Recording Review

Louis Moreau Gottschalk Hershy Kay Cakewalk Ballet
Louisville Orchestra conducted by Akira Endo (1982)
Walter Piston The Incredible flutist
Louisville Orchestra conducted by Jorge Mester (1976)
1989 Albany Records compact disc

By Alan Brandt

The Louisville Orchestra has released another of its "first Edition" recordings of American composers on compact disc with two fairly similar works.

The. Cakewalk Ballet, recorded in the Macauley Theatre, was orchestrated by Hershy Kay from the keyboard music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829. As he grew up, he was influenced by the saloon music of his home town. The Cakewalk Ballet reflects his style with every transcribed note. Kay's orchestration, which premiered in 1951, is true to the period when the music was composed. "Freebee," based on Gottschalk's "Le Banjo," maintains the original composition's banjo-like pluck and southern texture. Kay's arrangement expands the high-spirited feeling of the original tunes, adding the depth and warmth a piano cannot achieve alone. When listening to Cakewalk one can almost see the smoky New Orleans saloon that doubtless inspired its creation.

Clearly the Louisville Orchestra enjoyed recording Cakewalk. The playing is bright and crisp, jubilantly reviving the mood of 19th Century America. A couple of the slower movements seems to get bogged down by the orchestration, sending the work temporarily into nostalgic sappiness. The piece bounces back quickly, though, returning to its spirited playfulness.

Kay was not content to use only Gottschalk's works in Cakewalk. He purposefully added musical references to Stephen Foster and James Bland, two of Gottschalk's contemporaries, in the piece. A humorous Tchaikovsky-styled accompaniment is also added to the "Pas de Deux" movement. Kay's incorporation of these elements complements and even adds to the Gottschalk originals.

To say that The Incredible Flutist is more challenging to listen to than Cakewalk would be true. To say flutist is a challenging work would not.

Walter Piston begins the piece with a brooding introduction that slowly becomes a thoughtful dance. The ballet, which tells of a circus flutist who charms a village with his music, is celebration of musical movement. The melodies leap from instrument to instrument The harmonics are full and evocative, bringing great depth and color to the work.

"Arrival of the Show Parade" is convincing in creating a carnival-like atmosphere. It uses human voices with shouts of glee, whistles and even dogs barking." Afterward come the side shows, a menagerie of animals and performers that evoke wonder and awe from the villagers. The music is exotic and imaginative during this strange procession. When the flutist appears playing an enchanting melody, the mood becomes hypnotic. The Arabic melody seduces the villagers. The finale is an exuberant polka as the flutist leaves a happily transformed village.

The two works on this CD are similar in their festive nature. Both are light-hearted and celebratory, drawing the listener into their fascinating worlds. The Cakewalk Ballet is the more accessible of the two; the difference is not jarring. Although both works are not "great music," they are worth listening to now and then for pure enjoyment.

The recordings are clear, considering the location and time of their performances, benefiting from the digital mastering onto CD.

The Louisville Orchestra has always been adept at performing American works and the compositions on this disc confirm this.

The disc is available for $15.99 at Four Seasons Records.

(Alan Brandt is an associate producer of classical music at public radio station WFPK 91.9 FM.)