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Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Music for the Young from Marion Bauer
American Youth Concerto
Marion Bauer
Ambache Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble
Naxos 8.559253

Although Marion Bauer’s music sounded strikingly modern to audiences early in her career, by the time of her death in 1951 her compositions were considered tame in comparison to the growing inclination towards the experimental. With the exception of a brief flirtation with serialism, the majority of Bauer’s output demonstrates a firmly tonal, late-Romantic style. Prior to this recent Naxos release of her orchestral and chamber works, few recordings were available.

Bauer was an influential force in American music in the early twentieth century. In addition to her work as a composer, she was also an author, critic, administrator, and educator. Born in 1882 in Walla Walla, Washington, Bauer studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. As the French matriarch’s first American pupil, Bauer received her harmony lessons in exchange for English tutoring. Upon returning to the United States, Bauer held teaching positions at New York University (the first woman to join the music department’s faculty), Juilliard, Cincinnati Conservatory and Mills College. As an ardent supporter of contemporary music, she also co-founded several organizations including the American Music Center. While spending her summers at the MacDowell Colony, where she was a fixture for over a decade, Bauer became mentor to a younger generation of America’s compositional elite that included Ruth Crawford.

British pianist Diana Ambache has lately become a champion of Bauer’s music, and she is featured on this disc along with her ensemble, the Ambache Chamber Orchestra. The CD opens with the Lament on an African Theme (1927). Originally written for string quartet, it was orchestrated by Martin Bernstein (a colleague of Bauer’s at NYU) in 1935. The accompanying liner notes give little insight into the theme’s source. The music bears closer resemblance to a combination of Vaughan Williams and Porgy and Bess than to any indigenous African music I have encountered. This discrepancy can only be attributed to the lack of ethnomusicological scholarship at the time of its inception. The work does, however, manage to evoke a primitive earthiness with its modal flavor.

The other large-scale work for strings included on this disc is the Symphonic Suite, Op.33. In her notes, Ambache mentions the possibility that the plight of Bauer’s Jewish relatives, persecuted by the Nazis in Alsace, inspired this piece. Although this programmatic reading appears to be purely speculative, it is indeed plausible as a deeply melancholy fog seems to hang over the entire work. The opening Prelude is particularly weighty, and the work closes with a brief yet tightly constructed fugue.

The solo parts of the Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings and the Duo for Oboe and Clarinet (here performed by Jeremy Polmear and Eli Eban) were likely composed for the same pair of performers. Both pieces demonstrate clever, adept writing for each instrument. The Concertino features an impish final movement marred just slightly by intonation issues. In the Duo, conversational counterpoint between parts is offset by solo turns that highlight the individual personalities of each instrument. The Trio Sonata No. 1 for Flute, Cello and Piano (1944) beautifully showcases the autumnal mood that was Bauer’s forte. I hope this work’s score will soon become readily available as well.

The disc’s final offering, the American Youth Concerto, was written in 1943 for New York’s High School of Music and Art. Although the fact that it was intended to be performed by a precocious youth orchestra and pianist must be taken into account, the first movement in particular lacks melodic and rhythmic invention. The opening intervals are identical to those of the African Lament, in the same key, a similarity so marked that on the first listen I mistakenly thought my CD player was experiencing technical difficulties! The concerto’s second movement contains some lovely moments, influenced by American standards and show tunes, balancing on the fine line between wistful poignancy and an MGM musical soundtrack. The final movement is Bauer’s lighthearted take on a trio of uniquely American idioms: Cake-Walk, Blues and Hoe-Down.

None of these six works would qualify as masterpieces, but make for enjoyably lightweight listening nonetheless. With this disc, Ambache and her crew have heartily contributed to the preservation of compositions by one of American music’s pioneers.


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