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
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.