Norman Lebrecht, an ever-provocative British writer, has made a lucrative career out of periodically predicting the death of classical music. One of his most recent pronouncements is that classical recordings will have expired totally by the end of 2004. As evidence, he lists notable artists who have been dropped by classical labels lately, an unpromising merger between the Sony and BMG labels, and assorted other dark-cloud seeders.
It's always easy to agree with Lebrecht's doom-and-gloom spiels, since there really is a lot of bad news. Just the other day, giant retailer Tower Records, long a refuge for those seeking extensive quantity and quality of classical releases (at least in some parts of this country), filed for bankruptcy protection.
But, as even Lebrecht admits, there is the occasional trend-bucking element in the dismal recording picture. The biggest one continues to be Naxos, the budget classical label that has been beating the odds for 15 years. While used-to-be-big-gun labels put out a trickle of new releases, supplemented by tons of repackaged oldies, Naxos has 150 new products slated for 2004. Given the reasonable price, and the usually very respectable performance and audio standards, this represents a godsend.
The Naxos story gets even brighter when you look at a new factor in the company's output - an astonishing project called the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, part of the Naxos American Classics series. (That series was already pretty astonishing, providing a treasure of recordings by American composers, familiar and obscure.)
By December 2005, there will be 50 Milken Archive releases, adding up to more than 600 compositions, most never before recorded - from Yiddish theater tunes to oratorios, concertos and chamber music. This repertoire represents more than 200 composers, emigres or native-born Americans (not all of them Jewish), who addressed the Jewish experience through their work.
Founded by Lowell Milken and directed by Jewish music specialist Neil W. Levin, the archive was launched last fall with recordings devoted to such under-appreciated pieces as Kurt Weill's The Eternal Road, a bold work that adds greatly to an understanding of the composer, and Darius Milhaud's colorful, rhythmically arresting Sacred Service.
Brubeck's ambitious, well-meaning oratorio from 1969 is very much a product of its time, haunted by the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the racial tensions that followed. It attempts to fuse emotions and expectations of African-Americans and American Jews, once closely united in the civil rights movement.
To my ears, some of the score is almost painfully uninspired and curiously unmoving. Brubeck, so at home in the jazz idiom (there are periodic improv passages for his quartet), does not always treat soloists or chorus with ease or flair. The mostly biblical text does not gain much from the music, nor from being punctuated by the occasional oh-so-Sixties cliche ("Make love not war").
Still, it's possible to appreciate what Brubeck was aiming for and the commitment that the performers bring to the work. The Choral Arts Society excels, phrasing solemn moments with considerable beauty and negotiating the Swingle Singers-like riffs of How Glorious Is Thy Name with particular finesse and power. Cantor Alberto Mizrahi's wobbly tone is a distraction, but his white-hot phrasing makes its points. Bass baritone Kevin Deas is a solid asset. Russell Gloyd conducts.
Even if every item in the Milken Archive does not turn out to be a masterpiece, the cumulative value of this Naxos project is already apparent, with dozens more releases to go.
Jonathan Leshnoff, a Peabody alum and assistant professor at Towson University, has been steadily building a successful career as a composer. The premiere of his Concerto for Five Percussionists and Band should give that career an extra boost. The new score was played with extraordinary care and control by the United States Marine Band and five of its top-flight percussionists, all under Col. Timothy W. Foley's assured conducting Sunday afternoon at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
In five movements that alternate between uneasy calm and urban-pulse edginess, the half-hour concerto is deftly written and exerts a strong pull. The harmonic language is freely dissonant, yet non-confrontational; even fragments of melody, often no more than a mere flutter or sigh, communicate strongly.
The percussion battery, which makes waves at the softest and loudest volumes, may be center-stage, but it doesn't hog the unfolding drama. The array of drums, gongs, bells and cymbals is imaginatively integrated into the total sonic picture, while the wind instruments of the band - augmented by piano, harp and double bass - are likewise employed with considerable imagination and sensitivity to tone coloring. The ear is never bored.
The work could probably benefit from a little trimming, just to keep up the tension, but the concerto represents a masterful grasp of form and function nonetheless. The music moves surely, seamlessly through its contrasting moods. Recurring ideas, especially gentle staccato notes from the piano and harp that fall like ominous water droplets, help unify the score. It's easy to hear underneath the music a sense of longing for something safe and serene - something that, in the slow fade at the end, remains tantalizingly out of reach.
New chamber group
A new ensemble, the Largely Ludwig Chamber Players, makes its debut this weekend. As the name implies, the group will be devoted primarily to Beethoven, exploring the spectrum of his smaller scale works, but will also bring other composers from various eras into the mix. Performers include of faculty members of Towson University, American University and the Peabody Institute.
The concert is at 8 p.m. Saturday at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church (opposite the Washington Monument). Tickets, available at the door, are $10, $5 for seniors, $1 for students.