While the voice and orchestra format is much beloved of composers owing to the immediacy of words, it has not enjoyed a great amount of attention from them since about 1970, and this doesn't make sense. After all, singers tour, symphony orchestras can certainly use such material to spice up programs and audiences don't seem to mind them. One performing artist who is a staunch advocate of orchestral song is baritone Patrick Mason, a professor of voice at the College of Music at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an artist frequently heard with orchestras worldwide. Bridge's American Orchestral Song features Mason in five orchestral song settings, three of which come from the years around the turn of the twentieth century, when the format was alive, well, and reasonably common. The other two settings are late career outings by composers Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson, both old enough to remember when the popularity of vocal/orchestral music was at its height. In relation to the others, their works here have a reflective, if not nostalgic, quality.
The work that jumps out of the program, all of which is very good, is Roy Harris' dazzling setting of a poem by Walt Whitman, "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun" (1959). In terms of recordings, Harris is poorly represented in comparison to several of his more famous contemporaries, and some of the material gives the impression that his later work lacks the cohesion of his most famous pieces, which date from the 1930s. Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun is a beautiful piece, with a bright, colorful orchestration, seemingly boundless energy, and an inexorable sense of progression; it begs the question as to whether there might be more to Harris than meets the eye. Virgil Thomson's The Feast of Love (1964) embodies many of Thomson's best stylistic traits, particularly in his approach to vocal music; there are several passages where the vocal line is followed by a solo instrument or two, which lends support and provides the voice with a kind of magisterial draping. When new, The Feast of Love was recorded, rather famously, by baritone David Clatworthy with Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester; it was such a good outing that no one else has approached it since. This seems a bit better, not just due to the difference in recording quality but in the blend of punchiness and sensitivity achieved by conductor Paul Mann with the Odense Symphony.
Among older repertoire, Griffes' Five Poems of Ancient China & Japan, Op. 10 (1917), is outstanding due to its audacity and experimental spirit; Water-Colors (1916) by John Alden Carpenter has a striking, piano-dominated orchestration that reflects the sound of theater orchestras of its era that is quite colorful and refreshing. There is a school of thought going back some time that identifies -- mostly on the basis of the piano incarnations of such songs -- both Griffes and Carpenter as wanna-be impressionists, but orchestral settings such as these sound vibrant, unforced, and notably un-French. The program is rounded off with much-maligned New England composer Horatio Parker's Cahál Mór of the Wine-Red Hand, Op. 40 (1893), dating from around the same time as his cantata Hora Novissima. It shares with that same work an interest in medievalism and post-Wagnerian romanticism. Rather than being purely derivative of Wagner, it seems a successful integration of that sound into an American context, somewhere halfway between Victor Herbert and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Some will be more satisfied with hearing Wagner, Herbert, or Korngold over Parker's effort. Nevertheless, it still sounds a great deal better in 2008 than it would have in 1978, an era in which second-generation romantic American music of all kinds was regarded with a kind of contempt.
It took a long time for European orchestras to grasp the warp and woof of American orchestral scoring and many still cannot. Mann is an English conductor who nevertheless is able to draw from the Odense Symphony, based in Denmark, a distinctly American sound in these works. Mann is also able to differentiate the distinction between the orchestral approaches of these various composers, from the big and effulgent Parker to the spindly and economical Carpenter. Patrick Mason does a great and dedicated service to all of the pieces here; his singing is clear and disciplined, and he never shouts or assumes an ugly tone. However, the singing is not excessively pretty, either; Mason is not singing Handel and he knows it; these pieces do require a careful balance of muscle and sensitivity, and Mason has really thought that through. Bridge's American Orchestral Song is one of the best discs of purely vocal/orchestral music to come along in a long time, and it should find a place on many of the shortlists of the best albums of 2008.