- February 8, 2008
Not Highfalutin, but Highly Satisfying Indulgences
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
With a look ahead to Valentine's Day and a nod to Rodney Dangerfield, the classical music critics of The New York Times find themselves in a confessional mood and have decided to reveal some of their secret musical passions: works and performances they listen to for sheer pleasure - but perhaps not loudly when neighbors are around to hear.
THE absolute master of the light orchestral piece was Leroy Anderson, born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1908. In its way 'The Syncopated Clock' is as rhythmically supple as anything by Prokofiev. 'The Typewriter' makes me happier than the overture to Rossini's 'Barber of Seville.' You can keep Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons'; I'll take Anderson's three-minute 'Fiddle-Faddle.' Want to make something of it?
The art of composing short, popular pieces for orchestra used to be a thriving concern. Churning out stylish waltzes was the profitable family business of the Strausses in 19th-century Vienna. Brahms, among others, was green with envy. Today, sadly, composers and conductors tend to frown on the light orchestra piece.
Anderson, who died in 1975, showed a knack for the genre early on. When he was a student at Harvard, his music professors didn't know what to make of him. His sober compositions were a little ham-handed, and he wasted time, his teachers thought, conducting the Harvard band and playing the accordion. But Arthur Fiedler, the young conductor of the Boston Pops, heard some Anderson arrangements of Harvard songs and put him to work as an orchestrator. In 1938 Anderson wrote 'Jazz Pizzicato' and 'Jazz Legato,' which became immediate audience favorites. Some 50 such pieces would follow. 'Blue Tango,' written and recorded in 1951, sold a million records, the first orchestra work to reach that position on the Hit Parade.
'Blue Tango' is a perfect example of the Anderson art. The music is breezy, tuneful and smart. There is something American about it: optimistic, nonchalant, tender. This tango is not sad; it's blue with a jazzy cast. Similarly, Anderson's tick-tock clock is mischievously syncopated. In 'The Waltzing Cat' Anderson takes the schmaltzy string sighs that are standard fare in Strauss waltzes and irreverently turns them into plaintive meows.
Anderson is most admired for his melodic writing, but his harmonic sophistication is overlooked. If you have never heard 'The Typewriter' (more pity to you), just try to anticipate where each of the four phrases of the theme is heading harmonically. I bet you'll be stumped. To perform that piece today in its original-instrument version, a conductor has to track down an old manual typewriter.
This year is the centennial of Anderson's birth, so there will be retrospectives and performances. Fortunately there are plentiful recordings, including new releases from Naxos. I'm listening right now to Belle of the Ball. What an infectious, churning tune!
=Lou= ~~~~~~~~~~ **-=\/=-** ~~~~~~~~~~ The opposite of bravery is not cowardice, but conformity. Robert Anthony