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American Originals

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Dr. Beth Fleming

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David Amram (b. Philadelphia, PA November 17, 1930)
  • Triple Concerto for Wind, Brass and Jazz Quintets with Orchestra--1971
Many musicians today are heavily influenced by musical traditions from around the world. Listening to their music provides a sonic travelogue of styles and sounds.  The essence of David Amram's approach to music-making is to expand the borders of musical style by mingling Latin Jazz, folk music of many kinds, classical and popular music.  He refers to this style of composition as "music without walls" -- in other words, music where all styles are allowed to interact freely.  

Amram's instrument of choice is the French horn, and even though this instrument is associated with the classical repertoire, he uses it to cross fearlessly back and forth between classical and jazz idioms.  He has recorded on piano, recorder, Spanish guitar, Pakistani flute and various world percussion instruments, showing a remarkable talent that transfers effortlessly from one to the next.  Amram spent a year (1948) at the Oberlin College Conservatory, but little time after that in formal music studies; in fact he took his degree in history (1952 from George Washington University).  For most of his adult life, however, he has made the largest part of his living from performing and composing.

Amram's three-part Triple Concerto is an apt illustration of his fluency in many musical languages.  A 1970 commission by Leopold Stokowski's American Symphony Orchestra for a concerto for jazz quintet and orchestra produced instead a piece using orchestra with three separate quintets—one comprised of woodwinds, one of purely brass instruments, and one that is clearly jazz-influenced. Amram's goal was to combine classical, jazz, folk and world music – all the elements that had influenced him – into one cohesive symphonic work.

The first two movements incorporate ideas mostly from standard symphonic writing spiced heavily with elements of jazz.  Middle Eastern music is the primary source of musical inspiration for the third and final "Rondo à la Turca" movement, which includes an extended solo for Pakistani flute.  The composer himself has written a fascinating account of how a chance meeting in November of 1970 helped him complete the last movement: 

It came on an early morning at Menachim Dworman's Olive Tree Cafe on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. When I walked in, oud virtuoso George Mrgdichian and Ali Hafid, the great Moroccan dumbek player, were performing. I took out my Pakistani flute and joined them. As we improvised through the wee hours, George played the bass line to "The Sultan's Lament," a classic Armenian folk melody in 10/4.  Ali Hafid was playing an accompanying rhythm also in 10/4, the Egyptian rhythm called the sami sakil. Suddenly I had a picture of how to construct the slow part of the third movement, as a contrast to the rapid sections of the "Rondo à la Turca," I instantly heard in my head a long melody and counter melody in 10/4 time that could fit over the Armenian bass figure and the Egyptian drum pattern. I put down my flute, let my Turkish coffee and dinner get cold, and began making a musical sketch. I continued to work until dawn.  That chance meeting in November 1970 at the Olive Tree helped me complete the last movement by including the life-giving, timeless energy of Middle Eastern music the way I had incorporated the warmth and excitement of jazz in the first two movements. The whole concerto is a summing up of a lifetime spent where there are no more walls in music and where playing, singing, improvising, and conducting all flow back into composing.

Conductor Kazu Akiyama and the American Symphony Orchestra gave a stunning world premiere performance of the Triple Concerto at the Lincoln Center in New York on January 10, 1971, to great reviews and a standing ovation. Many other orchestras, including the Philadelphia, Chicago, and Toronto Symphonies have performed the work. The final movement of the concerto, "Rondo à la Turca," has been performed hundreds of times throughout the world in two subsequent versions, one a reduced orchestration for symphony and one a transcription for wind orchestra.  

In essence, Triple Concerto is a contemporary symphonic jazz adaptation of the baroque concerto grosso in which there are solo groups, rather than the later virtuoso concerto with its highlighting of technical display for one instrument.  In addition to the three solo quintets, there is a large basic orchestra including an enormous percussion section employing timpani, snare drum, bongos, tom-tom, scraper, timbales, ratchet, field drum, marimba. vibraphone, Parsifal chimes and several more.

