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Once again, it’s that wondrous time of year when the crucial problems of the world fade before the glow of the holiday season. We transcend our daily perspective, confront our innermost selves, summon our deepest feelings, and realize that all our concerns over international stability, political consensus, and financial security wither before the most daunting challenge of all: finding suitable presents. Life is full of tough choices, and such is the case here as well. If the object of your love or duty deserves music, you can always give yet another “(Insert name of opera/pop/country/rock superstar/has-been) Sings Christmas Favorites” to be duly acknowledged, played once, and then promptly forgotten (at least until next year, when it finally can be regifted). Or this time you can go for some class. And that means classical. If you’re lucky enough to know the recipient’s taste, then you can narrow your choices to manageable limits among the thousand or so annual classical releases. If you haven’t a clue, then there’s always the good old gift certificate. Either way, your problem’s mostly solved. The true challenge lies within these extremes: finding something appealing without duplicating an existing collection. Classical gifts come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from sensibly frugal to outrageously lavish, with lots of worthy and silly stuff in between. Are you modest and practical? Naxos has several introductions to opera and other genres (two discs and a hefty booklet for $12) and decent sets of Haydn quartets and symphonies (about $5 per disc). Need something safe and predictable? There’s plenty of boxed sets of integral Wagner Rings and Beethoven symphony, quartet, and sonata cycles. Want a clever package? DG has reissued Beverly Sills in Donizetti’s three Tudor Queen operas: “Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda,” and “Roberto Devereux.” A gag gift? Sony’s “Glenn Gould Original Jacket Collection” provides CD replicas of Gould’s dozen Bach LPs; it’s cute, but since the discs are half-empty the joke’s on you. Had a fabulous year and really want to flaunt it? There’s the entire “official” output of Jascha Heifetz (65 CDs), Arturo Toscanini (82), and Arthur Rubinstein (94), the “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” anthology (200), or an ostensibly complete and suitably bloated set of Mozart (180), joined this year by two competing Bach editions (one 172 discs, the other 153). And to think that pop fans get excited about 3- and 4-CD box sets! But if forced to choose a single gift of music, I’m reminded of fickle Ado Annie of “Oklahoma,” whose favorite beau is the one she happens to be with. I’m that way with CDs. Yet, there is one set that stuck with me and eclipsed all others this year. It’s creative, substantial, ambitious, challenging, informative, superbly tasteful, and downright patriotic. It’s “An American Celebration,” a fabulous 10-CD box from New York Philharmonic Special Editions available through their Web site or from Tower. It tackles a simple but difficult question: What is American classical music? When we think of classical tradition we invariably look toward Europe. Indeed, until a century ago, despite plenty of serious musical activity in America, none was distinctively ours. But then isolationism, the immigrant urge to assimilate, the excitement of home-grown jazz, and an overall “can do” spirit sparked American composers to rise above imitation and find voices of their own. Making up for lost time, they created an astounding range of work. Despite its late start, American classical music has become the richest in the world, embracing and developing every style imaginable. “An American Celebration” bursts with the result, an incredible abundance of 49 performances of 38 composers led by 21 conductors from 1936 to 1999, all played in concert by the astoundingly versatile New York Philharmonic. The variety and consistent excellence of the material and playing is matched by the presentation — fine sound, well-filled discs (averaging 78 minutes), cogent notes, interviews, and pictures, all packed into two sturdy space-saving cases. But excellence has its price, and in this case it’s $185. The sting of the sticker shock should be eased, though, by knowing that the proceeds support one of our premier cultural institutions rather than merely lining the pockets of some huge foreign conglomerate. So how can we define American classical music? This set reaches no simple conclusion, but provides an abundance of tantalizing evidence. It begins with an essential guidepost: Aaron Copland’s 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a short, simple, and direct evocation of the bold spirit, steady resolve, and searching vision of our Pioneers that crystallizes the myth of the promise and challenge of our manifest destiny. Not only is “Fanfare” the quintessential piece of American classical music, but it also exemplifies our melting pot — this