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Something New & Fancy Free

Millennium Canons (2001)
...this noble company (2003)
Kevin Puts (b. St. Louis, 1972)

    The composer—who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night—has offered the following comments on his two short pieces:

I wrote Millennium Canons to usher in a new millennium with fanfare, celebration and lyricism. Its rising textures and melodic counterpoint are almost always created through use of the canon, which also provides rhythmic propulsion at times.
   
Funding was provided by the Institute for American Music of the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester. The premiere took place in June 2001 at Symphony Hall, Boston with the Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Keith Lockhart.

In the fall of 2002, I was asked by Rudi Schlegel at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to write “an American Pomp and Circumstance”. He was referring of course to the beautiful concert march by English composer Edward Elgar, played at nearly every graduation ceremony in the country.
   
My answer to this daunting challenge is “...this noble company”, a processional for orchestra whose title, like Elgar’s, is drawn from Shakespeare’s Othello. The piece was written during a time of great wartime financial strife for our country’s orchestras and artistic organizations and is dedicated with gratitude and admiration to these devoted musicians and administrators.

 

Violin Concerto in C major, Op. 48 (1948)
Dmitri Kabalevsky (St. Petersburg, 1904 – Moscow, 1987)

    Among the Russian composers of his generation, no one was more interested in the musical education of children than Kabalevsky.  He wrote numerous songs for schools and summer camps many of which became immensely popular.  But he was equally committed to gifted young professionals, trained in such large numbers at the Soviet Union’s great conservatories.  Between 1948 and 52, Kabalevsky wrote three concertos (for violin, cello, and piano, respectively) for young artists.  The violin concerto was first performed by 18-year-old Igor Bezrodny, who went on to have a distinguished career as a violin soloist and conductor. 
   
    The youthful character of the concerto is also manifest in a straightforward and largely unproblematic musical style.  Written the year of the fateful 1948 Party resolution which condemned "formalism" and urged composers to adopt an accessible, melodious idiom, Kabalevsky’s concerto is an optimistic work if ever there was one.  Three bright and sunny movements without so much as a passing cloud, clear classical form schemes and melodies made to be hummed as you leave the concert—this is a real "people’s concerto."  The main tonality is C major, but there are frequent modulations into distant keys, giving the music a measure of unpredictability.  The second movement is, surprisingly, in B-flat minor; it has a lyrical main theme and a capriccioso middle section in A major.  The finale, whose melody oscillates between major and minor (a device of which Kabalevsky was particularly fond) includes a partially accompanied cadenza in which a solo flute takes over the melody while the violinist plays some rapid figurations.  The work ends with a fiery (con fuoco) coda.

 

Three American Pieces (1944, rev. 1986)
Lukas Foss (Berlin, 1922 – New York, 2009)

    Having arrived in the United States as a teenage prodigy, Lukas Foss quickly made his mark in this country as one of the foremost musicians of his generation.  Equally gifted as a composer, conductor, and pianist, he studied with such luminaries as Serge Koussevitzky and Paul Hindemith.  He achieved his first great success in 1944 with his cantata The Prairie on a poem by Carl Sandburg—a more American topic could hardly be imagined.  The same year, Foss wrote what he initially called simply Three Pieces for violin and piano.  The work was premiered at Carnegie Hall by violinist Roman Totenberg with the composer at the piano.  The reviews were positive, but the pieces were not frequently performed over the years, until Foss, at the height of his career, came back to them in the mid-1980s and made two new versions, one for flute and piano, and the other for flute or violin with orchestra.  At this point, the work was renamed Three American Pieces and recorded several times.
   
    The three movements are:  "Dedication" – "Early Song" – "Composer’s Holiday."  The first two movements are lyrical, romantic songs, though each contains more lively rhythmical material as well.  In the finale, the composer let his hair down and produced a popular dance movement in the style of a hoedown.  Foss, who since the 1940s had composed an imposing oeuvre in an astonishing range of styles, wrote about these pieces at the time of the revisions:  "All three...are melodious and virtuosic.  I wish I could write that simple and straightforward American music now."

 

Fancy Free
Leonard Bernstein (Lawrence, MA, 1918 – New York, 1990)

     The ballet Fancy Free was Bernstein’s first work for the musical stage, composed for Jerome Robbins and the American Ballet Theatre.  The composer described the plot of the half-hour-long piece as follows:

     From the moment the action beings...the ballet is strictly young wartime America, 1944.  The curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp-post, a side street bar, and New York skyscrapers pricked out with a crazy pattern of lights, making a dizzying backdrop.  Three sailors explode onto the stage.  They are on 24-hour shore leave in the city and on the prowl for girls.  The tale of how they meet first one, then a second girl, and how they fight over them, lose them, and in the end take off after still a third, is the story of the ballet.

     In the original production, a jukebox played the popular tune "Big Stuff" before the rise of the curtain; the song was interrupted by the sudden entrance of the orchestra.  The first movement ("Enter Three Sailors") presents the young men through jazzy rhythms and lively melodies.  Next, in "Scene at the Bar," they are waiting for some action to begin, and sure enough, a "fast and hot" new melody begins, and "Enter Two Girls."  The ensuing "Pas de deux" is based on the jukebox tune as one of the sailors begins to dance with one of the girls.  But the "Competition Scene" ends the romance before it really began:  the conflict is signaled by some wild syncopations.  Three solo dances follow as the sailors take turns wooing the girls:  a "galop" reminiscent of turn-of-the-century vaudeville shows, a "waltz" that is too jazzy and irregular to be a real waltz, and a Latin American "danzón."  In the Finale, some of the most memorable tunes from the earlier movements are heard again.

    Fancy Free was an instant success, and made Bernstein immediately famous as a composer.  (His big break as a conductor had come a year earlier, in 1943, when he replaced an ailing Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic and created the sensation of the century.)  Before the year 1944 was out, Bernstein had received another commission, this time for an evening-filling Broadway musical.  This piece, On the Town, expanded on the story of the sailors and the girls in Fancy Free, but Bernstein wrote completely new music for it.

Peter Laki

 

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