Roy Harris' "great American symphony" gets a rare hearing at Chapin Hall
WILLIAMSTOWN >> Once upon a time, Roy Harris' Symphony No. 3 was hailed as "the great American symphony," or at least one such masterpiece. The 1938 work has never really gone away but has been pushed aside by the onrush of other composition styles.
Enter the Berkshire Symphony, which revives the Harris third tonight in the company of Brahms' third and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. The 8 p.m. concert will be the student-professional orchestra's second in the flattering acoustics of newly renovated Chapin Hall.
"Roy Harris regarded his compositions as the musical personification of the people of the United States and himself as an artistic Uncle Sam," Nicholas Tawa writes in his book "The Great American Symphony: Music, the Depression, and War."
It was through Tawa's son Nick that Berkshire Symphony director Ronald Feldman discovered the symphony by Harris (1898-1979).
First performed by the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky, the Harris third "rapidly became a hit and received performances throughout the United States, in Mexico, and in England," the Tawa book goes on. "So much enthusiasm was generated among musicians, music commentators, and the public that many writers of the time claimed that 'the great American symphony' had at last been created."
Nick Tawa, a surgeon, is a violist in the Longwood Symphony, a Boston orchestra of medical personnel, which Feldman also conducts. The son gave Feldman a copy of the father's book.
The book cites Harris among Copland, Hanson, Barber, Bernstein and others "as examples of composers who wrote music during this time of great upheaval in the world," Feldman commented in an email. "Of course, I was familiar with these composers but Harris was new to me."
The BSO premiere, one of many of major works of the time, provided "enough evidence for a listen," said Feldman, a former BSO cellist. That was enough to put the piece on tonight's program. Mark Peskanov, director of the Bargemusic chamber series in New York, will be the soloist in the Mendelssohn concerto.
The renovation of Chapin Hall's interior has provided "a more normal but still resonant space that allows the players more ownership of the final product," Feldman wrote.
Before, he said, the hall's booming resonance required the players at the back of stage – the woodwinds and brasses – to play a beat ahead of the strings in order to be heard together in the audience. At the same time, the sections could not hear one another.
"An inordinate amount of time was spent just trying to play together," Feldman recalled. " 'You're late!' were two of the words I most frequently used when addressing the players in the back. To their credit, the players did a terrific job recalibrating their response to this acoustic anomaly."
For the first time, the conductor said, the orchestra can play together "in real time," allowing for adjustments in balance, tone color and ensemble. And he "can't wait" for the planned addition of acoustic clouds above the expanded stage and moveable panels at the back to further enhance the sound.
For a time, the Harris third was one in a triptych of American third symphonies, all premiered by Koussevitzky and the BSO within a decade: Harris' (1938), William Schuman's (1941) and Copland's (1946). Only the Copland remains in the everyday repertoire.
The Harris work is in five continuous sections, marked "Tragic," "Lyric," "Pastoral," "Fugue-Dramatic" and "Dramatic-Tragic." It has the open, distinctively American sound typical of many works of the period, most notably Copland's.
As for Harris' Uncle Sam boast, two of his 14 to 16 symphonies (authorities disagree) are titled "Abraham Lincoln" and "Gettysburg Address." When you finish with those symphonies, you can go on to "What So Proudly We Hail," "Kentucky Spring," "Epilogue to Profiles in Courage: JFK," and others. There are more than 200 works in all. Whitman and Sandburg are in there, too.
Who: The Berkshire Symphony. Ronald Feldman, conductor; Mark Peskanov, violin soloist
What: Music by Harris, Brahms, Mendelssohn
When: Tonight at 8
Where: Chapin Hall, Chapin Hall Drive, Williams College, Williamstown
Information: Williams College Department of Music — (413) 597-2127; music.williams.edu
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.