MASTERWORKS I: DESTINATION NEW YORK CITY

Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic – Program Notes, By Peter Wynne

SEPTEMBER 19, 2015 | 8pm
F.M. Kirby Center 

We begin our 2015-16 season with music director Lawrence Loh leading the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic in music by four American composers with ties to New York City: Michael Torke, George Gershwin, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Leonard Bernstein.

Milwaukee-born Michael Torke began his professional life in the city and spent years there composing music for the likes of the New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic. Charles Tomlinson Griffes, born in Upstate N.Y., was director of music at a posh boys school in Tarrytown, not an hour’s train ride from Manhattan, and spent weekends, summers and vacations in the city.

Leonard Bernstein, hailing from Massachusetts, came to fame composing for Broadway and as an assistant conductor and, ultimately, music director of the New York Philharmonic. George Gershwin, yet another Broadway giant, was the only one of the four who was actually born in the City of New York, and he sort of squeaked in under the wire: Until the start of 1898, Brooklyn was a completely independent municipality, and Gershwin was born in September of that year.

Michael Torke: Javelin

Starting our program is a celebratory work that Michael Torke (born Milwaukee, 1961) wrote on commission from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympics to mark the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra premiered the piece in September 1994, and it was to be included in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics, which would be held in that same southern city. It is probably the composer’s best known work.

Torke, who studied at the Eastman School and at Yale, writes music that has been described as optimistic, joyful, energetic and beautifully melodic, and all that’s true of Javelin. His notes on the composition detail what led him to write the piece the way he did:

“I had three goals in mind when I began this piece for the Atlanta Symphony’s anniversary: I wanted to use the orchestra as a virtuosic instrument, I wanted to use triads (three-note tonal chords), and I wanted the music to be thematic. I knew I would welcome swifter changes of mood than what is found in my earlier music.

“What came out (somewhat unexpectedly) was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps that reminded me of something in flight: a light spear thrown, perhaps, but not in the sense of a weapon, more in the spirit of a competition.

“When the word ‘javelin’ suddenly suggested itself, I couldn’t help but recall the 1970s model of sports car my Dad owned, identified by that name, but I concluded, why not? Even that association isn’t so far off from the general feeling of the piece. Its fast tempo calls for 591 measures to evoke the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”

Javelin is in a single movement and takes about 9 minutes in performance. The music is strictly tonal and begins with darting, arching figures, interrupted by abruptly sounded chords, called “staccati.” Weaving over and under and through all this busyness is a cheery, playful melody. The piece has very much the shape and sound of an overture and is a perfect way to open a concert.

Far from incidentally, Javelin was included on the John Williams/Boston Pops CD Summon the Heroes, the official album of the 1996 Olympics. The recording reached the top spot on Billboard magazine’s “classical crossover” chart, and that gave Torke and Javelin plenty of name recognition.

George Gershwin: Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra

Gershwin’s Concerto in F premiered in December 1925, but the “back story,” as you might call it, began nearly two years earlier at a concert in midtown Manhattan. Band leader Paul Whiteman wanted to show the classical musical establishment that popular music and, particularly, jazz were not so lowdown and threatening as many of the establishmentarians imagined. So he booked a holiday afternoon (Lincoln’s Birthday 1924) at a concert venue now long gone, the Aeolian Hall on West 42d Street.

Symphony orchestras and pianists like Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Sergei Rachmaninoff regularly performed there, but Whiteman had in mind what he called “An Experiment in Modern Music,” which would feature a dance orchestra playing works by such popular composers as Irving Berlin, Zez Confrey, Victor Herbert and a 25-year-old named George Gershwin (born Brooklyn, 1898; died Hollywood, 1937). Whiteman had conducted Blue Monday, a one-act “jazz opera” that Gershwin had written in 1922, and now he wanted the young composer to come up with something new, a jazz concerto, for the Aeolian Hall concert.

By this time, Gershwin was a well established songwriter and composer for Broadway. He’d had a hit with his 1919 “Swanee,” which the immensely popular Al Jolson had interpolated into Sinbad, the Sigmund Romberg revue in which he was appearing. He had also enjoyed a solid success that year with the musical La, La, Lucille, for which he wrote the entire score. And again, in 1919, he was hired by producer George White to write music for the Scandals revues, which were meant to rival Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies, which they did. Gershwin worked with White through five editions of the show from 1920 to 1924 and, along the way, wrote his evergreen “Stairway to Paradise.”

