Music Post: All-American music


In 10 years of doing “Howard’s Day Off,” and more than 500 individual shows, I’ve easily done more than 50 shows of entirely American classical music.

In the early years when the shows did not usually have themes, I once played nothing but American composers in the entire month of June, without once playing anything by Copland or Gershwin, just to show it could be done.

Recently I’ve done several shows focused entirely on American composers who are living. But this week’s all-American show doesn’t constrain itself, since the idea is to show how varied American classical music is.

Harold Shapero (1920-2013) was one of the Boston Six, whom I featured recently, a group including Copland and Bernstein whose other four members are not without interest. Several of them amount to disciples of Stravinsky and in a few weeks I’ll focus on Stravinsky accolytes. Shapero, who wrote a nine-minute overture called “Nine-Minute Overture,” is this weekend represented by a piece for string quartet.


Amy Beach (1867-1944), whose “Gaelic Symphony” is heard now and then, also came out of Boston but 50 years before Shapero’s time. Recent recordings have showed the diversity of her chamber music. Some is solidly Germanic while some is chromatic in the French style. Her “Dreams of Columbine” is a tasty piano piece. Beach was a concert pianist who mostly retired after marrying a doctor, throwing herself back into it when she outlived him.

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was always a fascinating example of American immigrant music. Raised in Boston and well-assimilated, he nonetheless was drawn to his ethnic Armenian roots and his music often uses the modes found in the folk music of that region. He composed “too much,” thousands of movements, making it hard to feel certain one has sampled the best bits. But his harp concerto is quite nice.


Katherine Hoover (1937- ), who came out of the Eastman School of Music in the 1950s, is a flutist and New York professor of flute who also composes. We’ll sample a concertante piece in which she solos.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was the most American of all American composers, on paper at least, having been born in a log cabin on Lincoln’s Birthday, then raised on a farm in California after his Midwestern family decided to “go West.” But his curiously chromatic music is not especially derived from American folk music, even when it quotes folk tunes, and apart from William Schuman few composers have copied his style much, leaving it sounding intriguingly personal. The fugue from his piano quintet is one of his more obscure pieces.


Randall Thompson (1899-1984) is remembered mainly as a choral composer who took music at Harvard, UVA and the Curtis Institute, but he had three good symphonies in him, and some good quartets, one of which we’ll sample this week.

Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) wrote music for documentary films that I quite like, but this week I’ll play the finale of his “Homage to Haydn.”’


Phil Woods (1931-2015) is well-known in jazz circles but also composed music for saxophone quartet, and the Prism Quartet did a great job playing up the jazz influences in some of his “paper music.”

Sampling Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Aaron Copland (1900-1990) in this group would be superfluous if I went for the hits already in your head, so we’ll do an except from Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” and the dance from Copland’s “Music for the Theatre.”

I’m always happy to include Frank Zappa (1940-1993), who after a lifetime of being tought a political and social subversive turned out really to have been a musical subversive, who got people to come to rock concerts and hear classical music and jazz. We’ll hear an ensemble from Europe do a posthumous performance of his “Night School,” and we’ll hear his theme to a forgotten film called “Run Home Slow.”


In Kevin Puts (1972- ) we have another living American, and an excerpt from his Symphony No. 4, “From Mission San Juan,” written just 10 years ago, will show off his talent as well as that of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981), in years of recording American classical music with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, occasionally recorded his own symphonies, but usually focused on others, so we remember him as a conductor, and sometimes as a symphonist, but he also wrote excellent chamber music. We’ll hear some.

Paul Creston (1906-1985) was another restlessly chromatic composer, but not in the same manner as Roy Harris, and I am happy for the excuse to again sample his single finest movement, the Sarabande from Partita for Flute, Violin and Strings, whose gentle dynamics means no distraction from the cool chord changes.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) as a child heard two marching bands playing different tunes in different keys as they marched toward a central point from opposite directions. He captured this in the middle of “Three Places in New England,” but this week we’ll hear an earlier version of it called “Country Band.”

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) drew his Adagio for Strings from the middle movement of his only string quartet, so I thought this week we would hear that version as well as very different finale that follows. The finale is a telescoped version of the same material in the first movement, which we won’t hear.

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) was composing music before Phil Woods, and some of his chamber music is excellent. You’ll hear some of it.


Shafer Mahoney (1968- ), since 2006 a member of the faculty at Juilliard, wrote a piece in 1996 called “Dance Machine,” which Kristian Jarvi recorded in his original Absolute Ensemble CD. It’s full of surprising touches and is very tuneful despite being very percussive.

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