Americana, performed by the Santa Barbara Master Chorale, conducted by Phillip McLendon, with Paula Hartley, piano. At the Unitarian Society Sanctuary, Saturday, May 27.
Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter
It sometimes seems to me as if the last thing American music lovers want to hear is American music. Here we had a remarkable program — as fine and interesting as any performed in Santa Barbara this year — extremely well sung, and yet even though they had moved to a much smaller venue, the Unitarian Sanctuary was only half filled, if that. Maybe it was better on Sunday. I hope so.
They began with Three Fuguing Tunes by William Billings — the first American, so Phillip McLendon told us, to make his living as a composer. The tunes were pleasant and well done, though much closer to Protestant hymns than Bach fugues (Billings’s model).
Next we heard John David Earnest’s Variations on American Folk Songs (“Streets of Laredo” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike”). These were beautifully sung, but unsettling, with their redistributed note values and other tricks attempting to make folk songs into art songs. Earnest should have listened to the next piece, James Erb’s gorgeous arrangement of “Shenandoah (Across the Wide Missouri),” to see how it’s done.
Before and after the break came compositions by the major serious composer on the program, Randall Thompson (1899-1984): “The Last Words of David” and “Frostiana: Seven Country Songs” (words by Robert Frost). The “David” was a brief, intense, and highly effective setting of the biblical text: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (II Samuel 3). The “Frostiana” was absolutely wonderful. I can understand completely why Frost leaped up after the premiere and shouted, “Sing it again!” I felt like doing the same. Not only was this the best setting of great American poems I have ever heard, but Thompson made each poem into a lovely, catchy, and coherent song. For the first time in more than 20 years of reviewing, I actually shouted “Bravo!”
The last part of the program consisted of songs by Irving Berlin — very nice and infectious, but I would have preferred to leave with Thompson’s tunes running through my head.