PLAIN DEALER MUSIC CRITIC
Music means something specific and limited to most people. They lean toward one type or another, perhaps finding space in their ears for several musical genres.
David Amram has maintained open ears throughout his adventurous career. As a composer, the Philadelphia native has traveled a vast landscape. embracing classical and jazz, concert and opera films and theater.
But he has gone further. His explorations into musics of many cultures since he was a boy have taken him to hundreds of countries. Multiculturalism was part of Amram's artistic consciousness long before the term was coined.
A number of Amram's musical responses will be apparent when the composer conducts the Cleveland Chamber Symphony in three of his works tonight and tomorrow. The program, "America's Many Cultures," will include Cleveland composer David Thomas' "Creation Sermon," led by music director Edwin London.
The concerts mark Amram's first visit to Cleveland since 1962 when he composed "Three Songs for Marlboro" for hornist Myron Bloom and cellist Michael Grebanier, then members of the Cleveland Orchestra. He has another reason for looking forward to his Cleveland sojourn: Amram and London were horn-playing chums at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the late 1940s. They later teamed for jazz sessions in New York, and made several recordings together.
Not surprisingly, Amram, 66 has been called a Renaissance man. Along with his life as composer, conductor and performer (on horn, piano, guitar, flute, percussion and folk and indigenous instruments), he is an educator who has been the longtime director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic's Young People's concerts.
When he isn't occupied musically, he tends the family farm with his wife and three children in Peekskill, N.Y., where he comes close to the American soil that has nurtured so much of his artistic inspiration.
High-spirited and talkative, Amram traces his love for all sorts of music to a handful of influences. One of his uncles was a merchant seaman who gravitated toward the music of the places he visited. Another uncle introduced him to music by American Indians. Amram's Jewish heritage also played a role in his musical education.
Yet another influence was electronic.
"Listening to the AM radio in the 1930s, they had jazz and symphony music coming out of the same machine," said Amram on the phone from his farm. "There were no demographics then.... I grew up thinking music was a lot of things."
After a year at the Oberlin Conservatory, Amram took another series of musical plunges in Washington, D.C. He played extra horn in the National Symphony and hosted jam sessions in his basement apartment. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (and his entire band) were among the guests.
"They loved 19th- and 20th-century classical music," Amram said. "Charlie Parker introduced me to Delius as an orchestrator. He said to listen to the orchestral colors. He also loved Bartok for the folk music, and what he called the soulfulness of Bartok. Dizzy loved Stravinsky and also Bach because of the wonderful line and polyphony and the spirit of the music, and because Bach had been a great improviser."
Amram has found an outlet for his interests in more than 100 works. His music provides atmosphere in the films "The Manchurian Candidate," "Splendor in the Grass," "The Arrangement," "The Young Savages" and "Pull My Daisy," in which the composer appears as a deranged horn player.
The works Amram will conduct in Cleveland reflect his contact with American roots. "Three Songs for America" employ texts by John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. "En Memoria de Chano Pozo" salutes the great Cuban drummer who played in Gillespie's band in the late 1940s.
Much of the musical vocabulary in Amram's three-movement "American Dance Suite" emanates from American Indian tunes. The composer, who will conduct the work's "Cheyenne" and "Cajun" movements tonight and tomorrow, picked up sources from Hyemeyohsts Storm, author of "Seven Arrows."
"I learned the theme that opens ['Cheyenne'] from Storm and his wife in 1976," said Amram. "We spent a whole night singing it. It's a simple melody he said was one of his favorites. I said, 'That's hard' - just to get the ornamentation and little subtleties and flavors. One of the other melodies took me about two years to learn to sing and a month to learn to notate."
The kind of music Amram writes almost didn't stand a chance in recent decades, when composers were busy employing techniques that tended to alienate audiences. Amram believes the period of experimentation led composers to forget the resources available in jazz and other musical regions.
"Now it's nice to see at the end of the century with the embrace of multiculturalism, we find that Columbus was. right: The world isn't flat," said Amram. "My feeling is that the more you can appreciate all of these kinds of wonderful music, it makes Beethoven. Mozart and Brahms sound a lot more beautiful. We can listen with a bigger heart."
Amram, who was the New York Philharmonic's first composer-in-residence during the 1966-67 season, believes listeners are best rewarded when treated to music that communicates with just the right notes.
"Everybody should write the music in their own heart and celebrate others," he said. "American Indians have an expression: 'Take a walk in beauty.' That's what I think composers and musicians and all artists are supposed to do."
Even so, Amram knows how much fortitude composers need. Only recently, more than three decades after the movie was released, has Amram's sound track for "The Manchurian Candidate" been issued on compact disc. His Holocaust opera "The Final Ingredient," which was televised, also has waited many years to be released.
"I always tell young composers to be patient," said Amram. "Always have a copy of everything and never give up. Charles Mingus told me in 1955, 'Even if there is only one person out there, you can write and play for them. That's all you need. I always said that's really good advice."