Gould: American Ballads (CD review)

Also, Foster Gallery; American Salute. Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.559005.

The surprise here, and a delightful one, is not that American composer, arranger, conductor, and pianist Morton Gould (1913-1996) successfully orchestrated so many fine, old American folk tunes; most people who are familiar with twentieth-century American music already know and appreciate the man and his work. No, the surprise is that a Ukrainian orchestra and a Ukrainian-American conductor could bring them off so idiomatically and with such enthusiasm and charm.

The program begins with a series of short tunes (1976) called American Ballads: the "Star-Spangled Overture" an appropriate starting point, through "Amber Waves," "Jubilio," "Memorials," "Saratoga Quickstep," and "Hymnals."

The core of the disc, however, is a collection called Foster Gallery (1939), in which Gould connects some of Stephen Foster's most memorable songs with a few of his lesser-known things in a kind of Pictures From an Exhibition layout, with variations on "Camptown Races" being the thread holding the pieces together. Some of it is achingly beautiful, like "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair"; much of it familiar, like "Swanee River," "Old Black Joe," "My Old Kentucky Home"; and some of it not so familiar, like "Canebreak Jig," "Comrades, Fill No Glass for Me," "Kitty Bell"; with a rousing finale of "Oh, Susanna." The disc concludes with the composer's arrangement of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," which Gould titled American Salute.

Theodore Kuchar
The idea of taking old tunes and renewing them symphonically is not new. People like Dvorak, Ives, Grainger, Vaughan Williams, and dozens of others did it, too. Gould uses banjos along with piccolos, harps, oboes, clarinets, trombones, tubas, percussion, and strings--lots and lots of strings--to accomplish the deed.

What's more, Theodore Kuchar and his Ukrainian players (he was still the orchestra's Principal Conductor at the time of the recording) perform all of this as though it were their own native music. Now, you might say the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine seems an unlikely ensemble to be playing American nationalistic music; but in this case they play with as much passion and spirit as any native orchestra might. Let's say, they adjust well, and there is probably a good reason why the Ukraine ensemble has recorded more music than any other orchestra of the former Soviet Union.

Then, there's the sound from this 2000 Naxos release. It projects a big, bold image to match Gould's big, bold music and Kuchar's big, jazzy music-making. Although one could hardly describe any of it as subtle, it sounds wholly appropriate.

And all for less money than you'd pay for a hamburger at McDonald's. There are few other labels that let one experiment as much as Naxos.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa