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.
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: