composition.  I imagine they thought the very old Roy Harris would produce another of his forgettable patriotic works for which is is mostly, if at all, remembered*.   If that was the case, it isn't what they got.  The only revival of it I've ever known about was the heroically undertaken performance that John Malveaux mounted of it in a park at a  Juneteenth concert in 2009.  I might write more about that later.  From what I have read, Malveaux is to be credited with recording the piece, the people producing its first performance don't seem to have thought to make a recording of it.  It would be nice to be able to have heard it before to judge it.   Perhaps they believed it was too hot to handle and better left to evaporate in the ether once it had sounded.   Which is a crying shame.

The only American musical drama written for the American bicentennial I can recall, off-hand, was Leonard Bernstein's widely considered to be dreadful closed after seven performances - it didn't even make it to June, never mind July 4th -,  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the character of which might be discerned by the odd fact that in the original production, all of the First Ladies were played by the brilliant though British physical comedian best known for her portrayal of Hyacinth Bucket, Patricia Routledge and Ken Howard playing all the presidents,   The book by Alan Jay Lerner (on acid?) is Broadway surrealistic crap.  And, as far as I could discern, no government money was involved in the production of the predictable and massive flop.   I doubt that either the Voice of America or Armed Service radio carried it, but can't say that for certain.  I have heard music from it and found it rather bad.

That the most significant piece of music to come out of the Canadian Centennial celebrations was a searing and rather brilliant opera focusing on the massive injustices and corruption of its founding generation of leaders is something I would think any country should be proud of.  I can't imagine something like that happening here.  About the most significant things I remember about serious music were the endless performances of Charles Ives' flippant Variations on America, both the organ original and in William Schumann's orchestration of it.  There was some revival of William Billing's music, mostly his Revolutionary War era anthem, Chester.  Oh, there were lots of fifes and drums, Spirit of '76 costume tableaux, that kind of stuff.  Nothing like Louis Riel that I recall, and I was paying attention.

*  The first thing which anything I've ever heard or read through that Roy Harris wrote comes to mind other than some really embarrassing and hokey Americana is that I believe in one of his pieces, as I recall, he used the time signature 11/4 but I might not be remembering even that accurately.  As I recall it was something I was given to sight read, not to study.  Listening to more than I remembered for this post, he wasn't the worst composer in the world but much of his work isn't especially good.  His seldom played 3rd Symphony showed that he had real ability, perhaps real genius, it is a piece of real quality, strength and beauty.  His music deserves to be heard

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