In 1946, Leo Sowerby, dubbed “Dean of American Church Music,” received the Pulitzer Prize for his oratorio The Canticle of the Sun, one of his large body of religious-themed compositions. He also composed many secular orchestral and chamber works.
While still in his 20s, Sowerby, already a much-performed composer, created two jazz-infused works for bandleader Paul Whiteman’s Revolutionary Concerts. The 11-minute Synconata premiered in New York in December 1924, just one month after the debut of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, another Whiteman commission. The enthusiastically received, colourfully scored music – downbeat, upbeat and raucous – prompted Whiteman to commission Sowerby for a second, much more ambitious work.
The grin-inducing music of the four-movement, 25-minute Symphony for Jazz Orchestra “Monotony” (1925) depicts the eponymous status seeker of Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel Babbitt at the theatre (Nights Out), an illegal Prohibition-era cocktail party (Fridays at Five), church (Sermons) and a concert (Critics). It’s great fun, tuneful and rhythmically vivacious. Yet both works, awkward fits for standard symphony orchestras, disappeared. (Rhapsody in Blue required re-orchestration for symphonic performances.) For these world-premiere recordings, Chicago music-theatre and classical instrumentalists were recruited to form the Andy Baker Orchestra, with Baker conducting.
The Illinois-based Avalon String Quartet contributes three works imbued with the ingratiating spirit of folk music: the nine-minute Serenade for String Quartet (1917), the 29-minute String Quartet in D Minor (1923) and, with Canadian pianist Winston Choi and bassist Alexander Hanna, the brief Tramping Tune (1917).
A thoroughly delightful disc!