Gerhard Samuel- Celebrating a life in recordings

I thought it would be appropriate in celebrating Gerhard’s accomplishments as both a performer and composer to cobble together a podcast showcasing some of his recordings. This is by no means a comprehensive selection, but more of a grab bag of some of my favourites from my own collection. Sadly omitted is his groundbreaking recording of the Ives Universe Symphony, my copy of which was lost in last year’s fire- it is well worth seeking out and is in print. 

Gary was a tireless champion of the forgotten and overlooked- I sometimes wondered if there was a degree of identification with composers like Rott, who seemed forgotten by history in 1989, or historical rarities like the Mahler orchestra of Beethoven 9, which begins the podcast.

Gerhard tried to teach me a lot about Beethoven, and his words on his music ring truer and truer as I come to know more about Beethoven’s attitude to performance. For those who fear that the Mahler re-touches would turn this piece into a luxurious late-Romantic soup, you will be happy to hear that in Gerhard’s hands the piece remains lean and mean. The orchestral sound is focused, clear and tight and the tempo is right at Beethoven’s metronome marking.

To me, Gerhard was someone who already understood where we have to go in the generation of Beethoven performance after the original hipsters- we need to look for a vocabulary of color that is worth of Beethoven’s imagination, instead of simply throwing tastefully used and selectively applied vibrato to the sharks.

Requiem for Survivors (and suddenly it’s evening) is probably Gerhard’s best-known orchestral work. I’m usually put off by works based on quotation of very famous pieces (in this case, the Lacrimosa from the Mozart Requiem), but Gerhard’s treatment of the material is so original and powerful that he completely overcomes my resistance. Leave it to Gerhard, an old-school Germanic conductor and a composer who was very much in the lineage of Mahler, Berg, Schoenberg and Hindemith, but who thrived in the experimental world of 60’s San Francisco to make his Requiem a synthesis of Penderecki-like explosions of orchestral color and New Orleans Jazz.

Gerhard was drawn to the Mozart Lacrimosa largely because of the contribution of Sussmeyer and the incomplete, even damaged nature of Mozart’s final work. I think Gerhard took great pride in his work on pieces that had suffered and the hands of fate- works that in their imperfection bear witness to the difficulties and tragedies of the human condition. Hans Rott should have been the greatest symphonist after Brahms, but when mental illness killed him in his twenties, that task fell to his schoolmate (who would forever remain in awe of Rott), Gustav Mahler. When Gerhard gave the first modern performance of the Rott Symphony in E Major in 1989, taking it on tour to the International Mahler Festival and then recording it for Hyperion he was doing something that no other conductor on Earth was willing to do at that time. The Rott was considered an un-performable curiosity- a tragic footnote in the career of Gustav Mahler and nothing more. Twenty years later there are many recordings available and it is firmly entered the repertoire of some of the leading conductors of our time. There is even a Rott Society. I feel strongly that were it not for Gary’s courage in putting the piece before the world, this piece would remain lost today. Included in the podcast is the opening of the finale- a few pages of score that would haunt Gustav Mahler until his death. Had Gerhard not recorded this music, our understanding of Mahler would be forever poorer.

Gerhard had a lifelong fascination, even an obsession, with the Orpheus myth. I believe his last Orpheus piece was his saxophone concerto, Remembering Orpheus, written in 1997 for the Japanese saxophonist Wataru Sato. Having written a jazz requiem in 1974, Gerhard here manages to steer well clear of jazzy effects- no mean feat when writing for sax. This is the conclusion of the concerto, which is full of the aching lyricism and explosive intensity one finds in Gerhard’s late music. Lou Harrison was one of Gerhard’s closest friends and associates for many, many years, especially through their collaborations at the Cabrillo Festival. Gerhard performed and recorded a great deal of Harrison’s music, including the Symphony on G, the finale of which we hear next.

Gerhard also had a distinguished track record as an opera conductor, with tastes ranging from the mainstream to the brand new. In 1996, he recorded Harold Blumenfeld’s Season’s in Hell, based on the life of Rimbaud. Rimbaud was much like Rott- a genius ill-suited to survive the mundane tortures of everyday life, and Gerhard’s response to his story and Blumenfeld’s music is typically powerful, even incendiary.

From vocal music of one of Gerhard’s friends and colleagues to Gerhard’s own vocal music, with two short excerpts (the beginning and end) of his monodrama Hyacinth from Apollo, based on a poem by Jack Larson. Larson was a dear friend of Gerhard’s for many years, and they collaborated on a series of these works- this was the last. Written in 1997, it again is full of typical Samuelian juxtapositions of jaggedly dramatic writing and tender lyricism, in this work spilling over to the realms of intensely passionate sexuality. Gerhard was so taken with Wataru’s playing of his saxophone concerto that he included a major solo saxophone part in the piece, and he wrote the quartet part with my group, the Masala Quartet in mind. I’m particularly proud of my part in the project- Gerhard was a little tentative about the piece after the premiere, partly because some aspects of the performance were a little shaky, but I thought is was an amazing piece and encouraged him strongly to record it- and idea that culminated in his CD with Darrell Handel “The Orpheus Oracle.”

I agonized over how to end this podcast- whether to finish with one of Gerhard’s pieces or another of his beloved problem children, but in the end I’ve chosen the cheesiest possible option, the end of his recoding of Beethoven 9. I’ve done so for two reasons- one, I wanted this to be a celebration of his life’s work, and what could be more celebratory, and two, I wanted to dispel any idea that Gerhard was a lover of problem pieces by necessity and that he somehow couldn’t punch with the big boys in standard repertoire. I don’t think you’ll find many more exciting or original takes on this most famous 3 minutes of music.

As far as I know, all of the recordings included here are still in print and available

Music from Six Continents 1998 Series: The Orpheus Oracle 

Seasons in Hell: A Life of Rimbaud

Mahler: Re-Orchestration of Beethoven Symphony no. 9 

Hans Rott: Symphony in E major Harrison: Symphony on G/Ruggles: Organum/Men & Mountains

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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