Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

National Symphony Orchestra Plays Music from the 1940s

Classical Music Column for the ANG Newspapers Preview Section for February 11, 2005, under headline,

Different sort of 40s tunes from National Symphony

FUNNY thing, time. What was once new and exciting often becomes old and � uh, well � dull. But if you wait just a few more years, the tables turn and the old and dull take on a new sense of chic, and sometimes, even distinct value. So it is with a timely project focusing on American arts during the 1940s. Now playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the project sports the title, A New America: The 1940s and the Arts and involves ballet, jazz programs, pop concerts, theater productions and more. It started in January and continues through June.

Saturday, while in the capital for a few days, I heard a National Symphony Orchestra portion of the project. Conducted by the eminent Leonard Slatkin, the concert featured Virgil Thomson's Fugue and Chorale on Yankee Doodle, adapted by the composer in 1967 from music he had written in 1945; Paul Creston's Frontiers, composed in 1943; Erich Korngold's 1946 Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra; Elliott Carter's 1945 piece inspired by and named for Emily Dickinson's poem Musicians Wrestle Everywhere and William Schuman's bumptious 1941 Symphony No. 3.

Even though the concert was a continent's width away, it has relevance to us in the Bay Area. After all, the National Symphony was founded in 1931 to be the whole country's orchestra. It's composed of 100 musicians who play a 52-week season of some 175 concerts, including performances for state occasions and for heads of state as well as excursions and outreach.

According to Maestro Slatkin, music of the 1940s was far more than Benny Goodman's big band swing, Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra's signature crooning, Dinah Shore's silky song renditions or the Andrews Sisters' peppy presentations. The decade also was a time when significant numbers of musicians, artists, writers and pedagogues immigrated to America as refugees from Hitler's Nazi regime. While many remained on the East Coast, many flowed into Lake Hollywood, where they could find employment as studio musicians, technicians, artists and writers.

One of the most interesting was Erich Korngold. Born in Brno, Moravia in 1897, he died a world away in Hollywood in 1957. In Europe, Korngold had become a sensation. His first opera, The Snowman, was composed at age 11 and was produced by the Vienna Opera. Later, the most successful of his 19 operas, Die Tote Stadt ("The Dead City"), was given a simultaneous premiere in Hamburg and Cologne, and a year later at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In the 1930s, he immigrated to Hollywood where he was set to work on musical scores for movies. He eventually composed 17 scores for Warner Bros. films, two of which won Academy Awards. The dashing musical score accompanying Errol Flynn's first great hit, "The Sea Hawk," as well as compelling scores to the poignant Bette Davis/Paul Muni/Brian Aherne flick "Juarez," "Anthony Adverse" and "The Prince and the Pauper," are all Korngold's. In Europe, Korngold had been considered a peer by Richard Strauss, Karl Goldmark and Giacomo Puccini. In the United States, he joined the ranks of Jascha Heifetz (for whom his Violin Concerto was composed), Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Morton Gould and more.

Contemporary violinist Leonidas Kavakos used his 1692 "Falmouth" Stradivarius instrument to perform the Korngold Concerto with Slatkin and the National Symphony last Saturday eve. By turns rousing, passionate and achingly bittersweet, the work's themes were actually pirated by Korngold from segments of several of his own film scores. Kavakos, Slatkin and the orchestra did credit to Korngold's memory and contributed mightily to the musical heritage of his adopted new country.

Although my companions and I were initially expecting to merely endure the Thomson, Creston and Schumann works, we actually became enthusiastically engaged by the collective wit, color, creativity and depth of these vintage 1940 works. For those who might be touring the grand sights in D.C. soon, be sure to take in a National Symphony Orchestra concert.

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