Program Notes: New York Rhythms

Program Notes: New York Rhythms

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Full program notes:

Aaron Copland
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, New York
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, New York

Appalachian Spring

Tonality in serious music seems to come in waves. In the 1980s it became “permissible” among academic composers to write accessible music again, in a sea-change that some called “the new Romanticism.” But such shifts in fashion and dogma are seen through the centuries.

When Aaron Copland returned to the U.S. from Paris in 1924, he entered what he called a “period of austerity,” during which he explored 12-tone composition and other modern techniques. Then, toward the end of the 1930s, he found himself dissatisfied with the state of American music, and with the relationship of composers to their audiences.

“The conventional concert public continued apathetic or indifferent to anything but the established classics,” he wrote in 1941. “It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” It was in this spirit that Copland embarked upon a series of enduring works that assured his position as the quintessential American classical composer: Fanfare for the Common Man, the ballet Rodeo, A Lincoln Portrait and Appalachian Spring.

the Martha Graham factor
The spark for Appalachian Spring was Martha Graham, who had helped re-make American dance with her innovative modern style. Graham and Copland had often planned to collaborate, but it was not until Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge attended a Graham performance in early 1942 that funding became available. The fabulously generous benefactress commissioned Graham to create three new ballets for the 1943 Fall Festival of the Coolidge Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Spring was one of those three, but it didn’t get to the stage that year. Graham’s script was delayed, so Copland didn’t finish the score until June 1944. The premiere that October in Washington—with Graham, Merce Cunningham and May O’Donnell in the company—was a full year later than originally planned. Louis Horst conducted the 13-member chamber ensemble for which the piece was originally composed.

a pioneer celebration
The ballet depicts, in Copland’s words, “a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century.” The composer’s description continues: “The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, that their new partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”

At the heart of the piece are the famous variations of the Shaker song known as Simple Gifts or The Gift to be Simple. It is thanks largely to Copland that we know of this melody; composed in 1848 by Joseph Brackett, the tune was little-known outside of Shaker communities until Copland adopted it in Appalachian Spring as well as his Old American Songs.

a new version
In 1945, a year after Appalachian Spring premiered, Copland composed an abbreviated version for full orchestra instrumentation; that suite is the form in which the music is best known today. Tonight’s performance, however, features the first-ever hearing at Orchestra Hall of a newly-compiled version. Dating from 2016, it features the complete ballet music, expanded for full orchestra from the original’s 13-player instrumentation. Copland had begun this project in the 1950s, and it was completed last year on a commission by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music with the aid of arranger David Newman.

Jane Levere, a writer for New York’s WQXR radio station, explained the process: “Newman was tasked to orchestrate some 50 measures (out of a total of almost 1,000 in the entire piece) that did not appear in any previous orchestral version, as well as adjusting passages back to their original keys. To authentically orchestrate those bars, Newman consulted Copland’s own manuscript sketches and scores for the ballet and orchestral suite, as well as the published scores. In addition, he studied the annotations Martha Graham and Leonard Bernstein left on personal scores of the work.”

Program note by Paul Horsley.

George Gershwin 
Born: September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, New York 
Died: July 11, 1937, Hollywood, California

Who Cares? (orch. Hershy Kay)

It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin, one of the most beloved songwriters of all time and one of our greatest composers, was born on one shore of America (Brooklyn) and died on the other (Hollywood), for his music has been played, embraced, loved and cherished as has that of virtually no other classical composer this country has ever produced. Gershwin’s style derived from the American soul and spirit. He came to prominence during the roaring ’20s, the age of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musicals and silent films. His output of more than 500 songs, many of them written to lyrics by his older brother Ira, is all the more astonishing given that Gershwin lived only 38 years.

Program note introduction by Robert Markow.

the original Gershwin Songbook 
The George Gershwin Songbook is a generic title used by many pop musicians to describe a collection of their favorite Gershwin tunes. There was, however, an actual George Gershwin Songbook compiled by the composer himself. On almost any night of the week in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gershwin could be found at one of the parties that filled the elite New York social calendar. Ebullient personality aside, his enormous popularity at these gatherings was no doubt due to his inexhaustible enthusiasm for seating himself at the piano from where he regaled the guests with all of his latest songs in wildly virtuosic arrangements. Gershwin’s musician friends were constantly urging him to write down these nocturnal improvisations so they could be enjoyed for posterity.

He finally obliged, and the George Gershwin Songbook was published in 1932 consisting of 18 of his favorite songs beautifully bound with illustrations by the artist Constantin Alajalov. Unfortunately, all Gershwin actually wrote down was one chorus of each song, so the majority of the arrangements fill only two pages of music and take less than 60 seconds to play. While such brevity is hardly conducive to concert hall performance, the Songbook nevertheless provides welcome insight into Gershwin’s improvisatory skills at the piano.

“natural for dancing” 
One person who owned a copy of the Songbook was the great Russian choreographer George Balanchine, who had worked with Gershwin in Hollywood shortly before the composer’s death in 1937. Many years later, Balanchine was playing through the Songbook at home one day when he realized that if the song arrangements were “filled out” with an introduction and an additional chorus or two played by the orchestra, the result might make an interesting accompaniment to a ballet. With the help of composer Hershy Kay, Balanchine created Who Cares?, which was first performed by the New York City Ballet on February 5, 1970.

Balanchine wrote: “George’s music is so natural for dancing, so easy to work with....I remember he spoke often to me about wanting to write for the ballet. So I like to think this is George’s ballet, this is the ballet we have done for him.”

Kay and Balanchine use 16 Gershwin songs in the ballet, although only 14 of them are in the original Songbook. The two newcomers are “Bidin’ My Time” and “Embraceable You,” both of which predate the Songbook but were not included by Gershwin. At tonight’s concert, four dancers from New York City Ballet will perform Balanchine’s choreography for selected songs; other songs will feature the Orchestra alone.

The late Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of New York City Ballet, shared these thoughts on Gershwin and Who Cares?: “The best Gershwin songs maintain their classic freshness, like an eternal martini—dry, frank, refreshing, tailor-made, with an invisible kick from its slightest hint of citron. Nostalgia has not syruped the songs’ sentiment nor robbed them of immediate piquancy. We associate them with time past, but when well sung or played, or preferably both at once, they not only revive but transcend their epoch....To combine an intensely personal attitude with a flagrantly popular language is a feat that few popular artists manage, and it is appropriate that Balanchine has used the songs not as facile recapitulation of a lost epoch, but simply as songs or melodies for classic, undeformed, traditional academic dances, which in their equivalence of phrasing, dynamics, and emotions find their brotherly parallel.”

Program note by Andrew Litton.

The performance of Who Cares?, a Balanchine® Ballet, is presented by arrangement with The George Balanchine Trust and has been produced in accordance with the Balanchine Style® and Balanchine Technique® Service standards established and provided by the Trust.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff