Violin, NAC Orchestra
Who doesn’t remember the first time they heard Barber’s Adagio for Strings, that paean to melancholy, a piece of music so powerful and arrestingly poignant that it only takes hearing the first few notes to immediately be in a place of stillness and contemplation? Well actually, I don’t. This was not a piece in my father’s record collection (Dad’s tastes ran more to Romantic composers’ violin repertoire because of his two fiddle-playing sons, and Cool-era jazz), and I still haven’t seen the film Platoon. And yet it seems like I’ve always known it, a piece that has been folded into the collective consciousness without becoming trite or tiresome.
Porgy and Bess is music I grew up with, not in its original operatic setting, but as jazz standards from my father’s aforementioned record collection, played by Miles Davis and Bill Evans, or sung by goddesses like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Jascha Heifetz gave every violinist the chance to “sing” music from Porgy and Bess with his transcriptions, and there are scores of arrangements for large instrument ensembles of every skill level. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you can certainly see how highly musicians think of this music when so many make it their own.
And a quick thought about Copland’s Rodeo. The musical language that has come to define what an American orchestral sound is – evoking images of expansive vistas, cowboys, and a rugged connection to the land – was created by a Jewish New Yorker. Certainly, there is more that connects humans than divides us.
Thank you for sharing this music with us tonight, for taking the time to savour these assorted sonic morsels, and have a happy Valentine’s Day.
“As a performer, having a composer write a piece especially for me is one of the most exciting honours I could ever receive. And unless you’re collaborating directly on the music, you really never know what you’re going to get! It’s a really special relationship of respect and trust, and there is nothing more thrilling than seeing the score for the first time… except maybe performing it for the first time! Even though Stewart and I have known each other since we were 13, and I’m familiar with his music, there is so much wonder and awe as I discover this incredible piece. Stewart has managed to include not only poignant emotional moments, haunting themes, and virtuosity, but also things that are really fun to play, that any cellist would love to sink their teeth (bow) into. This is only the beginning of the life of this piece, and I am completely thrilled to be sharing it for the first time with you.”
Welcome to tonight’s concert! This Valentine’s Day, Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra, with host Marjolaine Lambert, present to you a program that includes a world premiere of Canadian composer Stewart Goodyear’s Cello Concerto, written specially for the soloist, the Orchestra’s Principal Cello, Rachel Mercer. It also includes some of the most beloved and enduringly popular works in American music. In each their own way, these pieces have come to define the “American sound” of orchestral music during the 20th century.
Leroy Anderson’s sentimental Serenata is a characteristic example of an American pops orchestra miniature, whereas the expressive lyricism of Samuel Barber’s Adagio bridges Old World and New World romanticism. A medley of highlights from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess is a brilliant synthesis of concert music, African-American blues and jazz idioms, and his signature gift for song; by contrast, Aaron Copland’s Rodeo incorporates authentic cowboy tunes to give it a genuine folksy charm.
Whatever the style, what these works have in common is their universal audience appeal. It’s a remarkable quality by which they have completely transcended classical, popular, and jazz genres, and the mediums of live performance, recording, radio, TV and film. Enjoy!
Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley is a musicologist, active in the public sphere as a writer, speaker, and researcher. | Twitter @hanchanhartley
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., June 29, 1908
Died in Woodbury, Connecticut, U.S., May 18, 1975
“Tonight while all the world is still / Here I stand under her window sill / Sing to my loved one, Serenata for me / Sing her your song, love’s melody…”, so goes Mitchell Parish’s lyrics, set to Leroy Anderson’s music for Serenata. It’s a fitting opener for tonight’s concert, on Valentine’s Day, though you are hearing Anderson’s original work for orchestra, from 1947, not the song version from 1950.
Serenata opens with a trumpet fanfare, which then leads into a brief statement of the beguine (bolero-style) rhythm. This pattern becomes the rhythmic backdrop for two sections of music: the first, in a darker, minor key, has a theme based on rapid repeated notes; the second, in a brighter, major key, features a broad, flowing melody. Alternating with the fanfare, these sections each recur, with striking changes in instrumentation.
Anderson had a knack for writing beguiling tunes as well as creating colourful orchestration, qualities that make his music very appealing to listeners and fun for musicians to play. (You may already be familiar with his Sleigh Ride from 1948, now a winter holiday perennial, in both its orchestral and song versions.) Serenata is no exception; Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops who commissioned it along with dozens of other popular orchestral miniatures from Anderson, considered it his favourite.
– Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley
Born in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., September 26, 1898
Died in Hollywood, California, U.S., July 11, 1937
Since its premiere on October 11, 1935, at New York’s Alvin Theater, George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess has had a complex performance history, owing to concerns about its portrayal of the lives and struggles of an African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina. Yet, while it took decades for full productions of Porgy to enter the repertory of America’s elite opera houses, music from the opera, in the meantime, only grew in popularity. Songs like “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” were hits from the start, and endure today as beloved standards, performed and recorded by artists in the classical, jazz, and pop music worlds.
