Quincy Porter (1897-1966), at first glance, would appear to have been a stolid and insulated Yale man through and through. He was the son and grandson of Yale professors, studied under Yale professor Horatio Parker - as a classmate of Douglas Moore and Roger Sessions - and ended his career as professor of composition there; in fact, he died of a stroke while watching a Yale-Princeton football game on television. But he also played violin in theater orchestras (indeed, in the old Capitol Theater Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy before Ormandy went to Philadelphia), viola in a touring string quartet, and spent time in Paris (where he studied under D'Indy), Cleveland (where he studied with Ernest Bloch, having followed him when he moved to the Cleveland Institute from New York) and Boston (where he succeeded Frederick Converse as head of the New England Conservatory). He was a colleague, at Yale, of Paul Hindemith, whom he could not abide. He had the exterior of a bank manager, but his music sometimes expresses the emotions of a man with an active and passionate interior life.
Here we have the Symphony No. 1 (1934), a three movement work that is notable for clear contrapuntal lines, vigorous rhythms and occasionally stident polytonal passages. There is a good deal of modal filigree in the pastoral second movement accompanied by gently rocking string chords. The third movement, true to the previous two, makes use of much of the same thematic material and, after a mysterious introduction, goes rocketing along in muscular fashion to a fortissimo conclusion.
Poem and Dance (1932), only nine minutes long, opens (Poem) with a long-limbed and lyrical section made dark by low gong and harp in its lowest register. It has an ABA form and the dramatic middle section intensifies briefly before recapping the brooding mood of the opening section. The Dance, also in ABA form, has the reverse procedure, starting fast, slowing down and then speeding up again to an exciting finish. It is notable for the brash trumpet licks and the unusual use of a flyswatter on the snare drum, as well as for its hints of Latin American rhythms.
Symphony No. 2 (1962) is a much later work. It opens with a meditative Lento. Then comes a sardonic Scherzando with some Mahlerian grotesquerie that opens into a lighter mood before a rather abrupt ending that evaporates into the stratosphere while the wood-block rattles on. The Adagio is gently mournful, with occasional periods of heightened angst. The Allegro finale opens with a portentous announcement on the horns with an after-comment by oboes and piccolos that then leads to an active fugato treatment in the strings, setting the agenda for this bustling, even dizzy, movement. After some periods of relaxed tempi, quick dotted rhythms propel the piece to an exciting finish punctuated by rat-a-tatting snare drums.
Sinfonia Varsovia (formerly known as the Polish Chamber Orchestra), conducted expertly here by Ian Hobson, does a bang-up job. It is unlikely that these pieces central to Porter's oeuvre will get better performances any time soon.
If you respond to the music of Piston and Creston you will like this music.