vision of the West was written in Brooklyn by a son of Russian immigrants, and it’s conducted here by Kurt Mazur, a German. How utterly American! The first disc underscores the depth of this achievement by returning to the late 1800s for a stuffy overture celebrating a Greek muse that’s all form and no substance, a third-rate imitation of French impressionism, and an “Indian Suite” that grafts a few native themes onto tired European forms. Finally, Charles Ives shouts America from the rooftops in his 1914 “Three Places in New England,” which tosses together these vapid derivative antecedents and molds them into something tangibly different that somehow manages to reverberate deeply within our national psyche, bristling with fierce Yankee independence and unabashed chauvinism. With the Ives as a key, the rest of the set presents a dazzling array of the inclusive yet distinct music we have come to proudly call our own. There’s Duke Ellington’s 1950 “Tone-Parallel to Harlem,” its jazz materials melded to traditional structure; Gunther Schuller’s 1951 “Dramatic Overture,” a playful updating of Hector Berlioz; Edgar Varese’s 1925 “Integrales,” an immigrant’s startled vision of a big, brash, noisy, industrialized America; and even a rousing 1896 Sousa march, led here by Arturo Toscanini, a former Italian military bandmaster. The Philharmonic is one of the very few traditional ensembles that sounds genuinely at ease in the vernacular of truly modern music and whose audiences don’t bolt for the doors at the mere threat of hearing it. The overriding glory of this set is its unparalleled opportunity to hear such stuff. Among many others, there’s Elliott Carter’s wildly complex 1969 “Concerto for Orchestra,” brimming with ideas and textures; George Crumb’s 1977 “Star-Child,” deeply atmospheric and sonically bizarre with its vast battery of percussion, both traditional (huge pounding drums) and untraditional (chains, pot lids, thunder sheets); Charles Druckman’s 1975 “Lamia,” a coloratura tour de force; and Steve Reich’s mesmerizing and hypnotic 1981 “Tehillim,” an exquisitely beautiful and joyously affirmative blend of ancient Psalms and modern minimalism. In observance of his 100th birthday, Copland is honored with eight performances, including Rodzinsky’s magnificent 1945 world premiere performance of “Appalachian Spring” and a true rarity: the 1937 “Prairie Journal,” an incredibly lovely, wistful, and accessible rediscovery that overflows with fine ideas and resonates with the same American feeling as Copland’s better-known work, although it lay unpublished for 31 years and has yet to be formally recorded. Best of all are 11 galvanic live performances by Leonard Bernstein. A decade after his death, Bernstein is still very much with us, not just spiritually but through incessant recycling of his hundreds of Columbia and DG records. Yet, although he was known for the intensity of his concert performances, only a handful have been published. The bounty here includes Copland’s stirring 1942 “Lincoln Portrait” (which, despite its popularity, Bernstein never recorded) and the wacky 1928 “Four Saints in Three Acts” with “word word word again poem again words” by Gertrude Stein. There’s also an overwhelmingly intense and poignant performance of Bernstein’s own 1954 “Serenade” played by “his” orchestra and its longtime concertmaster with transcendental passion at the memorial concert given four days after his death. Speaking of Bernstein in concert, at the top of my own wish list this year is the Philharmonic’s follow-up set, the 10-CD “Bernstein Live.” The complete set boasts 33 works ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to John Cage, most of which Bernstein never recorded, but even the few familiar selections promise to eclipse studio records with the added zest that Lenny summoned before audiences. Tower carries a $6 sampler that excerpts rich and emotional Richard Wagner, a deeply impassioned Robert Schumann Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pre, a taut Anton Bruckner Sixth, and, most astounding of all, one of the most important concerts ever given: the 1951 world premiere of Ives’ “Symphony No. 2,” which opened the door not only to popular appreciation of Ives but also to the hidden splendor of America’s other bold iconoclasts. Although it may seem a churlish violation of the spirit of the holidays, I’m afraid I must conclude with a dire threat to my family and treasurer/wife: If, after an entire year of winning bread, cooking meals, playing my records at (relatively) moderate volume, and prying only minimally into our sons’ burgeoning social lives, I’m somehow still deemed unworthy of “Bernstein Live,” then the day after Hanukkah I’m going to buy it for myself! Peter Gutmann is a partner at the Washington, D.C. communications firm Pepper and Corazzini and can be reached at [email protected] Other music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at http://www.classicalnotes.net/.

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