A lot happens in this swinging, complex 30-minute concerto. It contains periods of improvisation limited only by Amram's basic harmonies.  Sliding from tone to tone produces quarter tones which, according to Amram, are especially easy on the Pakistani flute.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the work occurs in the final movement's solo section for this instrument, which looks rather like an elongated piccolo and sounds like a unique combination of flute-piccolo-recorder.  The part requires the player to do several things simultaneously: play the flute in the standard way; sing; and simultaneously click a different rhythm with his tongue.  The effect that is created simulates the sound of a plucked, stringed instrument.  

We live in a world filled almost limitless possibilities for making beautiful and astonishing sounds.  It is refreshing to find a work where this fact is both demonstrated and joyously celebrated.


Duke Ellington (b. Washington DC April 29, 1899; d. New York, NY May 24, 1974)
  • Black, Brown, and Beige--1943
As a composer and bandleader associated indelibly with the nightclub scenes of pre-Swing Era jazz, Duke Ellington had a difficult time gaining the respect of the buttoned-down world of concert music. And when Ellington premiered his first long-form piece, Black, Brown and Beige, in 1943, he was considered a dilettante by some and something of a turncoat by others.  But he was a musical genius; and in 1999, twenty-five years after his death, he received the Pulitzer Prize in recognition of this fact. He would have been 100 years old.

The suite is Ellington's expansive look at the evolution of African American history and culture.  Since the early thirties Ellington had spoken of plans to write a large piece depicting the story of blacks in America. It was not until the premier of Black, Brown and Beige on January 23, 1943, however, that he finally realized his long-stated goal. The work marked an auspicious occasion: Ellington's debut at Carnegie Hall, which in turn concluded New York's celebration of "Ellington Week."  Proceeds from the concert went to the Russian War Relief. The event was highly publicized, with celebrities and jazz fans filling the hall and many of New York's music critics reviewing the concert afterward, devoting special attention to Ellington's ambitious new piece.

Other jazz and popular musicians, of course, had already performed in Carnegie Hall; the black bandleader James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra in 1912 and 1914, Benny Goodman's orchestra in 1938, and various jazz, blues, and gospel artists in the two "Spirituals to Swing" concerts produced by John Hammond in 1938 and 1939.

But Ellington's debut marked the first time a major black composer would present an evening of original music in New York's most prestigious concert hall.  Moreover, this was a black composer who worked in the jazz idiom and whose works usually were heard in nightclubs, ballrooms, and theaters rather in temples of high art.  Ellington was trying to prove, once and for all, that he was far more than a dilettante.  This piece represented his most ambitious efforts to extend the scope of jazz composition.  A multi-movement work lasting more than 50 minutes, with a large jazz orchestra held together with an implied but clear underlying narrative, Black, Brown, and Beige includes ripples of spirited tone poetry, soaring gospel vocals accompanied by spare, aching piano, and thundering horn-fronted swing from his distinctive band.  It possesses a consistency and unity on par with any symphonic work of the modern era.

Black, Brown, and Beige represents symphonically the story of blacks in the United States. "Black" presented the people at work and at prayer.  The sections in the original program that comprised "Black" included three movements; a work song, an extended soulful song called "Come Sunday," sometimes rendered as a solo for jazz violin, and a third movement that combined themes from the first two sections.

"Brown" celebrates black soldiers who fought in American wars.   The first movement of this section is an extended dance based on West Indian themes that incorporates quotations from the familiar song "The Girl I Left Behind Me."  The second movement is entitled Emancipation Celebration and includes prominent quotations from "Yankee Doodle" and "Swanee River".  The section's final movement is a beautiful orchestral rendition of the traditional blues.

