Leonard Bernstein: Songfest. © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

CD Spotlight

Engrossing Memories

GIUSEPPE PENNISI listens to music by
Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein

'The Wolf Trap Opera National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, conducted by James Judd, offers very professional, but not startling, performances.'


This is a CD of American music - An American in Paris by George Gershwin, An Outdoor Overture by Aaron Copland and Songfest by Leonard Bernstein. It is performed by an orchestra hardly known in Europe - the Wolf Trap Opera National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, conducted by James Judd - and with young American singers - Kerriann Otaño, Taylor Raven, Zole Reams, Alexander McKissick, Joshua Conyers and Patrick Guetti - now starting their careers in US opera houses. This is a relevant recording to review to get a good grasp of American music and performers. For me it has an added dimension: it brings back engrossing memories of the period (1967-1982) when my family and I lived in the US, in the Washington DC area. The Wolf Trap Centre was a frequent place we visited. I returned to Wolf Trap each time I visited the US in the summer.

What is Wolf Trap? When Diana Ross or the National Symphony Orchestra take the stage at Wolf Trap, they are standing on what used to be a working farm owned by a visionary woman, Catherine Filene Shouse. When she founded Wolf Trap in 1966, Mrs Shouse was already seventy-one years old. She was a highly decorated public servant with deep roots in the nation's capital, having worked with every President from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton. Mrs Shouse began acquiring farmland outside of Washington, DC in 1930 to use as a refuge from city life. By 1956, she had 168 acres. She was growing a variety of crops, as well as breeding horses and dogs. Most importantly, the farm served as a gathering place for family and friends, as well as leaders of the Washington, DC social and political community, where they enjoyed dinners, parties, dances, carnivals and simple nature walks in the countryside.

In 1966, Mrs Shouse decided to donate one hundred acres of her farm to the US government, as well as funds to build a large amphitheatre - what is now the Filene Center. Mrs Shouse's goal was to protect the land from encroaching roads and suburbs, as well as to create a place where the arts could be enjoyed in harmony with nature. That same year, Congress accepted Mrs Shouse's gift and designated Wolf Trap as the National Park for the Performing Arts.

Wolf Trap is operated as a public-private partnership between the National Park Service, which maintains the grounds, and the Wolf Trap Foundation, which oversees the artistic, education and administrative programs. Records from as early as 1632 show wolves playing more of a menacing than inspiring role in the region. In fact, those who trapped wolves and brought their heads to the Virginia General Assembly received a bounty. Eventually, wolves became less prevalent. However, by the eighteenth century, 'Wolftrap' was the official name of a creek running through what would ultimately become Mrs Shouse's land.

The inaugural 'season' at the Filene Center, in 1971, featured Van Cliburn; Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera with Norman Treigle; as well as performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, Choral Arts Society of Washington, the United States Marine Band and the Madison Madrigal Singers. Since that time, Wolf Trap's Filene Center has attracted world-class artists from every genre - many of whom return each summer because of the great setting. For instance, in 1975, my family and I, including our not yet five-year-old daughter, saw and listened to a truly unique performance: Puccini's La bohème produced by the Metropolitan Opera, on tour, where Renata Scotto and Franco Corelli were the protagonists. This was the only time in their artistic careers they performed together, even though they had their residences in New York and they were close friends.

In 1981, Mrs Shouse donated another venue to house smaller acts; the non-profit Wolf Trap Foundation manages it. She had two eighteenth century barns from New York brought to Virginia and rebuilt in a manner that kept their rustic charm, but offered superb acoustics and amenities. Together, the two structures now make up the Barns at Wolf Trap: they present more than eighty performances every fall through spring. It is also home to Wolf Trap Opera in the summer. The Wolf Trap Opera Company was founded in 1971 and has since emerged as one of the US premier residency programs for young singers.

In 1981, Wolf Trap Foundation made the decision to invest heavily in arts education for children up to five years of age—particularly in disadvantaged areas and to create a Wolf Trap Institute dedicated to this mission. This decision was born out of a desire to use the performing arts to better engage children at the earliest stages of their lives. In the decades since, the Wolf Trap Institute has become a national leader in arts and early childhood education, with seventeen affiliate programs across the country.

Let us focus on the CD. An American in Paris and An Outdoor Overtures are well-known pieces. The Wolf Trap Opera National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, conducted by James Judd, offers very professional, but not startling, performances.

Listen — Gershwin: An American in Paris
(track 1, 0:04-0:53) © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Listen — Copland: An Outdoor Overture
(track 2, 8:00-8:53) © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The surprise is Songfest, when the young singers come in: Israfel, based on an Edgard Allan Poe text or To the Poem to a text by Frank O'Hara, when all of them perform, showing a great degree of coordination.

Listen — Bernstein: Israfel (Songfest)
(track 14, 0:00-0:45) © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Listen — Bernstein: To The Poem (Songfest)
(track 3, 0:31-1:02) © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The women's group reaches celestial peaks and the men's group counterpoints in a low register.

In The Pennycandystore Beyond the El (to a text by Lawrence Ferlinghetti) there is nearly a confrontation between men and women in a song reminiscent of American folk music.

Listen — Bernstein: The Pennycandystore Beyond the El (Songfest)
(track 4, 0:30-1:05) © 2020 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Track 7 is very interesting where, after an orchestral interlude and a song full of nostalgia - To what you said by Walt Whitman on track 6, two very American lyrics are combined: I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes and Okay 'Negroes' by June Jordan).

In short, listeners with no engrossing memories get a good grasp of American music too.

Copyright © 11 June 2020 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy




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