NEW YORK — CONCERTO FOR ENGLISH HORN AND ORCHESTRA Composition by Ned Rorem. Conducted by Kurt Masur. World premiere with the New York Philharmonic Jan. 27.
BY dint of longevity and artistic consistency, Ned Rorem has become an elder statesman of American composers. His songs are a regular staple of the American singer's repertoire. His books, to which a 700-odd-page autobiography will shortly be added, have made him the ultimate insider of the classical music world.
Rorem has lasted long enough to witness a major change in musical tastes: Composers who long scorned his conservative, tonal idiom have now embraced similar styles. And although he made his reputation as a song composer and has been criticized for not working successfully in larger forms, Rorem has long since proved himself equal to the task of writing instrumental music on a symphonic scale.
As part of its 150th anniversary commissioning project, the New York Philharmonic asked Rorem to write a concerto for English horn, a virtuoso vehicle for the talented English horn player, Thomas Stacy. The work premiered late last month on a peculiar program of small works by Handel, Bach, Rossini, and Britten.
Rorem's work is in five movements of differing length and quality. The opening, titled ``Preamble and Amble,'' strains at times for a self-consciously American sound - spacious intervals, expansive orchestration.
Rorem, however, is too urbane and eclectic to keep up prairie music for very long; in the course of the work he dabbles from a rich orchestra palette, taking up and abandoning a variety of novel sound worlds. A stream of sonic allusions passes by; sounds vaguely Hollywood, Polynesian, and Parisian commingle without disunity.
THE biggest compositional challenge in an English horn concerto is making the instrument heard without resorting to an overly assertive, abrasive tone. On this level, the work succeeds admirably; the orchestra, though large (with an extensive percussion roster), is used delicately and transparently. Rorem makes extensive use of the oboes, the English horn's higher-pitched cousins, thus giving a familiar sonic context for an unfamiliar instrument.
The work is conservative in its formal structure and at times predictable. It proceeds with the comfortable, but familiar, logic of a crossword puzzle. It doesn't aspire to say great things, but says a few simple things very clearly. Placed alongside two Baroque works (Bach's ``Brandenburg Concerto No. 2'' and Handel's ``Concerto Grosso, Op. 3 No. 3''), one wondered if musical comparison were being suggested.
New scores and Baroque scores ironically share a similar life history: Composition, performance, and oblivion follow quickly upon each other. Like these two Baroque concertos, Rorem's piece is music to be used; its pleasures are not diminished by its unpretentious lack of high ambition.
Stacy's rich tone and flexible virtuosity are the best advocates for his underappreciated instrument. The Rorem concerto is only one of several works that Stacy has inspired or commissioned for the English horn; it joins works by Vincent Persichtti, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Richard Lane, and others in Stacy's personal arsenal.
Kurt Masur, music director of the New York Philharmonic, led the program that included a lackluster and flaccid account of Rossini's Overture to ``La gazza ladra'' and a straightforward version of Britten's ``The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.'' Masur also conducted the two small ensembles that performed the Bach and Handel works; it would have been better for him to let these musicians lead themselves. Masur's influence on Baroque music tends toward the clunky and pedestrian.