Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: rhapsody in blue

Saturday December 8, 2012
Sunday December 9, 2012

Dvořák Serenade for Winds, Op. 44


Copland Appalachian Spring Suite (original 1944 version)

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

Adams Son of Chamber Symphony


Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue (original 1924 version)


George Gershwin once said of Rhapsody in Blue, “I heard [the piece] as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Tonight’s concert features three composers who contributed to the musical melting pot of America. Both Gershwin and Copland were born in Brooklyn, while John Adams hails from Massachusetts. In their own unique ways, each man would fashion what came to be heard as distinctly American voices. The Dvořák Serenade featured on tonight’s program may not have been American- influenced (Dvořák had not yet made the trip to New York City that inspired his famous New World Symphony), but he chose to mine his own national roots, drawing heavily on the music of his Czech culture.

About a decade-and-a-half before Antonín Dvořák’s trip to New York to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music, the composer lived in Prague with his new wife, Anna. In the 1870s Dvořák had been appointed as the organist for St. Adalbert’s Church in the city, a position that allowed him time to work on other musical projects. By 1875, the year his first child was born, his music gained some attention. In 1877, Dvořák learned that Johannes Brahms, whom he admired greatly, had taken notice of his burgeoning career.

Dvořák composed the Serenade for Winds, Op. 44 over a couple of weeks in early 1878. In this period, Dvořák explored the folk music of his Czech heritage, and his discoveries are seen both in the Serenade and in pieces that immediately preceded it, like the opera The Cunning Peasant, and those that followed it, such as the Slavonic Dances. Another likely influence on the latter piece is Brahms’s Hungarian Dances of the late 1860s. Brahms’s influence can also be detected in the orchestration of the Serenade for Winds. The elder composer’s own Serenade in A omits violins in the scoring. Dvořák’s Serenade—scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and three horns—uses a cello and double bass to shore up the lower end of the harmony.

The Serenade was premiered by the Prague Orchestra in November of 1878 with the composer conducting an all-Dvořák program. The four-movement work plays with Czech folk music, but also draws upon the Classical style in the march-like opening, recalling the marches that often preceded Mozart’s serenades. This opening movement, which Dvořák marked, Moderato quasi marcia, has a seriousness that may be genuine or may be something of a parody. The second movement, Minuetto, features two Czech dances, the “sousedská” in the minuet section, and the “furiant” in the trio. The third movement is a contrasting slow section that again hearkens back to Mozart’s style and sensibility. The finale starts with a theme that reminds one of a lively polka. The polka theme returns over and over, and in between we hear other themes, including a recap of the march from the beginning. Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds meshes together traditions and makes references to nationalistic Czech music, while looking back to late 18th-century styles. Amazingly, Dvořák does all of this with the harmonic language of the latter half of the 19th century. With the Serenade, he pulls off quite a feat, forging disparate elements into a seamless whole.

The man some consider the quintessential “American” composer, Aaron Copland, was born in Brooklyn in 1900, the son of Lithuanian Jews. His mother Sarah, a pianist and singer, took charge of Copland’s early musical training. She gave all of her five children the opportunity to take music lessons. Copland was fortunate to have good teachers, but he also worked on his own, studying works from the Western classical music 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, who in addition to Copland, counseled other American composers such as Walter Piston, Daniel Pinkham, Philip Glass, Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter. Boulanger supported Copland’s development of a style that reflected his background, a uniquely American sound. Copland, though, could be said to have lived on the fringes politically, an extra-musical life that 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 for Music. Appalachian Spring 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 celebrates 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, entitled Appalachian Spring Suite, and this version became very popular. Tonight’s concert features the scoring of the original version that Copland composed for a 13-instrument chamber orchestra. This version suggests an intimacy that would be more difficult to convey with a larger orchestra. The hymn-like 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 purity of the new marriage is reflected in the Suite’s most famous section, the theme and variations on the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts.” The tune is first played on the clarinet, and is then arranged for different combinations of instruments. The final variation involves the entire ensemble in a version that seems grand and noble in its simplicity.

Son of Chamber Symphony, as its name suggests, is the child of John Adams’ earlier piece, Chamber Symphony, which was itself inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op. 9 from 1906. Just as family members share similar DNA, these three pieces share a musical language. Adams also found inspiration in cartoon music for his Chamber Symphony, infusing the piece with playfulness (one of the movements is even called Roadrunner). Son of Chamber Symphony was composed in 2007, 15 years after its “father” work, and was a joint commission of Stanford University, Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Ballet. The latter group presented a dance piece to the work—called Joyride—choreographed by Mark Morris.

Like the earlier piece, Son of Chamber Symphony has three movements, the outer two quick, with a slow section in the middle. Chamber Symphony was virtuosic, challenging and chromatic, while Son is a bit mellower, less bombastic. There is more emphasis on melody, less on driving, frenetic rhythm, although there is still plenty of rhythmic interest in the piece. Son of Chamber Symphony features 16 players, and Adams has noted the advantage with a group of this size—every player gets to be a soloist in some way. The individual voices of the group each have a feeling of rhythmic and melodic freedom, and these singular voices allow a virtuosic style for the piece that a composer would not likely attempt with a larger group. The middle movement features an intricate balance of tone colors, including tubular bells and the celesta. Towards the end of the movement, the instruments come together to play the rhythm concurrently. Son of Chamber Symphony is typical of Adams’ style, and the composer has pointed out that the last movement bears some musical similarity, not just to the Chamber Symphony, but also to another of Adams’ works, the Nixon aria “News has a kind of mystery” from the opera Nixon in Chin. The melodic energy hearkens back to the minimalism of Adams’ earlier works. Full of life and dramatic intensity, the movement features a sense of rhythmic drive that never quite recedes and brings the piece to a breathtaking close.

Bandleader Paul Whiteman had collaborated with George Gershwin on the Scandals of 1922, a musical revue, and felt the young composer was a promising talent. He asked Gershwin for a concerto for an all-jazz concert in 1924. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a “jazz concerto,” is a wonderful fusion of classical and jazz inspired elements. He had about five weeks to compose the work, and he set down his first ideas for the piece while on a train to Boston. In the rhythms and the noise of the train, Gershwin would see the whole structure of Rhapsody in Blue laid out before him. Gershwin wrote the work for two pianos, and Ferde Grofé — who worked as an arranger for Paul Whiteman orchestrated it. Grofé actually orchestrated three versions of the piece over the years, each time accommodating larger and larger groups, but tonight we hear the 1924 original. While most contemporary critics of Gershwin’s piece complained it was too sectional and did not adhere to traditional forms, it was a popular success then and remains so now.

It opens with a famous clarinet glissando that leads into the main theme. Gershwin played the piano solo in the premiere and improvised some of his parts, only writing these parts down after the first performance. Because of that, those solo sections still have an improvisatory feel to them, making the work seem more “jazzy.” The piece itself has an infectious rhythmic energy throughout, drawing especially on the influence of ragtime. Some themes seem to mimic popular dances, like the Charleston, or jazz, while some just sound like the train Gershwin rode to Boston. Gershwin builds his harmonies on the blues scale and moves freely between key areas, not worrying so much about classical transitions. He incorporates different styles of piano playing in the solo and allows the soloist rhythmic freedom through rubato (a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo in key points of the music). Gershwin shows various colors in this “kaleidoscope of America,” using dance rhythms and blues harmonies to capture the American spirit: vibrant, alive and ever-changing.

– Christine Gengaro, PhD

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