Jazz Colored Glasses

FEBRUARY 9, 2020 | 3pm

Washington Center for the Performing Arts

Olympia, WA

 

SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR

Born August 15, 1875, London, England.

Died September 1, 1912, Croydon, England.

 

Ballade in A minor

 

Coleridge-Taylor was a black British composer—his father was from Sierra Leone and his mother English—who actually found his greatest success in the USA.  He was proud of his African lineage and often incorporated this into many of his later works, such as Ethiopia Saluting the Colours, African Suite, Symphonic Suite on an African Air, and while “across the pond” he was particularly drawn to The Song of Hiawatha, which has become his most frequently performed piece.  Elgar really admired Coleridge-Taylor’s style (he once dubbed him “the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men”) and it was this venerated British composer who suggested Coleridge-Taylor write a short orchestral piece for the Three Choirs Festival when he himself was too busy.  An invitation was forthcoming and the result was this vibrant Ballade in A minor—composed for the lauded annual Festival in 1898—not long after Coleridge-Taylor left the Royal College of Music in London.

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany.

Died March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria.

 

“Turkish March” from The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113

 

During the last quarter of the eighteenth century the influence of all-things Turkish could be detected in Vienna.  Literature, clothes, beverages, design (amid many others) all became influenced by Turkey.  This exotic and sultry Mediterranean quality also infiltrated musical thought and composers integrated Turkish elements in their Classical compositions, especially their driving rhythms and use of dazzling percussion colors.  Mozart penned many pieces of this ilk: the Violin Concerto No. 5, the “Rondo a la Turca” for piano, and the opera Il Seraglio being prime examples.  This trend continued into the first part of the nineteenth century, helped greatly by Rossini, whose operas—including The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Barber of Seville and The Siege of Corinth—had taken Vienna by storm.

            Beethoven wrote “incidental music” for many plays throughout his life, though today we generally only ever hear the overtures from these larger collections.  His music for Anton von Kotzebue’s drama, The Ruins of Athens, was composed in 1811 and comprises an overture and eight numbers for orchestra and chorus.  This delightful “Turkish March” is the fourth of the movements and makes for a pleasant sorbet, as we celebrate the “Beethoven 250th” throughout the year.

 

GEORGE GERSHWIN

Born September 26, 1898, New York City, New York.

Died July 11, 1937, Los Angeles, California.

 

Rhapsody in Blue

 

Jazz—along with ragtime before it—exerted a significant influence on musicians during the early part of the 20th century.  As Max Harrison remarks: “Another reason for the swift European acceptance of jazz was that the nervous brilliance of this music, with its jolting, displaced accents and pared-down instrumentation of its small ensembles, accorded very well with the reaction against late-romantic inflation which had set in before the end of World War I.”  Stravinsky came under the spell of jazz idioms in the roaring 1920s, and following a visit to Harlem in 1922, the French composer, Darius Milhaud, wrote his ballet score La Création du Monde “in the Harlem jazz style”—one of the first works to use jazz on an extended scale. 

            In 1924, George Gershwin—just 26 at the time—rocked the music world with his Rhapsody in Blue, which became a landmark in American music overnight.  Written upon commission for Paul Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music”, the Rhapsody was sketched at breakneck speed—the work being completed in just three weeks at the family’s New York apartment on West 110th Street.  Having set out to write a piece for piano and orchestra—not a formal concerto but something approaching a fantasia, a kind of “Liszt meets Tin Pan Alley”—Gershwin produced a piece for two pianos that he originally called “American Rhapsody”.  At the suggestion of his lyrical brother, Ira (who had just studied many of James McNeill Whistler’s descriptive paintings) the title was changed to Rhapsody in Blue.  Before traveling to Boston for a recital in January 1924, Gershwin gave the two-piano score to Ferdinand Grofé—the composer of the infamous Grand Canyon Suite—who was assigned to orchestrate Rhapsody for Whiteman’s lauded band.  The composer played the solo part at the first performance in New York City on February 12 to rapturous acclaim, though the critics (naturally) had numerous strictures about the work’s form following its momentous unveiling.

