Program Notes: An American in Paris

This weekend’s concerts present 20th-century American orchestral music in all its vibrancy and diversity – from the jazz-influenced sounds of Gershwin’s American in Paris to William Schuman’s craggy Sixth Symphony to Copland’s friendly Clarinet Concerto to the minimalist- and pop-culture-influenced melodies and rhythms of John Adams’s The Chairman Dances.

The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra

John Adams 
(Born 15 February 1947, Worcester, MA)

Composed: 1985

Premiere: 31 January 1986; Milwaukee

Last MSO Performance: November 2008, Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, claves, crotale, cymbals, glockenspiel, high hat, sandpaper, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone), harp, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 12 minutes

John Adams was born and raised in New England, where he learned the clarinet from his father and played in marching bands and community orchestras during his formative years. He began composing at age ten and heard his first orchestral pieces performed while still a teenager. After graduating from Harvard, he moved in 1971 to the San Francisco Bay area where he has lived ever since.

Adams’s orchestral scores are among the most frequently performed and influential compositions by an American since the era of Copland and Bernstein. Works such as Shaker LoopsHarmonielehreShort Ride in a Fast Machine, and his Violin Concerto are by now staples of the symphonic repertoire.

His operas and oratorios including Nixon in ChinaThe Death of KlinghofferEl Niño, and Doctor Atomic – many with themes drawn from recent American history – have made a significant impact on the course of contemporary opera and are among the most produced by any living composer. His recent works include the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other MaryAbsolute Jest (for string quartet and orchestra, based on fragments of Beethoven) and the Saxophone Concerto, written for soloist Tim McAllister. In March of this year, Leila Josefowicz introduced Scheherazade.2, a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra,” with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

Adams composed The Chairman Dances in 1985 on a commission from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as a sort of “study” for his opera Nixon in China. It should be noted that “dances,” as used here, is an active verb, not a plural noun. The Chairman refers to Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung.

The composer has written:

The Chairman Dances was an “out-take” of Act III of Nixon in China. Neither an “excerpt” nor a “fantasy on themes from,” it was in fact a kind of warmup for embarking on the creation of the full opera. At the time, 1985, I was obliged to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony, but having already seen the scenario to Act III of Nixon in China, I couldn’t wait to begin work on that piece. So The Chairman Dances began as a “foxtrot” for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled “Madame Mao,” firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress. In the surreal final scene of the opera, she interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic 40-foot portrait on the wall, to “come down, old man, and dance.” The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives. Some of these themes make a dreamy reappearance in Act III of the actual opera, en revenant, as both the Nixons and Maos reminisce over their distant pasts.

Recommended Recording: Edo de Waart, San Francisco Symphony (Nonesuch)


Symphony No. 6

William Schuman 
(Born 4 August 1910, New York, NY; Died 15 February 1992, New York, NY)

Composed: 1948

Premiere: 27 February 1949; Dallas

Last MSO Performance: MSO Subscription Premiere

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate Duration: 27 minutes

Though his music is not as well-known today as that of his exact contemporary Samuel Barber, William Schuman has had a profound impact on the performing arts in America. As president of The Juilliard School (1945-1962) and then Lincoln Center (1962-1969), he had great power in the administration of the arts. At the former, he appointed several prominent American composers to the faculty (among them were Bergsma, Mennin, Persichetti, and Weisgall). He also instigated the formation of the Juilliard Quartet, which became the model for many quartets-in-residence at American universities. At Lincoln Center, he encouraged the commissioning and performance of American works and brought about the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the New York Philharmonic promenade concerts, and the summer series of opera performances by visiting companies.

In 1948, after creating dance music for the renowned choreographer Martha Graham (Night Journey, 1947), Schuman returned to his compositional first love with the Symphony No. 6, perhaps his best achievement. It is permeated by the major-minor chord, a sonority that was to become the hallmark of Schuman’s harmony. Commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra League, the work had its première on 27 February 1949. Antal Doráti conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

The Sixth Symphony is an intense, complex work – melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically.

It has been called craggy, dark, and emotionally impenetrable, but it remains one of the composer’s finest creations. Nevertheless, its first listeners did not appreciate its genius. Schuman noted that the Dallas audience “found the Symphony utterly without appeal. In fact, some were so incensed with the work that they questioned whether they should even complete payment of the commission.”

The symphony’s single movement, distinctive for its masterly integration of the orchestra choirs, is comprised of six interconnected parts:

  • The Largo juxtaposes somber brass and woodwind chords against an extended muted first violin line with dissonant chordal accompaniments in the winds. A frenetic piccolo and then flute passage of fast-moving notes disrupts the solemn atmosphere. Solo violin, woodwind, and brass lines add piquancy to the slow tempo of this introductory section.
  • The following Moderato con moto features brassy, bass-heavy lines that position the brass and strings in counterpoint of considerable complexity. Using all the instruments in intricate juxtaposition, Schuman weaves a unique aural texture both abstract and intense, combining skittish syncopated rhythms with excited brass chords.
  • A long timpani solo then segues into the Leggieramente section, where the intensity continues in syncopated string figures and frenetic solo woodwind lines. Once again the composer introduces his familiar brass chords, but this time with meter and accent changes that add a jagged quality to the line. With intricate rhythmic accompaniment in the strings and complex contrapuntal writing, Schuman created a compositional tour de force of enormous intensity.
  • The next section, Adagio, introduces a calm atmosphere, although the intricate counterpoint heard earlier in the woodwinds and string continues the complex texture of earlier sections. A solo violin and solo clarinet provide a soulful duo as pizzicato strings develop a pulse-like accompaniment. Ensuing intertwining melodies in the oboe and horn add to the serene quality of this section. It is here that one encounters the only obvious repetition of a musical motive, when trumpets and trombones play the chords heard in the work’s opening measures.
  • This calm is broken by a series of accelerandi moving to the Allegro risoluto–Presto section. It is characterized by intense and, as Schuman instructs, “wild” and “strident” passages of offbeat eighth notes, snare drum rim shot, sharply accented notes in the strings and fff chords in the brass that create multiple instrumental lines intertwining in a whirl of dense aural power.
  • Finally, an insistent timpani part against brass and lower woodwind chords slows the pace considerably, leading to the final Larghissimo section, in which astringent and sustained string lines are punctuated by rhythmically complex unison parts in the brass. The mood turns contemplative as the strings play an unbroken line of ppp chords. As bells toll in the final measure, the Symphony comes to a solemnly hushed ending via a ppp passage in the low strings.

