Leroy Anderson: An American Treasure, Unjustly Neglected

I rarely use this space to review or report on recordings, but I recently came across one that struck me as important and noteworthy in many ways. It is Naxos's Volume One of the orchestral music of Leroy Anderson. Leonard Slatkin leads energetic, committed performances of a wide range of Anderson works, and Slatkin and pianist Jeffrey Biegel team up to show us that Anderson was capable of writing a fine Piano Concerto, one that deserves to be more widely known than it currently is.

But what makes this disc stand out for me is that it points out how little attention the American musical community has given to one of its own giants, just because his music fell into that uncomfortable area between "popular" and "classical." (God, how I hate those terms.) Leroy Anderson was a genius, as this disc amply demonstrates. He worked on a remarkable level of melodic inspiration, tunes pouring out of him like water out of a fountain. He wrote what we today call "pops" repertoire - much of it for Arthur Fiedler and his Boston Pops.

Other countries treat their composers of lighter music with much greater respect--whether it is Johann Strauss Jr. in Austria or Hans Christian Lumbye in Denmark, to give just two examples. There is a place in the repertoire for music of a lighter nature. But we're so damned serious in our concert life, so vested in making every concert an "artistic experience at the highest level," that we've neglected one of America's true originals.

Fortunately, 2008 is Anderson's centennial year, so his music is likely to get some attention. He wrote only one extended-length work, and that is the Piano Concerto heard on this disc (Naxos 8.559313, for those of you who still collect recordings, as I do). The work was premiered by the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago, under Anderson's baton with Eugene List as soloist, in 1953. It got mixed reviews both there and in a subsequent performance in Cleveland, and Anderson withdrew it. He intended to revise it, but never did, though toward the end of his life he is reported to have found himself coming around to the piece again. After his death, his widow Eleanor Anderson decided to release it in its original form, and Jeffrey Biegel is one of its main proponents now. One wishes that the critics had been more open to this tuneful, colorful piece--perhaps Anderson would have been encouraged to write more music in larger forms.

But no matter. We shouldn't fall into the trap of diminishing the importance of Anderson just because most of his pieces are three or four minutes long, tuneful, and toe-tappingly rhythmic. The one American composer in this vein whom we seem to have treated well is John Philip Sousa. Perhaps Anderson's time is finally coming. This disc shows that he is a true American treasure, and great fun to listen to.

July 11, 2008 10:03 AM | | Comments (6)

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At my Master's Conducting Recital, I conducted Plink, Plank, Plunk as an encore...immediately after the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op. 110a. I couldn't think of a more appropriate way to bring everyone back from the depths than with Leroy Anderson. One of my absolute favorite composers, and I appreciate this post and look forward to hearing this disc immensely.

I had the pleasure of playing (and hearing) the Anderson Piano Concerto for the very first time last season with Jeffrey Biegel as soloist. It was such a satisfying piece to play, especially from a seat in the viola section, where you get to hear everything.

I hope (selfishly) that it truly enters, as it should, into the standard repertoire, because I would love to play it again. And again, and again.


I too hope that the Anderson Concerto enters the repertoire. It is a perfectly fine, valid alternative to the Gershwin -- which frankly should also be more in the repertoire than it is. Let's hope that we do honor our own in the future more than we have in the past.
-Henry

Hey it took Scott Joplin about 50 years after his death to enter the discussion as a great American composer. Anderson just hasn't been gone long enough!

Thank you, Henry, for bringing the delightful genius of Leroy Anderson to your readers. There are many who are now aware of the wide-ranging output of Mr. Anderson, and I am grateful to you for bringing your thoughts about his 'Concerto in C', in particular, to your blog. It is well-crafted, and simply a pleasure to listen to--and play! Credits to Erich Kunzel surely, who recorded it first in 1992, and suggested I contact the Anderson family after attending his performance of the concerto the evening prior to his recording sessions in Cincinnati. Leonard Slatkin is the obvious choice for conducting the complete series of Anderson's works for Naxos. Having been responsible for so many premieres and new works on record, Maestro Slatkin's love for Anderson's music is evident in his interpretations with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I enjoyed our sessions together greatly! There are new treasures, and faithful renditions of the morsels we all know and love. But in listening to the complete series (volume 3 is now available), one can hear the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic language which is fresh and ear-catching. That Anderson studied with Walter Piston at Harvard and was fluent in many languages attests to his immense musical gifts and universal appeal. Thanks for sharing this, Henry; it is hopeful that your readers at the orchestras and music directors worldwide will take special interest in Anderson's music, and of course, I always enjoy performing the 'Concerto in C'!

Wasn't it Noel Coward who once said: "A great nation should not treat its light music lightly."

It's worth repeating the famous remark Brahms made in reference to the Blue Danube of Johann Strauss, Jr.: Unfortunately not by me.
I trust these recordings (I've just purchased the third volume!) will indeed inspire more performances of the finely crafted works of Leroy Anderson.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on July 11, 2008 10:03 AM.

Orchestras and the League: Staying Connected Post-Presidentially was the previous entry in this blog.

Community Engagement: Sea Change in the Orchestra World is the next entry in this blog.

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