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Holst's Planets

David Amram
En Memoria de Chano Pozo (1977)
Born in Philadelphia eighty years ago, David Amram was at the right place at the right time to join the Beat Generation of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and—French horn in hand—a jazz world dominated by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. With inexhaustible energy, Amram would make a big noise in every field of performing arts and collaborate with musicians, producers, actors and filmmakers of the widest renown. A master of numerous instruments, he arrived in New York well acquainted with music of many styles from the inside out, as is so abundantly demonstrated by his great Triple Concerto.
 
En Memoria de Chano Pozo celebrates the Cuban percussionist, composer and dancer who is often credited as the creator of Latin jazz. As such, he transformed Dizzy Gillespie’s band, infusing the master’s style with his example. Pozo’s death in 1948, at age 33, during a Harlem bar fight—allegedly over some poor quality marijuana he had just bought from his killer—robbed jazz of a great pioneer and simultaneously gilded his legend.
Twenty-eight years later, Amram recounted, “I joined Dizzy, Stan Getz and Earle "Fatha" Hines in March of 1977 where each of our respective bands gave the first-ever concert in Cuba since the revolution, with the sanction of the US State Department. The entire concert was dedicated to the memory of Chano Pozo. The Carter administration indicated that they thought it might be a good will trip.” In the moment, good will prevailed, “At the concert, with only a minute of a backstage outline to all the musicians, I was joined by trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito d'Rivera and the great family drum ensemble Los Papines.”
 
Subsequently, Gillespie urged Amram to create an orchestral version of En Memoria. Despite lacking a commission to pay for it, the composer had begun work on it when fortune smiled. James Dixon, conductor of the Quad City Symphony in Davenport, Iowa, asked for a piece for the Symphony youth orchestra that matched Amram’s specs perfectly.
 
The composer outlines the piece, “The somber piano introduction, serving as a hymn for the late master drummer, is followed by the theme, a lively melody on the piano accompanied by the percussion playing in what is called a 2/4 clave, which is then repeated by the whole orchestra. The clave pattern then changes to a guaguanco or Rhumba clave and is developed as the solo trumpet and then the flute perform in the tradition of combining with the fiery polyrhythms of AfroCuban dance music—all leading up to the division of the orchestra clapping in four distinct sections.” At that point the audience, also divided into four sections, joins the performers, “so that the entire hall is transformed into a giant rhythm ensemble with eight separate rhythms, all of which fit together. As the eight parts are all clapped, the percussion players then solo, and after the percussionists are through, the solemn opening hymn returns, played by the orchestra, and then the main theme is restated, leading to a fiery conclusion.” 
 
David Amram
Triple Concerto for Wind, Brass and Jazz Quintets with Orchestra (1971) 
Allegro con brio
Blues
Rondo a la turca
When musicians began to write music down—commonly called notation—an uneasy relationship between the musical impulse and the written note ensued. Indeed, despite tremendous refinements and clarifications in written notation, 20th century composers were using more marginal notes than ever to explain their expectations. (Marin Alsop, music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music that performs only new music by living composers, says that any piece she premieres demands up to fifty communications with the composer, by phone or email, after she receives the score.)
 
The challenge would seem to be even greater where diverse music styles are stirred together as they are in the cultural polyglot known as the USA, a land primed for artistic assimilation. Among America’s earlier successful synthesizers of jazz and classical music can be counted George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller and David Amram. Each in his way perfected a unique voice from these seemingly divergent elements. In his way, Amram pushed jazz elements further into the classical than any of the others. At the start of this work, jazz makes its presence known as inflections and gestures, until the alto sax enters, followed by blaring trumpet then baritone sax and electric bass. From then on, the work holds to character. 
 
Leopold Stokowski’s 1970 commission produced an amazing bounty of mixed fruit. The jazz combo, brass ensemble and woodwind band, added to full symphony orchestra, guaranteed an opulently colorful half hour of high energy and hair raising impact, a kind of grand concerto grosso. (Symphony Silicon Valley’s website still offers its first production, from 2005.)
 
