Victoria Bond: Soul of a Nation—Concerto Portraits of Presidential Character. Frank Almond, violin; John Bruce Yeh, clarinet; Mark Ridenour, trumpet; Gabriela Vargas, flute; Roosevelt University Chamber Orchestra conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi; Chicago College of Performing Arts Wind Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. Albany Records. $16.99.
Many contemporary composers, and contemporary performers who focus on works of today and the recent past, seem always to be searching for new ways to use music, ways to make connections sometimes with listeners, sometimes with fellow performers, and sometimes with society at large so as to make social or political points. And at least some composers working today draw directly on music of the past as a model, or a lens through which to see what they want listeners to observe. The four presidential-focused concertos by Victoria Bond (born 1945) on a new Albany Records CD quite clearly have Copland’s Lincoln Portrait as a model – Bond herself says so – but they also, and rather more interestingly, adapt Charles Ives’ approach of including familiar, even homespun music within the newly composed material.
In Bond’s works, for example, this results in providing aural touchstones for a musical study of Theodore Roosevelt by including, among other tunes, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” These four concertos are in fact studies rather than tributes, along the lines of Ives’ portraits of transcendentalists: all four Bond pieces include words by Myles Lee that take a rather too-modern perspective on the presidents and tend to judge them by inappropriately contemporary standards. Like Lincoln’s own words in Copland’s work about Lincoln, Lee’s writings about these four presidents are intended as scene-setters, but they also come across interpretatively in ways that are rather grating and add little, if anything, to Bond’s music.
The music itself is intelligently and often cleverly constructed. The sequence on the CD is a personal rather than chronological one. The violin-and-strings concerto, Soul of a Nation, is in some ways the most interesting piece: it focuses on Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s only polymath president, and incorporates music by Corelli that Jefferson kept in his library at Monticello. Henry Fogel is the narrator here, with violinist Frank Almond and the Roosevelt University Chamber Orchestra conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi. The music of this piece is heartfelt and often soulful, exploring greater depths than Bond probes in the other concertos. The Jefferson work is followed by The Indispensable Man, the title referring not to Lincoln but to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the one president here whom Lee appears to admire unreservedly. David Holloway narrates and John Bruce Yeh is the clarinetist in a work whose jazzy riffs and bouncy percussion meld, sometimes a touch uneasily, with Big Band sounds.
The ensemble parts here and in the remaining concertos are very well played by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Wind Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. The third concerto, The Crowded Hours, focuses on Theodore Roosevelt and features Ray Frewen as narrator and Mark Ridenour on trumpet. Percussion plays a significant role in this rather martial work, interspersed with popular tunes of Roosevelt’s time. Last on the CD is Pater Patriae, narrated by Adrian Dunn, featuring Gabriela Vargas on flute, and focusing on George Washington. Here the music, which includes 18th-century fife-and-drum tunes, is jauntier and generally more unsophisticated in sound than that of the other concertos, presumably to make Washington come across as a man of strength and moral clarity but also making him seem rather superficial. Of course, every generation has different heroic figures, and every musical generation delineates its subjects differently: Ives was as much a man of his time, in this sense, as Bond is a woman of hers. If there is something rather too studied in some of Bond’s music (and much of Lee’s verbiage), it does not detract from the very fine construction of all these works and the genuinely interesting material that appears in all of them, from time to time if not from start to finish.