Similarly, the music of Porgy and Bess has found success in the concert hall, as suites or medleys of the opera’s highlights. Tonight, you’ll hear an arrangement by Robert Russell Bennett (1894–1981) that he created in 1961. Bennett was a successful arranger for Broadway, and had orchestrated Gershwin’s music from the time the composer began writing songs. Although he was not directly involved, Bennett did see Porgy and Bess while it was in rehearsal for the premiere, and in 1942, at the request of the conductor Fritz Reiner, he created Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture, which, today, remains one of the most popular among orchestral arrangements of the opera.
Porgy and Bess: Selection is a more compact medley than A Symphonic Picture, but like the latter, Bennett was keen to maintain the composer’s orchestral and harmonic intentions, with some minor adaptations. As the listening guide to the left shows, all the big tunes of Gershwin’s blues-inflected score are there, with “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” as the centrepiece. The songs generally appear directly one after the other, but at certain times, Bennett cleverly incorporates transitions out of Gershwin’s original orchestral music for the opera, such as the stormy music from the opening of Act 2, Scene 1 to frame “Summertime”, the cello solo that prefaces “Bess”, and the flashy xylophone action from the Overture before “O Lawd, I’m On My Way”.
Here’s the selection of the opera’s songs, as they appear in Bennett’s arrangement (timings are approximate):
0:00 | Introduction with “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” theme
0:30 | “Clara, Clara, Don’t You Be Downhearted”
1:30 | “A Woman Is a Sometimes Thing”
2:40 | “Summertime”
4:45 | “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”
6:10 | “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”
8:35 | “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”
9:30 | “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leaving Soon for New York”
10:15 | “It Ain’t Necessarily So”
11:55 | “O Lawd, I’m On My Way”
12:45 | Coda with “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” theme
– Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 9, 1910
Died in New York City, New York, U.S., January 23, 1981
You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of classical music that has had as broad appeal in the past century as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1937). In the last decade, scholars have investigated the extent of the work’s “life” outside of the concert hall and found that it has been performed and heard in an astonishingly diverse array of contexts, including at rock concerts, figure-skating competitions, weddings, funerals, memorial services, circus acts, therapy sessions, patriotic demonstrations, and on the modern dance stage. The Adagio’s music has also appeared in many films, notably The Elephant Man (1980), Platoon (1986), Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) and Amélie (2001), as well as television shows. It even became a number two hit on the British pop album charts as a dance remix!
Barber himself knew he had something special when he completed the Adagio in 1936 as the second movement to his String Quartet – in a letter to his friend Orlando Cole, he called it “a knockout!” Details about its genesis as an arrangement for strings are not known but we do know Barber submitted it, in 1937, along with Essay No. 1 for orchestra, to the conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had recently formed the NBC Symphony Orchestra. On November 5, 1938, the world heard the premieres of both works led by Toscanini, via broadcast on NBC radio. From that point on, Barber’s international stature as a composer was confirmed.
Barber’s gift of writing elegiac, long-arced melodies is on full display in the Adagio, in which the main theme is spun out in ever-lengthier lines, ultimately reaching a heart-rending climax. We might read a subtext of melancholy or sadness in the music, but it’s worth noting that this was not the composer’s original intention. Ultimately, the Adagio’s emotional power seems to come from what people have repeatedly describe as the music’s sincerity, its genuine feeling, and lack of pretense. It is for these reasons the Adagio has such wide appeal today.
“It’s really well felt, it’s believable you see, it’s not phony. He’s not just making it up because he thinks that would sound well. It comes straight from the heart, to use old-fashioned terms. The sense of continuity, the steadiness of flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates from beginning to end.”
— Aaron Copland on the Adagio’s significance, BBC radio broadcast, January 23, 1982
“Adagio for Strings is [one of] the most emotive string pieces I know. I love how it patiently staggers each part around a simple recurring theme. For me it creates an image of someone slowly fighting the force of gravity, like a rock climber climbing without a rope.”
— Jim Creegan, vocalist and bass player for Barenaked Ladies, in “Strings Attached”, BNL Blog, May 23, 2003
– Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley
Interview by Hannah Chan-Hartley
What are your main influences and inspirations as a composer?
Coming from a musically eclectic and multicultural background, a lot of my compositions are inspired by music of the present, my love of classical music that began at age three, and my British, Trinidadian, and Canadian heritage.
What is your view on the role and responsibilities (creative, political, social) of the composer today? How do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I personally believe that composers need to be commentators of the human spirit, and narrators of our environment and culture. We must also bring a love of listeners from all cultures and environments to our music. It is very important to combine our personal voice and integrity to every work we write, with an innate trust that the audience will be with us. We are in a social and political climate that desperately needs positive communication. We as artists can express various emotions, but we have a responsibility of addressing these feelings through a sense of catharsis, release, and, ultimately, healing.
Could you give us an insight into how you compose?
I have a very eccentric method when beginning a work! I need to know what will happen on the 10th page of every piece. As soon as I know that, I then know how the work will begin and end. This is a method that I have used since I composed my piano sonata at age 17.
How important is it for you to closely work together with the artists performing your work? What does the term “interpretation” mean to you?
If a composer is writing for a particular musician, part of the process for the composer is studying the musician’s artistry completely before writing one note, hearing his/her interpretations of various composers, and getting to know his/her way of communicating with the listener. After that study, inspiration comes and the writing begins. To me, interpretation is what the artist brings organically to the written score.
What in your view is the relationship of the listener to your work?
To me, the composer and listener are like partners in a dance. Both the composer and the listener know the body movements and the steps, but it is the composer who needs to lead the dance, and direct the listener to his/her sound world with fluidity. The listener therefore becomes a willing participant, and the dance is successful.
- - -
ABOUT THE CELLO CONCERTO
Describe this work using three to five adjectives.
Melancholy. Animated. Lyrical. Rhapsodic. Explosive.
Describe your artistic goals for this composition. What would you like listeners to know about what you sought to accomplish in creating this work?
I wanted to write a work that was a virtuosic and lyrical vehicle for Rachel Mercer. Her virtuosity, breathtaking tone, and sensitivity as a chamber musician inspired the way I approached the concerto form in this piece.
How do you approach writing for orchestra? What is the orchestra’s role in this work?
Writing for orchestra is, for me, knowing what colours I will use for my canvas. While being mindful of the emotions I wish to evoke in the listener, I am thinking about each instrument and its timbre. In my cello concerto, the orchestra plays collaborator, supporter, and backdrop to the main subject, the solo cellist.
Timings are approximate:
0:00 | Introduction, sombre, mysterious, with a melancholy theme
3:00 | Slowly increases in volume to…
3:30 | Theme 1 – cello
7:00 | Theme 2, intimate, sensual – cello & strings
11:00 | Trumpet fanfare; development of themes
16:00 | Theme 1
17:30 | Theme 2
19:00 | Shattering, heartbreaking climax with orchestra; then simmers down to…
21:00 | ...back in the mood of the melancholy introduction
22:30 | Theme from introduction – cello plays softly, in lowest register, against rustling basses… fades to nothing…
– Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley
Born in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., November 14, 1900
Died in North Tarrytown, New York, U.S., December 2, 1990
Aaron Copland created music in a style that is often regarded today as distinctly American. He often turned to, as inspiration and source material for his works, music such as the popular tunes of his youth, jazz music in New York and Paris during the 1920s, and the Anglo-American folk music being collected and published in the 1930s and 40s. Rodeo, a ballet he created in 1942 for Agnes de Mille and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, is one of his best-known works drawing on the latter.
The plot of Rodeo is a charming romantic comedy, set on an American ranch. A young cowgirl is in love with the head wrangler. Herself “a tomboy in jeans,” she tries to impress him by showing off her riding and roping skills, but he only fancies the rancher’s daughter. Finally, she decides on a change of image – for the Saturday hoedown, she dons a pretty dress, and wins the wrangler’s heart.
Tonight, you’ll hear music from the ballet distilled into four dance episodes, which follow the arc of the above plotline. Copland first evokes the rigours of American ranch life in “Buckaroo Holiday”, through two original themes: first, a descending scale, played exuberantly as the cowboys are riding bucking broncos; a calmer, more lyrical melody follows. Later, a solo trombone introduces an old cowboy song “If He’d be a Buckaroo by his Trade”, one of several folk tune quotations in Rodeo. In “Corral Nocturne”, the cowgirl reflects upon the day’s earlier chaos and her aching heart on a wistful melody in the wind section, against a background of open chords, which conjure up the expanse of the American outdoors.
“Saturday Night Waltz” begins with an introduction that sounds like the string section tuning as they prepare for the evening dance. The music then settles into a sentimental waltz, based on another cowboy tune, “Goodbye Old Paint”, during which the mood evolves, from tentative to warm and tender. Finally, the cowgirl gets her man, in the joyous “Hoe Down”, the most famous music of Rodeo.
The famous tune for Copland’s “Hoe Down” was not always as you heard it. Called “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, it was “normally done as a stately sort of march,” according to musician and writer Stephen Wade. In 1937, the Kentucky fiddler Bill Stepp put his own spin on it, transforming the tempo into one of a hoedown. His version was captured on tape by Alan Lomax as one of many field recordings of American folk song for the Library of Congress.
As Copland was working on Rodeo, he came across Stepp’s rendition of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” via a transcription by composer and American folk music specialist Ruth Crawford Seeger. He liked it so much that he incorporated it, nearly note for note, into his ballet. The popularity of Copland’s “Hoedown” made the Stepp version famous, and in 2013, Stepp’s recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame due to its importance in American music.
– Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley