Saturday, February 14, 2015

Dominique-René de Lerma: Air Force Strings And "An American Dream" Includes "Four Novelettes, Op. 52" of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

is profiled at AfriClassical.comwhich 
features a comprehensive Works List and a 
Bibliography by Dr. Dominique- René de Lerma, 

Air Force Strings
The United States Air Force Band
Washington, D.C.
Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander
Total Time (58:56)

Charles Kaufmann of The Longfellow Chorus of Portland, Maine,, brought this recording to our attention and provided a link for free download of its 10 tracks in mp3 format:

Dominique-René de Lerma:


Issued in 2014, this CD offers five works for string orchestra, an ensemble of 19 members (plus harp and percussion) of the United States Air Force Band, conducted by Larry H. Lang.  The Air Force Strings is one of six ensembles within the umbrella of the band, the others being the Concert Band, the Singing Sergeants (tenor George Shirley became the first Black member of its precursor), the Airmen of Note, the Ceremonial Bass, and Max Impact.  The Air Force itself came into existence in 1941, with a history that goes back to 1926 and had previously been known as the Army Air Corps.  It was in 1938 that Robert MacArthur Crawford (1899-1961) wrote the official song, "Off we go into the wild blue yonder."  (On a personal note, Crawford was my professor for two years' study of undergraduate counterpoint, via La traité de la fugue, of André Gedalge.)  The band originated in 1941, the orchestra emerging soon after World War II.
Lang, who has been with the ensemble since 2012, earned his undergraduate degree in music education at New Mexico State University-Las Cruces and his master's at the University of New Hampshire-Durham, where he became a member of the faculty. 
The recording lacks traditional liner notes, but does list the ensemble's membership.  There we encountered the name of William Tortolano -- not the composer whose study of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is certainly well known, but his son, one of the five members of the first violin section.  We might suspect that it was the father who stimulated the intrusion of this Afro-Briton into the "American dream," represented here by his Four novelettes, opus 52, a suite of pleasant diversions, so typical of the composer as the distance from his Hiawatha sympathies moved toward promenade environs. 
As for the native born, we have the Suite in E major, opus 63, by Arthur William Foote (1853-1937). He was not only born in the United States (Salem MA to be specific), but was about the first American composer of note whose study was totally domestic (Harvard).  As with all works on this recording, the articulation is precise and the dynamics are carefully nuanced.  This suite, first heard by the audience at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, was a valiant effort to define American music in the days before Antonín Dvořák, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, or William Grant Still made a more nationalistic success.  Failing in that regard, it stands as a rather well constructed work with academic roots in Europe.   The fugue, which ends the three movements, offers a textural contrast to the CD.
Best known is Samuel Barber's Adagio, customarily removed from its string quartet origins, offered here in quieter resignation than one usually encounters in more dramatic  expressions.
The absence of liner notes is felt particularly with the seemingly programmatic Gridley Paige Road, by Dr. Matthew Quayle, a graduate of Oberlin, the University of Cincinnati, and New York University, whose music, as in this work, is clearly tonal at a time others have long been more radical and less audience-friendly (thereby providing fodder for university theory classes).  But there appears by its title to be a composition that has another dimension.  The best we could do was to determine there is a road by this name in Deansboro NY.  So?
The setting of A city called heaven is by the band's long-time staff arranger, John M. Bliss.  The internet offers a biography -- he graduated from San Jose State University and California State University-Fresno.  There is no trace here of his work for Chaka Khan and Spyro Gyra or his interest in Thelonious Monk's 'Round midnight.  As various strings are entrusted with the spiritual tune, other voices move through moderately complex harmonic progressions, more creative than emotionally reflective.
The CD is not for sale; this is not a commercial venture and, in fact, might not be the most suitable item for the classroom, but the role of music groups within the military differs from that of other ensembles: They are on hand to accompany state functions and to burnish the reputations of the military units they represent, but with the professional polish that would satisfy public concerts.  In those respects, that intent is totally satisfied; This chamber orchestra exhibits ideal discipline and the splendid  unity required by the repertoire.  If the audience is not in the classroom and the recording is not for sale (see for copies), to whom is it directed?  There is no reason why individual collectors should shy away, but the major target is probably radio stations -- NPR affiliates or not -- whose audiences will be quite delighted with a change from exhausted war horses.  But the DJ will not be able to fall back on liner notes, which normally endows the prefatory remarks with musicological patina.

Dominique-René de Lerma

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