Sounds of America (CD review)

Music of Barber, Copland, and Bernstein. Jon Manasse, clarinet; David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. Recursive Classics RC3139941.

By John J. Puccio

You probably already know that David Bernard is an award-winning conductor and that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony includes mainly players who do other things for a living (like being hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, UN officials, and so on). While they are not full-time musicians, their playing belies any skepticism about the quality of their work; everyone involved with the orchestra deserves praise. Nor does the word “Chamber” in the ensemble’s title indicate a particularly small group. It's about the size of a regular, full-sized symphony orchestra; yet their performances are slightly more intimate and the sound slightly more transparent than most orchestras. In the last analysis, they make beautiful music together, which is all that matters.

With the current album, Maestro Bernard and company present four pieces celebrating America by American composers. The first up is the familiar but always welcome Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). It’s an arrangement for orchestra that Barber took from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony premiered it in 1938. The thing about the Adagio is that although that tempo marking means “slow and graceful,” there is a good deal of latitude about how a conductor actually handles it. The accompanying booklet mentions, for instance, that Toscanini got through the piece in a little over seven minutes, and that subsequent conductors have taken as long as nine or ten minutes. Maestro Bernard manages a tidy 8:35, neither too hurried nor too relaxed. It is as lovely a rendition as any I’ve heard.

Next is the familiar suite from Appalachian Spring, written in 1944 by Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Its eight movements take us through the ballet. Copland originally scored it for a small theater-pit orchestra, but the subsequent suite opens it up to a bigger, fuller, more luxuriant sound, one well suited to the Park Avenue players. Bernard does a splendid job conveying all the color of the piece, the characters, and their actions.

The third item is also by Copland, the Clarinet Concerto, written between 1947-49 on a commission from bandleader and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. On the present recording the soloist is Jon Manasse. Bernard leads a longingly pensive, wistfully reflective interpretation of the work, with a beautifully measured response from Manasse.

The album concludes with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein premiered the musical West Side Story on Broadway in 1957. The Symphonic Dances is a suite in nine movements of music derived from the show, a suite the composer prepared in 1960. Like the rest of the program, it’s familiar territory, but it’s freshened by Maestro Bernard’s enthusiastic approach. He seems genuinely engaged with the music, its story, and its people, and he brings the whole thing to life with his vigorous, animated direction.

Audio engineers Joel Watts, Brian Losch, and Jennifer Nulsen recorded the music at the DiMenna Center for the Performing Arts, New York City in November 2019. Appropriate to the music, the sound is lush and full, a trifle warm and soft, but quite natural. It displays good, lifelike detail, range, and dynamics without being in any way bright, forward, or edgy. It’s remarkably easy on the ear, rewarding both the casual listener and the discerning audiophile alike.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa