Sunday, October 05, 2008

Waxing Romantic: Reminiscences of Howard Hanson

It’s not my intention to write a review of last night’s opening concert of the Harrisburg Symphony’s new season. It’s difficult for me to be unbiased, first of all, and I’m not comfortable trying to find different ways of saying “damn, they played well!” If you read this before 3:00 today, you can go to the Forum in downtown Harrisburg and hear for yourself (and if you can make it an hour earlier, to hear Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk).

The first half of the concert will get a separate post – Liszt’s Les Preludes and Brahms’ Double Concerto – but I just wanted to jot down some reminiscences that came to mind about Howard Hanson while I was listening to what most would consider justifiably his best known, if not his best, piece.

Every time I hear the Hanson 2nd Symphony, it reminds me how much I prefer Peter Mennin’s Symphony No. 5 which I’ve never heard live because, frankly, nobody plays it. It’s such a good piece and yet while the Hanson deserves being dusted off on occasion, I guess – since his music is played only a fraction as often as Aaron Copland’s – it would be nice to show there’s more to American music than Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein. And in this case, Pennsylvania music, since Mennin, later a student of Hanson’s, was born in Erie, PA.

There’s no point going through the “five things I can’t stand about Hanson’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony” (if I could keep it down to five) but my friend John Clare once asked me if I knew why the symphony was known as the “Romantic”?

“Because the audience sleeps together.”

Which is pretty hard to do when the music is so loud. Or when the orchestra is playing it so well. It’s a fairly straight-forward work, so I rather doubt it’s a big challenge to play, but they made a convincing argument for it being scheduled on the program and I’m glad a Harrisburg audience actually got to hear it live. The only thing they’d played by Howard Hanson I’m aware of, looking back through the list of repertoire the orchestra performed between 1930 and 1980, was a short vocal excerpt from his opera, Merry Mount, in 1970 which is surprising considering Edwin MacArthur, conductor of the orchestra for 24 seasons, also taught at the Eastman School of Music. So I’m glad that oversight has been corrected. Other works that could be considered are the suite from Merry Mount and perhaps, if you’re looking for something choral and patriotic, “The Song of Democracy.”

I don’t recall when I first heard Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, another of those works commissioned by Serge Koussevistky for the Boston Symphony and written in the 1930s as an antidote to the then-modern styles of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartok. My first impression began as “very enthusiastic” after the hypnotic build-up of its very powerful introduction, but by the end of the piece, past the endless repetitions of that whole-tone motive, the Woody Woodpecker horn calls, and the frustrating lack of harmonic resolution, I had quickly moved on to “is it over yet?” This may sound like anathema coming from a graduate of the Eastman School of Music which owed its life to Howard Hanson: but his style, when I was there in the early-70s, was known derisively among the students as “Eastman Gothic.”

Sitting in the Forum last night, it amused me to think how American the work sounds and yet much of the time, Hanson, the son of Swedish immigrants who grew up in Wahoo, Nebraska (how quintessentially American is that?), sounds like he’s playing “What Sibelius Symphony Am I?” or reminding us he was supposed to have studied with Ottorino Respighi (Hanson himself denied this in his unpublished autobiography, according to the folks at Wikipedia, but that is something uncredited I would take with a grain of WikiSalt). And the ending of Respighi’s Feste Romane with its razzle-dazzle “one-more-time” trumpet lick drives me just as nuts as Hanson’s Americanization of it at the end of his 2nd Symphony.

At the time, I was just becoming familiar with Sibelius symphonies and the Respighi tone poems – how did I miss calling Hanson’s finale “Feste Rochesteria”? – but you couldn’t help but become familiar with the music of Howard Hanson. Not that it was everywhere nor, by that time, was he. My first year coincided with the school’s 50th Anniversary and with Hanson’s 75th birthday so, of course, there was a big celebration that day in late October.

Hanson had been chosen as a young man with no major reputation or experience to speak of by George Eastman to run the school of music he’d founded in downtown Rochester, one of the many projects Eastman had originated in his city, a town that grew around first one industry – the Eastman Kodak company and later, in the ‘70s, Xerox, both now eclipsed by newer digital technology. The theater that Eastman built remains one of the more marvelous concert halls in the country but even more amazing is Kilbourn Hall across the lobby from it, a smaller more intimate space with wonderful acoustics for chamber music. Hanson turned what might’ve been a small school in a small out-of-the-way city into a major force in the country’s music world: known more for producing orchestral players than the stellar quantity of concert soloists Juilliard and Curtis do – like Nikkanen and Gaisford who met at Juilliard – though at the moment opera’s reigning soprano, Renee Fleming Class of ‘83, is one of the brightest jewel’s in Eastman’s crown.

When I was there, that cliche “a jewel in the crown” was something of a joke: located downtown far from the campus it was bureaucratically associated with, Eastman was often referred to by the chancellor as “a jewel in the crown of the University of Rochester” even if, at the time, they seemed to care very little how badly run it was and how low the morale had become (during the crumbling celebration known as the 50th Anniversary, another cliche was “will the last person to leave Eastman please turn out the lights?”). But that was very different from the school Hanson had revved up back in the ‘20s – previous administrators were just keeping the status quo operating; Hanson with his vision and his energy took his dream and transformed it (and the town) beyond anything most people thought it could possibly be. He brought in the kind of faculty who mirrored his enthusiasms, he formed an orchestra that performed to the highest professional standards, his interest in new music – however conservative it might seem by others’ concepts – brought many young composers not just to a wider audience but to an audience at all..

On Hanson’s birthday, then, somehow the school managed to throw him a surprise party. He had been taken back into his old office, now occupied by the school’s then current director, Walter Hendl, a brilliant conductor who was not always successful at controlling his inner demons. In an orchestration as brilliant as any by Hanson himself, they managed to cram every Eastman student and faculty member into Kilbourn Hall while the stage was ringed by the school’s famous trombone choir augmented by many alumni for the occasion – Emory Remington was “the” trombone teacher, then, and every quality orchestra in the country had “a Remington” in its trombone section. Once we were all assembled and ready, Hendl was given a signal and suggested to Hanson they go over to Kilbourn just across the hall, but Hanson was enjoying the conversation and thought they could do that later. I think he got him moving by saying “I want you to see how the renovation in the theater is going - let's cut through Kilbourn Hall,” or something like that. And so he walks out onto the brightly lit stage and is greeted by over 600 cheering people wishing him a happy birthday!

The trombone choir played The Big Theme from his Romantic Symphony intertwined with the tune, “Happy Birthday” (no doubt, two simultaneous copyright infringements) and congratulatory telegrams were read from President Nixon and New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller. A telegram from the Mayor of Wahoo, Nebraska, his birthplace, informed him that a downtown street in Wahoo would be renamed in his honor “Howard Hanson Symphony Street.” The first thing he said, after profuse and heart-felt thank-yous, was an apology to the poor man who would have to hang that street sign, hoping he didn’t get a hernia in the process. Hanson suggested, if they were ever to name a street in Rochester after him, it shouldn’t be one of the main streets or even the street where the school stands, but the narrow one-block alley behind the school, just outside his old office – because, he said, whenever he needed a break, he would just walk across that little alley-way to the back door of the Rochester Club for a drink. Some days, he explained, you could tell how things were going by the number of times he’d slip out of his office...

One thing I remember from his obviously unprepared speech to everyone assembled there was quoted in the year book: “I hope we don’t get too professional, musically... I would rather have a few wrong notes played with love than a perfect performance without it.”

Another memory from that time was hearing Howard Hanson conduct the Rochester Philharmonic in Eastman Theater. As I remembered it, it was supposed to be a world premiere of what had been his latest symphony, but maybe it was the first Rochester performance of his Symphony No. 6 (it was not his LAST symphony – since a few years later he would compose his Symphony No. 7, a choral setting of Walt Whitman called “Sea Symphony” written when he was 80 and not to be confused with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first symphony of the same name setting words of the same poet). A bunch of us cocky young comp students, snickering about the fossilized Eastman Gothic style here personified, sat in the darkened theater during a rehearsal. For many of us, cockiness turned to begrudging admiration as several of my friends and I agreed “old-fashioned, yeah, but I wish *I* could write a solid piece of music like that.” It didn’t mean we wanted to write in that style, but just to be able to write something well enough technically that the style really didn’t matter.

One afternoon in 1974 or so, I was sitting in the student lounge talking to one of my students (a freshman flutist who would soon become the principal flutist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra). Now, you have to realize that while many great musicians came to Rochester to perform, they performed at the Eastman Theater if not directly through the school itself, so you could conceivably run into a famous violinist or pianist or composer in the elevator or the lounge. So this one afternoon, Howard Hanson, this big burly man who still glowed with an aura of energy who walked leaning forward as if he were always walking into the wind, came plowing through a rather quiet and nearly deserted lounge to say hello to the Dean of Students whose office was just off the lounge. My student saw this man and in none to good a stage whisper exclaimed “Oh my God, it’s... it’s BURL IVES!!!!” Before I could bury my face in my hands out of sheer embarrassment, Hanson looked over, smiled his usual broadly beaming smile and waved at us as he disappeared into the dean’s office. One assumes this was not the first time this had happened...

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Up next – a post about the performance of the Brahms Double Concerto – which included an instrument that Brahms himself may have heard the night he conducted the premiere of his Double Concerto!


  1. Anonymous7:27 AM

    What a load of condescending crap.

  2. I am not a musician or composer, but Hanson's melodic fantasy charms me still. Call him old-fashioned, romantic, or whatever. His music is magnificent. I believe his symphonies are unsurpassed by any written in the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff being the sole exception. I am deeply grateful and still haunted by both men's music. We could use more romanticism in this hard, harsh world. Dissonance and discord are vastly overrated.

    1. Of course, but substitute "classicism" for "romanticism," Haydn for Rachmaninoff and Mendelssohn for Hanson, this could have been written by someone in the Wagnerian age.