Just what is the “American Sound”? According to Leif Bjaland and the Sarasota Orchestra in their ingenious “Journeys to Genius” program, this country is a “musical melting pot,” using the resources of its many immigrants and pooling its musical genes with native cultures. At this past weekend’s “Inventing the American Sound,” a brilliantly conceived and executed performance by Bjaland, the orchestra, baritone Michael Redding, tenor Brad Diamond and pianist Jonathan Spivey, with consultant Steve Schlow and video editor Austin McKinley, the field was narrowed down to three central innovators: the sons of of Russian Jewish émigrés Moses Beilin, Moisha Gershowitz and Morris Kaplan.
Irving (Beilin) Berlin, George (Gershowitz) Gershwin and Aaron (Kaplan) Copland did more than Americanize their surnames. They Americanized this country’s music. And, in telling their stories, Bjaland brought their lives, backgrounds, commonalities and music to vibrant life through a vivid script with well-chosen musical excerpts and imaginative videos that made this one of the most powerful concert-narratives yet.
There is, indeed, an American sound. Our popular music — yes, even today’s —has roots that reach far into Russia, Africa and the great plains of this country. And our so-called “classical” music, with its melodies of perfect fourths and harmonies of open, parallel fifths, may have been born across the seas, but it’s the living, breathing flesh of America the beautiful.
The scant program, only four pages, devoted one entire side to copyright credits and, knowing the fine-tooth-comb eccentricities of the Berlin, Gershwin and Copland families and publishers, it probably took longer to obtain these permissions than to conceive, write, rehearse and perform the entire production.
Seeing Spivey’s hands superimposed over old black and white clips of New York; hearing a cleverly imagined conversation between Berlin and his music copyist trying to build just the right chord for a Berlin melody; watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “Cheek to Cheek” and Al Jolson mouthing “Swanee” over live piano, orchestral and vocal performances and, finally, hearing all of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” in a superb reading, made 75 minutes of inspired musical communication worth the work.