Diamond Concerto for Small Orchestra

performed by the New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz (available on Spotify) or below in a mediocre live recording by the Westchester Symphony under Anthony Aibel

(cover image by Paul Morris)

Here’s yet another piece we, or I, at least, know very little about, except that it’s really quite enjoyable. Unlike Rosenberg’s church symphony last week, which, while in four movements, is a rather obscure-sounding form, Diamond’s small early work for orchestra is in two movements of only about 13 minutes’ duration, as follows:

  1. Fanfare – Prelude & Fugue I
  2. Prelude & Fugue II – Interlude – Transition – Fanfare

The second movement seems much more to be the larger one with its various sections, but ultimately, the work begins and ends with a fanfare, and we have a pair of fugues preceded by preludes, with a transitioning passage back to a fanfare. So while Diamond’s title doesn’t suggest anything ancient or archaic like Rosenberg did, he’s certainly still working in very traditional forms. Also, the music just bursts with life and energy from beginning to end.

So we have this arch form that begins and ends with fanfares. The only things that appear maybe not to be symmetrical are the interlude and transition passages, but leading to the final peroration and exhilarating finale, I find it very effective.

The opening fanfare, and with its specific fragrance of harmonies and rhythmic interest right away announces that it’s an American composer in the 20th century. That being said, I almost resent all the remarks all over the Internet in reviews and things that “Diamond sounds like Copland.” Yes, much of Copland’s work came before, or around the time of, Diamond’s but Copland’s sound to many people’s ears, is just what American music sounds like.

Pay attention to the trumpet solo in the opening fanfare. It comes back later. The prelude here (and actually the other one too) sort of fills the shoes that a slow movement would in a  more traditional form. If we know Bach, we know the prelude is a free-form sort of prologue or preface to the fugue that follows it. After this more solemn passage begins a fugue that is bouncy, jittery, a light sort of thing that builds in intensity (of a sort) and complexity before ending quietly and solemnly.

Really, though, the movements are kind of just two halves of one whole rather than different entities. The second movement begins with a prelude that seems almost to suggest the Dies Irae, but doesn’t. Once the second prelude is over, we get an exhilarating string-heavy fugue, taut and lean, with undulating layers of voices. As we heard from the first string quartet last weekend, Diamond knows how to write for strings, and we hear each individual voice as well as the piece as a whole. The interlude and transition passages are almost an echo of previous quieter passages, like a memory, and then the fanfare returns to close the work bursting with excitement and triumph.

While the early works we discussed from Rosenberg were interesting (indeed, I’d listened to them many times already, although you may not have been able to tell from the articles), I saw them as important stepping stones, a good indication of what the composer began with. Here, though, the quality and clarity and polish of Diamond’s effort here shows him to be a sublimely gifted composer, with focus and finesse. I dare say if his idiom never progressed beyond what we find here, his oeuvre would have been a fantastic one. Thankfully, he did, as we’ll hear in later pieces.

The scintillating propulsion and liveliness to the music, although latent, is present even in the slowest, most serene passages, and that kind of agility, be it in the writing for strings, the beautiful counterpoint, the colors of the ensemble overall, is beyond worthy of admiration. This is a stunning example of the talent of a young composer, and how wonderful that he wrote as many symphonies as he did for us to discover. Hopefully by the time get around to the late ones, they will have finally been recorded…

We’ve got one more work from Diamond this week, so please stay tuned for that, because it too is just wonderful, and there’s actually a full recording of it, unlike the first quartet. Thanks so much for reading.

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