The first movement displays great variety of moods and effects, introduces the three concertino ensembles and numerous solos, piano among them, and winds down to a quiet, chamber music conclusion. The slow-paced second movement begins in a nocturnal mood, with alto sax singing plaintively. Orchestra strings swell, tiny bells chime, and a horn solo enters with its tone bended by the right hand of the player. A rich symphonic texture rises up giving the strings a tapestry of their own, welcoming back the alto sax. All stop. A new pulse emerges on the jazz combo as the alto and baritone swing, while the strings provide a backdrop with wind and brass comments.
 
It would be an oversight to confine the work to classical and jazz, given Amram’s worldwide eclecticism. The Pakistani flute in the final movement makes that more immediately obvious than the subtle appearances that flavor the center of the movement, such as some of the instruments in the huge percussion department, plus an Armenian folksong and Arabic rhythm pattern—which both happen to be in a 10/4 meter. (In the Rochester Philharmonic recording of the work from the 1970s, Amram himself played the flute as well as the French horn.) Motivated by a propulsive pulse, this tour de force rondo puts all players through vivacious paces, scenic textures and exotic moods. Amram dedicated this remarkable synthesis of blues, jazz, gospel, Middle Eastern and western classical music to “the spirit of jazz and all who create it.”         
 
Gustav Holst
The Planets (1916)
At a time when other English composers were mining the wealth of British folksong and adding to the legacy of Anglican choral settings, Gustav Holst found himself drawn to things more exotic. He traveled to North Africa with Clifford Bax, an astrologer (and brother of composer Arnold Bax), set to music tracts of the Rig Veda, in Sanskrit, and had, by then, become well acquainted with The Art of Synthesis, an astrological and theosophical treatise by Alan Leo. The chapters of Leo’s book were character studies named for the planets. Indeed, Holst took the name Neptune, the mystic, from Leo.
 
Like the Russians, the French composers of the 19th century had long since taken up exotic themes of the Middle East, and beyond, for example Felician David’s The Desert, a sprawling work for chorus and orchestra, Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers, set in Ceylon, and Saint Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” that includes a Nubian folksong. Holst’s earliest large-scale works, including an opera, Sita, brought him no success. Of an orchestral work that failed, Beni Mora, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams would later note that if Holst had secured its premiere in Paris instead of London his international reputation would have been established a decade earlier.
 
Completed in 1909 and first performed in 1912, Beni Mora captures Holst’s impressions of Algeria, the last of its three short sections celebrating the dancing women of Ouled Nail, a large Berber tribe. (The work’s title was taken from Robert Hitchen’s novel The Garden of Allah.) To hear it is to instantly recognize the wellspring of many effects heard in The Planets. (YouTube contains a 1924 performance of Beni Mora conducted by the composer.)
 
It would take The Planets, completed in 1916 and first performed in public with Albert Coates conducting in 1920, to finally win Holst national and international renown. Kenric Taylor insightfully suggests that Holst saw the work as a ‘progression of life,’ beginning with the menacing Mars, the Bringer of War, a tour de force of orchestral display whose driving intensity is enhanced by counterpoint and grinding dissonances. Such ferocity demands relief, which comes immediately with the serenely intimate Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Like that delicate movement, Mercury, the Winged Messenger, an ephemeral scherzo, features numerous cameo solos. To Taylor, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, stands for the prime of life. After a sputtering start, a bombastic, syncopated procession leads to a grandiose central hymn—recall Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, or the central hymn of Sibelius’ Finlandia—that was later taken out of context and fitted with the words “I vow to thee my country.” Taylor says Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, is Holst at his later mature style. Hovering in disquiet throughout, it remained the composer’s favorite movement. Uranus, the Magician seems like bawdy kin to The Winged Messenger’s delicacy, a kind-of Sorcerer’s Apprentice meets Till Eulenspiegel at the circus. A moment of quiet strings is brutally hammered one last time, before the gentle Neptune, the Mystic lazily floats through haunting chords and gentle bells, then drawing in the wordless women’s chorus that at last fades away to nothing.
 
Holst would never again write anything that so extravagantly drew on the avant-garde musical currents of his time and in fact grew to hate the disproportionate popularity of The Planets.    
Program Notes by Michael Scott MacClelland
 

 

 

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