Karl Henning | 20 MAY 2019
When as broadly popular a twentieth-century composer as Aaron Copland says of a colleague’s score, “Oh I wish I had written that piece,” it begs the question: “Why is that piece not more frequently programmed?” or more simply: “Why is it not programmed?”
The music which provoked envy on the part of the Dean of American composers was the Rounds for String Orchestra (1944) by David Diamond, the piece which opens this compact disc.
The lithe agility and folksy pentatonicism of the outer movements alone would justify Copland’s praise. Warmly rich chords introduce the middle Adagio movement, whose tender, yearning lyricism is no great distance from the Corral Nocturne of Copland’s own perennially favorite Rodeo.
The strings of the Indiana University Chamber Orchestra play with a hearty warmth and an alert confidence, which are delight to the ear.
The Overture and four scenes from Romeo and Juliet do not form a standalone dramatic work nor are the numbers compact enough to serve conveniently as incidental music. When approached in 1951 with a request to use the music for a Broadway production of the play, the composer refused the suggestions of chopping up the pieces, and suggested writing something new entirely.
It’s more like a symphonic suite, loosely comparable to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. It is music whose affective directness counterpoises nicely both the sprightly dance of the Rounds and the full-throated mid-century modernism of the symphony.
With an opening snare drum roll the “Overture” is a bumptious Sinfonia avanti l’opera. Its spirited gaiety gives no indication of the poignant drama to come. Solo strings immediately establish the tenderness of the “Balcony Scene” which then unfolds into a ravishing string choir that might almost have come from the pen of Vaughan Williams.
The conference between Romeo and Friar Laurence is suitably earnest. Juliet and her Nurse confer in a lightly cheerful, buoyantly hopeful vein which underscores the brutality of the looming tragedy. “The Death of Romeo and Juliet” is music of emotional directness (elegiac resignation), affecting, masterly orchestration, and exquisite pacing.
The first movement of Diamond’s Symphony No. 6, “Introduzione,” opens with a series of tender tentative proposals, each of which meets with a brusque response. The movement then settles into the sort of sternly energetic character (Allegro, fortamente mosso) to which none of the mid-twentieth-century American symphonists was a stranger.
The second movement begins by backing off with cool, ravishing string chords; the chorale is soon subject to surging interruptions, and the Adagio begins to play out as a predominantly quiet drama, especially a dialogue of lyrical woodwind entrances, very unlike (to draw one contrast) what Copland might have offered. And the movement ends in an extended diminuendo, which sets the stage for the vigorous third movement.
Bearing the very-contemporary designation, Deciso, the final movement is at once robustly dance-like, and yet laced with a broad sostenuto theme. There is, in the lyrical elements of the Symphony, an unsentimental sweetness which I find very engaging.
The performance and the sound are excellent, and a great credit to Indiana University. The listener who already enjoys the symphonies of William Schuman and Peter Mennin will find the Diamond Sixth entirely worthwhile. That is not to say that the Diamond is “just like” these others – Diamond’s is his own voice – but that it is more fine work in the same vein, a vein which had by no means been exhausted. ■
Karl Henning is a composer, clarinetist and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Henning has also written reviews for MusicWeb International, BerkshireLinks.com and good-music-guide.com.