            Although Rhapsody in Blue is cast in one generously flowing movement, there are many divisions and varying sections.  How different the opening sounds in Ferde Grofé’s sassy orchestration—with its orgiastic clarinet glissando—from Gershwin's two-piano original.  There is a streetwise chutzpah about the Molto moderato, which introduces all the principal themes of the work.  These themes are developed at length and, following a cadenza-like passage, the soul-soothing sounds of the slower section (Andantino moderato) materialize with great delicacy.  The slow theme generates further developmental treatment before its broad apotheosis concludes the Rhapsody in barnstorming fashion.

 

JOHN ADAMS

Born February 15, 1947, Worcester, Massachusetts.

 

The Chairman Dances (“Foxtrot for Orchestra”)

 

While working on his epoch-making opera Nixon in China, John Adams received a joint commission in 1985—from the American Composers Orchestra and the National Endowment for the Arts—for a new orchestral work.  Audiences and commentators alike were curious about the stage work, as it had not yet been performed when The Chairman Dances were premiered in January 1986.  Adams explained the opera was neither comic nor historical, but more “heroic and mythic”; he added “the myths of our time are not Cupid and Psyche or Orpheus or Ulysses, but characters like Mao and Nixon.”

The music for The Chairman Dances is extracted from the opera’s third act.  Nixon in China was inspired by the then-President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972; each act represents a day from the three-day visit.  Act III takes place in the Great Hall of the People—and another long state banquet.  (I am glad Mr. Adams has not composed a graphic opera about former President Bush’s illness-plagued visit to China several years ago!)  This concert hall piece is more entertainment than the probing-drama of the opera.  The opening music portrays Mao, and the more waltz-like section represents Jiang Ching.  The couples dance and, as Michael Steinberg suggests “one might imagine the piano part at the end being played by Richard Nixon.”  The composer provided the following succinct preface in the orchestral score:

“Madame Mao, alias Jiang Ching, has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet.  She is seen first standing where she is most in the way of the waiters.  After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle, and slit up to the hip.  She signals the orchestra to play and begins to dance by herself.  Mao is becoming excited.  He steps down from his portrait on the wall and they begin to foxtrot together.  They are back in Yenan, the night is warm, and they are dancing to the gramophone….”

 

GEORGE GERSHWIN

 

An American in Paris

 

Many composers have penned musical postcards and travelogues from foreign parts—such as Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole—and among the most vivid must be Gershwin’s orchestral work An American in Paris, which he completed in 1928 following times he had spent there during the 1920s.  Gershwin had made great strides as a composer and orchestrator and this sizzling piece is testimony to his genius and confidence.  As William Youngren observes: “The skill with which Gershwin states, develops and integrates his various themes of An American in Paris into a satisfying musical whole perfectly captures the feelings of the work’s imagined protagonist as he strolls through the streets of the great foreign city, his interest repeatedly piqued by bursts of Gallic high spirits even as he dreams nostalgically of home.”

            A catalyst for Gershwin to spend time in the French capital was to study with Maurice Ravel.  But after several meetings and late Parisian dinners Ravel declined to teach the young New Yorker, quipping “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin!”  The influence of Ravel can be detected in An American in Paris, along with honking taxi horns and sultry themes Gershwin conjured while taking in Paris on many an evening.  His diaries are jotted with observations—both serious and comical—and he scribbled a musical theme called “Very Parisienne” [sic] and referred to composing “a rhapsodic ballet.”  An American in Paris is in five sections: the first “walking theme” section is very French in tone (it utilizes the “Very Parisienne” motto), whereas the slower second section contains American Blues influences and tells of the composer’s homesickness.  A faster section ensues and Blues comes more to the fore with riffs for trumpet, saxophone and snare drum.  The “Moderato con grazia” section recalls the “walking music” from the opening and acts as a recapitulation, before elements of both A and B sections are interwoven in the culminating “Grandioso” coda.

 

Program Comments Copyright ©2019 by Huw Edwards 

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