Bates, Gershwin, Ellington
SATURDAY, NOV. 17, 2018 AT 8 P.M.
THOMAS WOLFE AUDITORIUM
Darko Butorac, conductor
Aaron Diehl, piano
This program is a celebration of American composers featuring Bates, Ellington and Gershwin. These three share the spirit of innovation — re-imagining what orchestral music can be through their own passions and experiences. Aaron Diehl, a classically trained pianist and composer and a staple of the New York jazz scene, joins the orchestra for Gershwin’s Variations on “I Got Rhythm” and Ellington’s New World A-Comin.’
Ellington New World A-Comin’
Gershwin Variations on “I Got Rhythm”
Gershwin An American in Paris
Aaron Diehl is one of the most sought after jazz pianists, consistently playing with what the New York Times describes as “melodic precision, harmonic erudition, and elegant restraint.” Diehl’s meticulously thought-out performances, collaborations, and compositions are a leading force in today’s generation of jazz contemporaries, spearheading a distinct union of traditional and fresh artistry.
Recent highlights included serving as Music Director for the Jazz at Lincoln Center New Orleans Songbook concert series, performing in the New York premiere of Philip Glass’ complete Etudes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, collaborating with the Spanish flamenco guitarist Dani De Morón in Flamenco Meets Jazz (produced by Savannah Music Festival and Flamenco Festival), and touring the U.S. and Europe with Grammy nominated jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant.
The Bespoke Man’s Narrative (2013), Diehl’s first album on Mack Avenue Records, reached No.1 on the JazzWeek Jazz Chart and was hailed by JazzTimes for displaying “precision and polish.” KCRW praised the album, stating, “This is an album you can listen to again and again, honest music that invites you back in to discover new wonders with each listening.”
Aaron Diehl is a graduate of the Juilliard School, where he studied with Kenny Barron, Eric Reed, and Oxana Yablonskaya. Residing in Harlem, he enjoys spending time in the sky when he isn’t on tour or recording. As a licensed pilot, one of his favorite planes to fly is the Beechcraft Bonanza.
INTERACTIVE PROGRAM NOTES
Mason Bates composed Mothership in 2011 in versions for orchestra and wind ensemble. He writes:
“This energetic opener imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is ‘docked’ by several visiting soloists, who offer brief but virtuosic riffs on the work’s thematic material over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration. The piece follows the form of a scherzo with double trio (as found in, for example, the Schumann Symphony No. 2.)”
The “Mothership” scherzo comprises a nervous, jangling theme with an underlying electronic ostinato that appears at the beginning and end of the piece, as well as between the two trios.
Each of the trios involves a different jazz rhythm and features two different instruments, so that there are, in effect, four “dockings”. The baritone saxophone
dominate the first trio. The flute
share the second. All the percussion sounds are produced electronically.
Born in Philadelphia but raised in Richmond, Virginia, Bates earned degrees in both English literature and music composition in the joint program of Columbia University and the Juilliard School, followed by a doctorate in composition from the University of California, Berkeley in 2008. He has also spent three years as Composer in Residence with the Chicago Symphony. With a predilection for writing for unconventional forces, he composes both concert music and electronica, frequently combining the two. While spending his nights playing in upscale dance clubs, he currently spends his days as composer-in-residence of the Kennedy Center.
Duke (Edward Kennedy) Ellington
New World A-Comin’
Composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington was for many years one of the leading big-band leaders and the most significant composer for the genre. Born in Washington, DC, where his father was a butler, he started playing the piano at age seven and made his professional debut as a ragtime pianist at seventeen. He moved to New York in 1923 and joined Elmer Snowden’s Washington Band. In 1930 his composition Mood Indigo made him world famous. By now leading his own band, he became the most important jazz composer of the last century, composing over 2000 works, many of them three-minute pieces for the old 78s. He composed in many genres, including film music (Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder) and, towards the end of his life, liturgical music.
In 1969, Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Honor and in 1970 he was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1971 he became the first jazz musician to be named a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music.
Ellington composed New World A-Comin’ in 1945 for jazz orchestra, but he also performed it on the piano as well as with symphony orchestras. The title is taken from a book of essays published by reporter, columnist and editor Roi Ottley (1906-1960), that appeared during World War II and heralded the emergence of a new generation of African-Americans. Ellington performed it at the piano in a radio broadcast eulogizing Franklin D. Roosevelt.
New World A-Comin’ consists of three sections; the first two are short and serve as introductions to the final and most extensive movement. The first section, Moderato lento, is analogous to the slow introduction to a symphony, casting a somber mood.
In the brief second part, the rhythm, tempo and mood pick up considerably.
In the third, Ellington spins out a series of tunes that brighten the emotional tone. The first recalls a speeding train, perhaps a musical metaphor of the essay’s sense of progress.
A second theme is also lively.
But after a clarinet cadenza, Ellington continues with slower, more heavily orchestrated riffs until a final climatic reprise of the opening.
Variations on “I Got Rhythm”
In the early part of the twentieth century in New Orleans the musical idiom of jazz evolved from ragtime and the blues. The origin of the term jazz is obscure, but it first appeared in print in 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper, in reference to enthusiasm at a baseball game. The application of the term to the specific kind of music occurred during World War I. But it was in Europe where American dance bands became popular, that classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog’s Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918) and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).
George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, he was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. The brothers mounted a string of hit musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra.
Composed in 1930, Girl Crazy, the show served as Ethel Merman’s stage debut, contained one of Gershwin’s most memorable songs, “I Got Rhythm.” The song was also one of Gershwin’s favorites, and when drifting to the piano at parties, he inevitably played it. In 1933, at the time in one of his stretches of studying classical music composition, He wrote the Variations on “I got Rhythm” and orchestrated it, dedicating it to Ira. Gershwin premiered it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in January 1934.
