Leo Sowerby: The Paul Whiteman Commissions (CD review)

Andy Baker Orchestra; Avalon String Quartet. Cedille CDR 90000 205.

By John J. Puccio

Jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman’s greatest contributions to music were probably his commissions, like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, which he premiered with his band. However, these were not the only works he requested, and on the present disc we get two scores he commissioned from American composer Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), as well as three other Sowerby pieces, which are here rendered as closely as possible to their original versions by the Andy Baker Orchestra and by the Avalon String Quartet.

First up on the program is Synconata, a work Whiteman debuted in 1924. In offering the commission to Sowerby, Whiteman requested something that would incorporate the typical American idioms of jazz, gospel, and folk in an orchestral setting and fit into what the bandleader called his “Revolutionary Concerts.” Because Sowerby never published a definitive edition of this work and several of the others, the disc rightfully calls the present arrangements world-premiere recordings.

There’s a good deal of jazz in Synconata, probably more so than we find in Gershwin, yet it all works in fine, high fashion. There is nothing gaudy, tacky, or showy about the music; it’s just a good combination of classical jazz and jazzy classical, with a profoundly rhythmic forward pulse. The band plays it with zeal and provides it with all the color it deserves.

The other Whiteman commission is Symphony for Jazz Orchestra (“Monotony”), which followed Synconata in 1925. It’s subtitled “A Symphony for Metronome and Jazz Orchestra,” a description that pretty well describes its four movements. As befitting the symmetry of the album, it closes the show. This one is more symphonic in structure than Synconato and appears to borrow a tad more from Gershwin. Moreover, this time out Sowerby is more whimsical than before, as well as more melodious. The ragtime element isn’t quite as prominent but the 1920s’ jazz element is. While the piece may be a little too long for its material, it is certainly fun stuff and infectious. It’s almost impossible not to smile and enjoy it.

In between the Whiteman commissions on the disc there are three Sowerby chamber works. The first is the Serenade in G Major for String Quartet from 1917, one of the composer’s first important pieces. It is here ably performed by the Avalon String Quartet. One can see why Whiteman a little later wanted Sowerby to write something specifically for him. The Serenade is not a serenade in the strictest sense, but it does impart a strong classical sense, along with a snappy vigor.

After that we hear the String Quartet in D minor (1923) with the Avalon Quartet and Tramping Tune for Piano and Strings (1917) with pianist Winston Choi, double-bassist Alexander Hanna, and the Avalon players. The D minor Quartet is a bit more serious than the earlier Serenade and considerably longer, placing it more strongly in the traditional classical genre. However, as it goes along, it opens up to a fluent, springy gait and a generally warm, affable cheerfulness. The little Tramping Tune is obviously a nod to World War I and marches along in hearty fashion.

Producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music at Kennedy-King College, Chicago, Illinois in January 2020 and at Boutell Memorial Concert Hall, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois in January 2021. Cedille’s crackerjack team produces a sound that is the cat’s meow. It’s a snazzy combination of transparency, dynamics, ambience, air, wide frequency response, and naturalness. In other words, it’s a doozy and could hardly be better. Zowie!

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, Goldpoint SA4 “passive preamp,” Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa