Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: mandolin

Saturday January 23, 2010
Sunday January 24, 2010

Nico Muhly By All Means


Copland Appalachian Spring Suite (original 1944 version)

orchestration: 1 flute, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon; piano; strings

Copland Music for the Theatre

orchestration: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon; 2 trumpets, 1 trombone; percussion; piano; strings

Chris Thile Mandolin Concerto (Ad Astra per Alas Porci)(“To the stars on the wings of a pig”) – (LACO co-commission – California premiere)

orchestration: solo mandolin; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; timpani; percussion; piano; strings

The rise of the cross-over composer began in the 20th century as musical styles—art music, popular music, jazz, film music— became distinct. A composer like Aaron Copland, for example, is best known for his contribution to American art music, but he found success in film music as well, writing the scores to The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men and The Heiress (for which he won an Academy® Award). Tonight’s program features Copland and two contemporary cross-over artists: Nico Muhly, who writes both art and film music, and Chris Thile, who comes to art music from a successful career in bluegrass.

Nico Muhly received a master’s degree from The Juilliard School in composition and has worked closely with Philip Glass— himself a star in the spheres of both art and film music. Muhly has cultivated a style in which varied influences and inventiveness take precedence over tradition and convention. By All Means was commissioned by The Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music in 2004. Muhly’s piece was to be a response to Anton Webern’s Concerto for 9 Instruments, Op. 24. Webern used Schoenberg’s method of serializing 12 tones in his concerto, and Muhly found inspiration in the configuration of Webern’s row. He also found an interesting connection between the harmonies of Webern’s work and the harmonies of the motets of 16th-century British composer Thomas Weelkes.

Muhly has described this piece as “a large arch of several textures in which both Weelkes and Webern can coexist and collaborate: the scattered points of Webern’s orchestration organized together by a Tudor resolution, or the shimmering counterpoint of Weelkes sent astray by sudden chromatic variation.” The beginning of By All Means seems to draw upon Webern’s concise style. The music emerges in fits and starts, with instrumental outbursts rising up out of a calm background. The fluttering counterpoint to these eruptions sometimes dissolves into chords reminiscent of the 16th-century harmonies Muhly mentions. The texture gradually thickens, but brass surges continue to punctuate the rumbling. All of the instruments have equal importance as they contribute either to the perpetual motion of the orchestral line, or to the striking outcries of individual voices. By All Means is a product of an interesting combination of influences that surface out of the texture. It is Muhly’s ability to hear connections between seemingly disparate styles that gives his music its distinctive fingerprint.

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn in 1900, the son of Lithuanian Jews. His early musical training was made possible by his mother, Sarah, a pianist and singer. She gave all of her five children the opportunity to take music lessons. Copland was fortunate to learn from good teachers, but he also took it upon himself to hear and seriously study works from the Western canon. With encouragement from his teachers and friends, Copland traveled to Paris to study composition. He eventually found his voice with the help of famed educator Nadia Boulanger, an extremely influential teacher for many years. In addition to Copland, she counseled other American composers like Walter Piston, Daniel Pinkham, Philip Glass, Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter. Boulanger supported Copland’s development of a style that reflected his background, which ended up becoming a quintessentially “American” sound. Copland’s extra-musical life was perhaps not so evocative of middle-American values: He was a gay first-generation American whose political views leaned to the far left, but that in itself is a testament to the diversity of the American experience.

Copland’s American sound is nowhere more apparent than in his ballets Billy the Kid (1939), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. It was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and written for Martha Graham’s dance troupe. It dramatizes a simple scenario: A newly married farm couple celebrate their life together. They raise a farmhouse and define their roles as members of the community. Martha Graham danced the role of the Bride at the premiere. Copland created a suite for orchestra from the original music, and this version became very popular. There are eight sections in the Suite; the first and last share an austere and dignified mood. The hymnlike opening and closing music has a spare texture and outlines harmonies that suggest a wide-open landscape and the gradual lightening of the sky. The music of the intervening sections is sometimes quiet and pensive, but always straightforward and direct. The simple purity of the new marriage is reflected in the Suite’s most famous section, the theme and variations on the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts.” The tune is first played on the clarinet and is then arranged for the different sections of the orchestra. The final variation involves the entire ensemble in a version that seems grand and noble in its simplicity.

Music for the Theatre displays another American sound that influenced Copland. In the mid-1920s, Copland returned to America from Paris and he began working seriously as a professional composer. While still in Paris, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky had commissioned music from Copland for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The resulting piece, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, was well-received, and Koussevitzky commissioned another work from Copland: Music for the Theatre. The works that Copland wrote in the 1920s were full of jazz-inspired figures and themes, like the Piano Concerto of 1926. To Copland, jazz was a vast reservoir of musical ideas—uniquely American musical ideas. Such a musical language would be thoroughly American right down to its DNA because it was created by Americans, in American cities, and drew upon the American traditions of spirituals, ragtime and blues.

Jazz was making its first appearances in concert halls in the 1920s. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue debuted in 1924, and French composer Darius Milhaud’s ballet La création du monde (1923) drew upon African mythology for its scenario and Harlem jazz for its musical ideas. Music for the Theatre (1925) is therefore in fine company. The title doesn’t refer to any narrative or extra-musical inspiration. Copland simply felt that the music was evocative enough to suggest something theatrical. The piece is broken up into five sections: Prologue, Dance, Interlude, Burlesque and Epilogue. Each movement has a slightly different character; Dance and Burlesque are the liveliest. There is a bluesy trumpet solo in the opening Prologue, and the mood of this movement is subdued. Similar lyrical themes echo in the Interlude and Epilogue, providing contrast for the more animated movements. The Dance section is highly rhythmic and quotes a popular tune, while the two-part Burlesque is in a vivacious triple meter and features playful, jazzy themes throughout.

Award-winning musician and composer Chris Thile is one of the world’s most famous mandolin players. He has played with the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek and currently writes and tours with the five-member band Punch Brothers. He has also released solo albums. His mandolin style is inventive and virtuosic, drawing upon jazz improvisation and Western classical music. Thile’s experience with other instruments also influences his mandolin playing because he can mimic the idioms of other instruments and styles for effect. The mandolin has certain stylistic nuances unique to itself, but it can also be made to sound more guitar-like or it can be plucked like a banjo, for example. As a composer, he has written a piece for double bass and piano for Edgar Meyer and Emmanuel Ax. Tonight’s Mandolin Concerto is a co-commission from LACO and is sure to feature Thile’s skillful and genre-bending style.

The Mandolin Concerto—in the model of the Classical concerto—has three movements. The first movement takes inspiration from marches, but this march is interrupted by sections of rhythmic freedom. The tension created by this pushing and pulling against the rigidity of the march form drives this movement forward. As opposed to the regularity of the march rhythm, the second movement is slow and in the uneven meter of seven beats per measure. The musical material for this section is a transcription of the pitches today’s New York subway trains make as they get up to speed. The final movement takes a moment to get going, starting out with simple, folk-like material that quickly grows fast and furious. There are moments where the meter drops down to half speed, then steps up again. As in the traditional concerto, this Mandolin Concerto features a cadenza—a solo section, usually improvised, for the featured instrument. This and other solo sections of improvised music draw upon Thile’s many influences: Bartók, Thom Yorke (of Radiohead), Mahler, Britten, Brad Mehldau and others.

The wonderful thing about cross-over composers is the richness of their musical language. Their fluency in multiple customs allows for brilliant cross-pollination of ideas, and the resulting works of these composers often shine with innovation and inventiveness.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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