During a recorded radio broadcast, Gershwin’s oral program notes – in the folksy radio style of the period – can’t be surpassed: “Good evening. This is George Gershwin speaking…now I’m going to play you my latest composition that I wrote a few months ago down in Palm Beach, Florida. This is a composition in the form of variations on a tune, and the tune is ‘I Got Rhythm.’
“I think you might be interested to hear about a few of the variations we are going to play. After an introduction by the orchestra
the piano plays a theme rather simply. The first variation is a very complicated rhythmic pattern played by the piano while the orchestra fits in the tune.
“The next variation is in waltz time, and the third is a Chinese variation in which I imitate Chinese flutes that play out of tune as they always are.
Next the piano plays a rhythmic variation in which the left hand plays the melody upside down, while the right hand plays it first on the theory that we shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing. Then comes the finale. Now after all this information about variation on “I Got rhythm,” how about hearing it.”
Duke (Edward Kennedy) Ellington
Among the great Big-band leaders, Duke Ellington was the only one who could be everything: composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader. Born in Washington, DC, where his father was a butler, he began playing the piano at age seven, making his professional debut as a ragtime pianist at 17. Ellington moved to New York in 1923 to join Elmer Snowden’s Washington Band. In 1930 his composition Mood Indigo catapulted him to world fame. Elegant and well spoken, he was one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a symbol of the Big Band jazz era. He composed over 2000 works, many of them three-minute pieces, constrained by the limitations of the old 78 rpm records. Every member of his band was a virtuoso, and Ellington incorporated their original riffs as part of his compositional process. He composed in many genres, including film music (Anatomy of a Murder) and, towards the end of his life, liturgical music.
In 1969 Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Honor and in 1970 was elected to the exclusive National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also the first jazz musician to be named a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music.
In 1950, Arturo Toscanini, then conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Ellington to compose a suite to be part of a larger series of pieces reflecting the characteristic neighborhoods of New York City. However, for reasons unknown, Toscanini never conducted Harlem, and it was Ellington himself who premiered it with his large jazz orchestra. He also arranged a version for symphony orchestra. There have been numerous orchestrations since, and Ellington himself always tinkered with the piece in performance.
Ellington wrote: “We would now like to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem… It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood towards the 125th street business area… You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands.”
Harlem takes tone painting into the jazz age; the style changes repeatedly, almost “block by block,” in response to the mood and ethnic mix of each neighborhood. The two-note rhythmic motive sounding the name Harlem serves as a motto for the piece.
One hundred tenth St. forms the northern boundary of Central Park, where parades along its western edge (see Thanksgiving) always form.
Ellington’s suite emphasizes instrumental texture, rhythm and complex harmonies. He continually works the “Harlem” motive into nearly every change in style, beginning with a baritone sax solo over syncopated pizzicato strings.
Walking north in the 1950s, Spanish Harlem was next,
but a lonely clarinet interrupts the boisterous band, over a slow funereal march.
The funeral grows in intensity, leading into a solo trumpet intoning a spiritual-like tune, which other instruments gradually join.
Ellington lingers on the spiritual; it becomes the most important melody in the suite. The final section begins with a long percussion solo, Ellington’s signature “jungle” style, each instrument entering separately in syncopation over the “Harlem” beat.
The suite concludes with the “Harlem” motto.
An American in Paris
Gershwin composed An American in Paris in 1928 on a commission from the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York. It is a jazz-based tone poem inspired by the composer’s trip to France where he attempted to study with, among others, Maurice Ravel and Stravinsky. Both declined. Ravel was supposed to have said: “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?” The work captures the sound and spirit of post-World-War-I Paris where such American bohemians as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway – and their fictional characters – went to lose (and rediscover) themselves.
According to the composer, “The piece is really a rhapsodic ballet, written very freely…to portray the impressions of an American visitor as he strolls around the city. ” But Gershwin added, “…the individual listener can read into the music such episodes as his imagination pictures for him.” But then for the program book at the premiere, composer Deems Taylor wrote with Gershwin’s approval a different scenario, involving a detailed description of the tourist’s day adrift in the City of Light; which comes to prove that the music came first, explanation later.
An American in Paris has had a strong influence on a certain type of American music. Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town, is an expanded version chronicling a day in the lives of two American sailors on leave in New York during World War II. But even more persistent has been Gershwin’s hustle-bustle evocation of busy Parisian life that has been used in so many film scores as to become iconic “city” music.
Ironically, the best way to approach this lighthearted piece is by identifying little motives – almost like Wagnerian Leitmotivs – and observe how Gershwin weaves them in and out of the larger musical fabric. An American in Paris opens with a busy “city” motive.
Then we get the “honking” motive, for which the composer imported real Paris taxi horns for the premiere.
The next bit may have a French origin but
the words became a classic summer camp song in the 50s: “My mom gave me a nickel/ to buy a pickle/ I didn’t buy no pickle/I bought some choo’n gum.” After a little clarinet theme,
a snaky transition passage also keeps cropping up.
Gershwin had a kind of musical sleight of hand that allowed him to make a 20-minute piece out of just a handful of musical ideas; consider the way he morphs the chewing gum motive
While An American in Paris had no pretensions to be a classic symphonic statement, it still needed a “big theme” à la Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. When it finally shows up halfway through the piece, we realize that everything before was just a frenetic lead-in to this sexy trumpet solo.
After this “romantic” interlude, which takes up most of the second part, things get a bit raunchier with this little two-step.
Gershwin develops these two themes, although with somewhat less flexibility than the short motives from the first part, largely because he was dealing with full-fledged themes. In a coda/recapitulation, Gershwin brings everything back on stage for one last juggle.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018