Gershwin had pretty much lost sight of Whiteman’s request when his brother Ira spotted an item in the New York Tribune that said George was supposedly at work on this jazz concerto for Whiteman and that Rachmaninoff and other musical notables would be in Aeolian Hall the night the piece premiered. With just five weeks before the concert, Gershwin set to work on what would be Rhapsody in Blue, not a jazz concerto and which he later described as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America — of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

It’s often said the piece wasn’t really finished the night it premiered and that Gershwin improvised some of the piano solos. A number of the critics dismissed the piece as trite and conventional, but it was a popular success and impressed conductor Walter Damrosch, who was there and who, the following day, asked Gershwin to write a real jazz concerto for him and the New York Symphony. Damrosch specified that the new work had to be closer to a classical concerto in form than the rhapsody had been and that it had to be orchestrated by the composer himself, which was and is the classical tradition.

By then Gershwin had studied harmony, orchestration and musical form with Hungarian-born composer and violinist Edward Kilenyi and had done so for several years, but he had little experience in writing for orchestra. Working in accepted Broadway fashion, Gershwin had always let specialists, arrangers, orchestrate his pieces, and that was even true of the Rhapsody in Blue. Ferdé Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger, had done the orchestration for that one.

Gershwin was aware that a number of critics had lambasted him for not orchestrating his rhapsody, so he got himself a copy of Cecil Forsythe’s Orchestration, a highly regarded book published in 1914 and reprinted as recently as 1983, and began cramming.

Because he was then working on three different Broadway musicals, Gershwin had to put off sketching the concerto Damrosch commissioned for some 15 months, until May 1925. His sketches completed, he began work on a two-piano version of the concerto score, completing the first movement in July, the second in September and the third movement later that same month. Then he spent some six weeks orchestrating the piece, wrapping things up in early November.

In late November, Gershwin hired, at his own expense, a 60-piece orchestra to run through the concerto. Damrosch attended and, with some 40-odd years of conducting experience behind him, gave Gershwin some advice on how to tighten the piece up and tweak a few spots, which Gershwin did.

On the eve of the premiere Gershwin described his concerto in remarks published by the New York Herald:

“The first movement [Allegro] employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettledrums, supported by other percussion instruments, and with a Charleston motif introduced by . . . horns, clarinets and violas. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano.

“The second movement [Adagio-Andante con moto] has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated.

“The final movement [Allegro agitato] reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout.

Gershwin didn’t mention that he had sketched a piano prelude about a year earlier and had reworked it into the opening theme of that final movement.

The Concerto in F was premiered by the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925, with Damrosch on the podium and the composer at the keyboard. The house was sold out, and the concerto was well received by the concert-going public. The reviews were mixed, however, with many critics unable to figure out just what the piece was — jazz or classical, as if that mattered. Composers on hand that afternoon differed on the piece’s merits: Igor Stravinsky thought the concerto was a work of genius, and Sergei Prokofiev heartily disliked it.

But whatever the critics and music professionals might have thought back then or still do today, Gershwin remains one of our best loved and admired American composers.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan

The name Charles Tomlinson Griffes is known to few concert-goers, and that’s sad because he wrote some truly lovely music. But it’s also small wonder, since his professional career covered a scant 13 years even as he taught full time at that Tarrytown, N.Y., boys school that’s still going strong, although now co-ed. He also spent a good deal of his time promoting his music and seeking performance opportunities and died just when his career was gaining some real traction.

Griffes (born Elmira, N.Y., 1884; died New York City, 1920) began his musical studies with his oldest sister, Katharine, but he soon had mastered all she could offer. Around 1899, he began studying piano with her teacher, Mary Selena Broughton, a music professor at Elmira College. After graduation from the Elmira Free Academy in 1903, he sailed off to Germany, where he would study for the next four years.

In Germany, he began working with pianist Ernst Jedliczka at the Stern Conservatory of Music and, when Jedliczka died the following year, continued his piano studies with Gottfried Galston. He also studied musical theory and composition with a number of first-rate teachers, most notably Richard Wagner’s disciple Engelbert Humperdinck. In 1907, he returned to the United States and signed on as director of music at the Hackley School, a position he held until his death, devoting his free time principally to his music whether in Tarrytown or Manhattan.

At first, the music Griffes wrote was strongly influenced by German Romanticism, but beginning around 1911, he became fascinated with the exotic, sensuous sound of people like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, the so-called Impressionist composers. Griffes’s now used whole-tone scales and, in Impressionist fashion, was freely structured, pictorially rich and full of instrumental color. The piece we’ll hear tonight is a perfect example.