Recommended Recording: Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony (Naxos)


Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra

Aaron Copland 
(Born 14 November 1900, Brooklyn, NY; Died 2 December 1990, New York, NY)

Composed: 1948

Premiere: 6 November 1950; New York

Last MSO Performance: June 2012; Matthias Pintscher, conductor; Todd Levy, clarinet

Instrumentation: harp, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 18 minutes

Aaron Copland – that “Dean of American Composers” – hardly needs introduction. Among other works, his Fanfare for the Common ManAppalachian SpringBilly the KidRodeoLincoln PortraitEl Salón México, and Third Symphony are perennial favorites of concertgoers everywhere.

The Clarinet Concerto was commissioned by the great jazz clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman. Copland began work on the piece during a 1947 stay in Rio de Janeiro, completing it the following year. Rather than accompany the solo instrument with a jazz band – as Stravinsky had done in his 1945 Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman – Copland chose an orchestra of strings, along with harp and piano. Goodman premiered the work on 6 November 1950, on an NBC radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner.

The concerto is cast in an unusual form: two movements, linked by a clarinet cadenza. The slow first movement is in A-B-A form, warmly elegiac and full of bittersweet lyricism. The cadenza that follows gives the soloist ample opportunity for display, but also introduces the jazzy Latin American themes that follow. The rondo-like second movement includes a Brazilian popular tune alongside many echoes of jazz. The piece ends with a fairly elaborate coda that finishes off with a glissando – or “smear” in jazz parlance.

Recommended Recording: Stanley Drucker; Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)


An American in Paris

George Gershwin 
(Born 26 September 1898, Brooklyn, NY; Died 11 July 1937, Beverly Hills, CA)

Composed: 1928

Premiere: 13 December 1928; New York

Last MSO Performance: March 2010; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, taxi horns, triangle, xylophone), celeste, strings

Approximate Duration: 17 minutes

The smashing success of Rhapsody in Blue (1924) catapulted the 25-year-old George Gershwin into a totally new status as a composer. He was acknowledged everywhere as a major figure in American music and in asserting an American influence in Europe. At the end of the following year, he performed as a soloist with a symphony orchestra for the first time – in his own Concerto in F, under conductor Walter Damrosch. (It was Damrosch who had commissioned the concerto.)

Gershwin made his first trip to Paris soon after the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue. In the French capital he applied to Maurice Ravel, who had given lessons in orchestration to several respected composers. But to Gershwin he posed the question, “Why would you want to risk being a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?” (Later on, Gershwin took a few lessons from Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he played tennis in Hollywood, though Schoenberg suggested, in remarking on their respective incomes, that it was Gershwin who ought to be giving him lessons.)

In 1926, when Gershwin was in England for the London and Liverpool openings of his musical comedy Lady, Be Good, he took a few days to visit Paris again. There, the idea came to him of composing an orchestral work describing his impressions of La Ville-Lumière. He even bought some authentic Parisian taxi horns, after deciding to use the real thing rather than attempt an imitation with conventional instruments.

It was two years later, though, before he began committed work on the piece, to which he gave the title An American in Paris, and which he promised to Damrosch for premiere in December 1928. Following another London opening in the spring of that year (this time the show was Oh, Kay! ), Gershwin went to Paris for a longer visit. He had stimulating meetings with Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Milhaud – and bought more taxi horns. He returned to New York in June, completed the piano sketch for An American in Paris on August 1, and in an interview published in the August 18, 1928, issue of Musical America made this statement on the work:

This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I’ve yet attempted. The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six, though all the themes are original. My purpose is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.

As in my other orchestral compositions, I’ve not endeavored to represent any definite scenes in this music. The rhapsody is programmatic only in a general impressionistic way… The opening gay section is followed by a rich blues with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a couple of drinks, has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simpler than in the preceding pages. This blues rises to a climax, followed by a coda in which the spirit of the music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impression of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has disowned his spell of the blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life. At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.

In point of fact, not all the themes are original. A brief but emphatic citation of a tune known as “La Maxixe” helps establish the atmosphere early on. Among the “various street noises” are the aforementioned taxi horns, and the title page of the score pointedly identifies Gershwin as both composer and orchestrator. Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic premiered An American in Paris at Carnegie Hall on 13 December 1928. Though his conducting skills were said to be no better than rote baton-waving, Gershwin made his first appearance as a conductor eight months later, presiding over a performance of this work at Lewisohn Stadium.

Recommended Recording: Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Sony)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.