"Beige" depicts African American music of the Harlem Rennaissance.  It was, Ellington said, meant to "depict the contemporary Negro and his plight in the US between two world wars and during the second. The twenties meant gin-mills, the pseudo-African movement, the Charleston, the party life, the lonely plight of the single drinkers, the sad tinkle of a people sad beneath the tremblors of their night-life."  The movement ends with a brief patriotic section meant to point out that "the Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White and Blue." In 1943, it signified the Duke's "awareness of the war and the importance of the Negro's participation in his country's destiny..."

Although he was considered a jazz artist, Duke Ellington always tried to distance himself from jazz. He referred to his own music as "Negro folk music", "American idiom" or "music of freedom of expression".  Yet he is arguably the most important composer in the history of jazz, as well as an inspired bandleader who held his large group together continuously for almost 50 years. During his lifetime, Ellington created over 2,000 pieces of music.  Black Brown and Beige in particular caused controversy because he altered the form of the blues to fit it into a symphonic setting and freely stated in his music his opinions about race and society. The story of Black, Brown and Beige, its musical content, critical reception, and subsequent revisions over the years forms one of the most fascinating chapters in the Ellington saga.

In 1969, Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died on May 24, 1974, in New York City of lung cancer. A decade and a half later, a permanent exhibit entitled, "Duke Ellington: American Musician," was installed at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.


George Gershwin (b. Jacob Gershvin New York, NY September 23, 1898; d. Beverly Hills CA July 11, 1937)
  • An American In Paris-1928
George Gershwin succeeded brilliantly in creating a synthesis of jazz with classical music genres that has endured the test of time. Gershwin's concert works were daring for their time, but today they have become classics of piano, orchestral, and opera literature. However, at their first performances, Gershwin's bold and innovative creations confounded the New York critics, and they were, more often than not, coldly reviewed.

It has been said that Gershwin bridged the musical gap between Tin Pan Alley and the great concert halls of New York. One can only imagine what he might have achieved in concert music had he lived a normal life span. However, his existing concert works elevated American music of the early twentieth century to new heights of artistic merit, and he is recognized today as a major American artist.

On the surface, Gershwin is often remembered primarily as a songwriter, the composer of hundreds of songs for Tin Pan Alley, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood films. But Gershwin was not content to create only in the medium of popular music. With each successive classical composition, he further honed his skills as an accomplished composer of 'serious' music. In Gershwin's view these two musical worlds were not mutually exclusive, and he achieved his greatest personal satisfaction by composing music for audiences in both spheres.

One of his greatest works exemplifying this desire is the music he wrote to commemorate a trip he took to Paris.  In 1928, on his fifth and final tour of Europe, he visited that city to play both Rhapsody in Blue and the European premiere of the Concerto in F.   It was on that trip that he began composition of An American in Paris, which he described as the impressions of an American visitor in Paris "as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere."   Gershwin's first concert piece written without a commission, An American in Paris premiered in Carnegie Hall on Dec. 13, 1928.  In addition to the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra, the score features period automobile horns. Gershwin brought back some Parisian taxi-cab horns for the first New York performances.

The following summer (1929), Gershwin made his début as a conductor in an outdoor concert at Lewisohn Stadium in New York, where he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, playing the piano part of the latter himself before an audience of more than fifteen thousand people.  In time, An American in Paris became second only to Rhapsody in Blue as the favorite among Gershwin's classical compositions.

Today many associate the title An American in Paris with the Gene Kelly movie that swept the Academy Awards for 1951 rather than with a purely orchestral work by one of America's most treasured composers.  The movie won Oscars that year for best picture and the major technical categories, and a special Oscar for the choreography of its closing ballet extravaganza, with Kelly and Leslie Caron symbolizing the entire story of their courtship in dance. Like the Impressionist and post-Impressionist canvases from which it drew its inspiration, the ballet was full of light and movement, 18 minutes of screen magic, unsurpassed in the boldness of its design and the dazzle of its execution, all set to music composed by George Gershwin 30 years before.

 

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