Originally composed for solo piano in 1912, The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan was inspired by the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Griffes’s score paints a musical picture of the emperor’s sunny “pleasure dome” at Xanadu, his summer capital with its “caves of ice” and its “sacred river” running through caverns down to a sunless sea.

The piece begins with a mysterious rumbling in the low strings and percussion, suggesting the river and the caves of ice, Griffes has explained. Next Coleridge’s “sunny spots of greenery,” and his “gardens bright with sinuous rills” are suggested by flute and oboe over quiet strings. Then from inside come sounds of dancing revelry, which increase to a wild climax and then suddenly break off before the original mood returns with its suggestion of the sacred river and the caves.

Griffes orchestrated his “Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan” in 1917, and this orchestral version was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux in Boston on November 28th and 29th, 1919, then repeated at New York’s Carnegie Hall on December 4th and 6th. This would prove the height of Griffes’s success.

Suffering for weeks with fever, weight loss and fatigue, he collapsed after that first Carnegie Hall performance and died at age 35 the following April, perhaps succumbing to the same strain of influenza that had caused the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918-19.

Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances From West Side Story

When West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in September 1957, it was a ground-breaker. Never before had a Broadway show addressed such serious matter in such genuinely musical comedy terms, without falling into the “operatic trap,” as it was once put by composer Leonard Bernstein (born Lawrence, Mass. 1918; died New York City, 1990).

“Bernstein has composed another one of his nervous, flaring scores that capture the shrill beat of life in the streets,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in his New York Times review, adding that the composer and the director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, had used music and movement to give the story “passion and depth and some glimpses of unattainable glory.”

What the first-night reviewers probably didn’t notice was that the entire score was built around a single musical motif, a three-note figure called a “tri-tone” — here the notes C -F# – G, the opening notes of the song “Maria,” for example. The tri-tone is musically unstable, without a clear root, and served as a sort of musical metaphor for the characters in the show and their lives. Those three notes “pervade the whole piece, inverted, done backwards,” Bernstein said, adding, “I didn’t do all this on purpose.” Nevertheless, the approach helped give the score tremendous cohesion and power.

Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the action of West Side Story was moved to Manhattan’s West Side in the summer of 1957. Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues were transformed into rival street gangs calling themselves “Jets” (streetwise “American” teenagers) and “Sharks” (tough Puerto Rican immigrants), and the hostility between the two groups could be deadly. But two of the teens — Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of Riff, their leader; and Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks — meet and fall in love. If you know Shakespeare’s play, you don’t need to be told much else.

The show was a huge success with both audiences and critics and ran 732 performances. The musical’s collaborators managed (in Bernstein’s words) “to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and ‘just dancing,’ abstract and representational.” The show also avoided being “messagy,” to use his term.

After the Broadway run, West Side Story went out on national tour. The production had garnered six Tony Award nominations, including best musical, and had taken two of the prizes — for choreography and scenic design. (The competition that year was tough: Meredith Willson’s The Music Man had opened some two months later.) And after the national tour was over, United Artists was bringing West Side Story to the silver screen.

Working with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who were arranging the score for film, Bernstein extracted sections from the stage musical and fashioned them into his Symphonic Dances suite. He reordered the numbers along strictly musical lines, without regard to their original positions in the stage show. Although dance music predominated, two of the most popular songs from the musical were also there: “Somewhere” and “Maria.”

This was late 1960, and Bernstein was wrapping up his third year as music director of the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra was getting ready to mount a fund-raiser for the musicians’ pension fund. The movie version of West Side Story was being filmed, and Bernstein had just signed a new seven-year contract with the orchestra. The Symphonic Dances would be just perfect for a gala concert planned as “A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein.” Time was growing short, so Ramin and Kostal worked out the suite’s orchestrations under the composer’s supervision.

Nine “symphonic dances” make up the suite, and the descriptions below are taken from the published score:

I. Prologue: The growing rivalry between the teenage street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.

II. Somewhere: In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.

III. Scherzo: In the same dream, they break through the city walls and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air and sun.

IV: “Mambo: Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs.

V. “Cha-cha: The star-crossed lovers see each other for the first time and dance together.

VI: “Meeting Scene: Music accompanies their first spoken words.

VII. “‘Cool’ Fugue: An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.

VIII. “Rumble: Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.

IX: “Finale: Love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of Somewhere.”

Symphonic Dances From West Side Story was premiered at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic on February 13, 1961, with Lukas Foss conducting and Bernstein sitting in the first tier center box. The suite was hit, and concert-goers were reminded what musical power and vitality Bernstein had brought to the Broadway stage.