First slice of Americana

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This year I was privileged to hear the American Escher Quartet's recital at the Gregynog Festival. Their recital bookended by Britten's glorious first string quartet and Bartok's shattering sixth, included works by Aaron Copland and Elliot Carter.

I'll admit, I was not overly enticed by this prospect. Copland's music I felt I knew, all popular tunes, Shaker Hymns and music in that vein, and Elliot Carter I admired, but his music I've never warmed to.

The music that followed made me realise two things. I, who have always considered myself very open-minded, was thoroughly prejudiced about what I liked and disliked (the Copland was utterly charming, and the Carter so moving, I felt quite a lump in my throat), and secondly, I quite obviously knew absolutely nothing American music.

So, I have decided to use our Americana season as an opportunity to re-educate myself, and I hope you'll allow me to share some of my findings with you.

In the BBC National Orchestra of Wales' first slice of Americana, we will perform Virgil Thomson's Three Pictures, not just an unknown work to me, but also, shamefully, a composer of whom I have no knowledge. It turns out Virgil Thomson is a fascinating character.

Born in 1896 in Kansas City, Missouri, Thomson studied at Harvard and Juilliard, but perhaps most defining for him, in Paris in the 1920's with Nadia Boulanger. During his first sojourn in Paris, in 1921 he also laid the foundations for his parallel career, that of a music critic (he eventually reigned supreme as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940-1954).

As a composer, he was a contemporary of both Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland, John Cage, Charles Ives, and George Gershwin to name but a few, more familiar names. Today, whilst his name remains synonymous with American music of the 20th century, performances of his work are scarce.

This seeming negligence was one that concerned Thomson throughout his career, and a concern that somewhat clouded his relationship with a number of his contemporaries. Indeed, when Thomson passed away in 1989, Leonard Bernstein commented that "the death of Virgil T. is like the death of an American city," but also stated "We all loved his music and rarely performed it".

We will perform Thomson's Three Pictures, a work for large orchestra that was originally three separate commissions, although Thomson himself conducted and recorded them as a three movement 'suite'.

In Anthony Tommasini's biography of Thomson, Composer On The Aisle, he quotes Thomson as saying of The Seine at Night, the first of the Pictures, that he wanted to offer "the other city that I love, and the only other one where I have ever felt at home, a sketch, a souvenir, a post-card of the Seine".

If The Seine at Night is a love song for the Francophile Thompson's beloved Paris, the second, Wheat Field at Noon is a homage to his Missouri roots, and Sea Piece with Birds a chromatic, heaving work, free of thematic repetition.

Join us for this first Americana concert on Tuesday which will also feature BBC New Generation Artist, American violinist Elena Urioste, as soloist in Barber's Violin Concerto. There will also be music by Aaron Copland, and by Piston, who we will meet again later in our series.

For tickets to Americana on Tuesday 24 October, call 0800 052 1812, or visit

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