Sixth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman for orchestra
Joan Tower (b. 1938), as her biography from Wise Music Classical states, is widely regarded as one of the most important American composers living today. During a career spanning more than 60 years, she has made lasting contributions to musical life in the United States as composer, performer, conductor, and educator. Her works have been commissioned by major ensembles, soloists, and orchestras. Recent awards include Chamber Music America’s Richard Bogomolny National Service Award (2020), Musical America’s Composer of the Year (2020), and the League of American Orchestra’s highest honour, the Gold Baton (2019). In 1990, Tower became the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for her orchestral piece Silver Ladders. From 1969 to 1984, she was pianist and founding member of the Naumburg Award–winning Da Capo Chamber Players, which commissioned and premiered many of her works. Tower is Asher B. Edelman Professor in the Arts at Bard College, where she has taught since 1972.
Recognized for their vigorous energy, lyrical sweep, and scintillating textures, many of Tower’s pieces quickly entered the concert repertory and continue to be frequently performed. Among her most popular works are the six Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman, which have been played by over 600 different ensembles. In 2014, they were added to the National Recording Registry, having met the Library of Congress’s criterion of being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
Considered to be a feminist twist on Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, each of Tower’s fanfares are a tribute to an “uncommon woman,” that is, “a woman who takes risks, who is adventurous,” as she noted in a September 2018 interview for MusicWorld. The Sixth, composed in 2014, was originally a piano piece “written for the teen-aged pianists of the Music Teachers’ Association of California,” and dedicated to the Cuban-born American composer Tania León. Tower then orchestrated it for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who wanted a fanfare to celebrate their centennial season; led by their Music Director Marin Alsop (the dedicatee of Tower’s First Fanfare), they performed the premiere of this version in 2016.
The Sixth Fanfare for orchestra, which honours the “intrepid Hilary” Clinton as noted at the top of the score, is more of an overture than a brief musical flourish. Its main element is a driving, but unrelentingly steady repeated-note figure, appearing almost continuously throughout, as it is taken up in turn by the instrumental sections. Around it, the texture shifts rapidly, alternately delicate and shimmering in the strings and woodwinds, strong and spirited in the brass and percussion. After an initial climax midway, the music continues as if further galvanized, powering through with greater determination, even defiance, towards a confident finish.
Coincident Dances for orchestra
Acclaimed American composer Jessie Montgomery (b.1981) is also a violinist and educator. She is the recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation, the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, and her works are performed frequently around the world by leading musicians and ensembles. Since 1999, she has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports young African American and Latinx string players and has served as composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, the Organization’s flagship professional touring ensemble. A founding member of PUBLIQuartet and a former member of the Catalyst Quartet, Jessie holds degrees from the Juilliard School and New York University and is currently a PhD Candidate in Music Composition at Princeton University. She is Professor of violin and composition at The New School. In May 2021, she began her three-year appointment as the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
According to her biography, Jessie’s music, which includes solo, chamber, vocal, and orchestral pieces, “interweaves Western classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, poetry, and social consciousness, making her an acute interpreter of 21st century American sound and experience.” The Washington Post has described her works as “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life”—words which, in fact, wholly apply to her orchestral piece, Coincident Dances. Commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta in 2017, it is a vibrant sonic street party that Jessie explains “is inspired by the sounds found in New York’s various cultures, capturing the frenetic energy and multicultural aural palette one hears even in a short walk through a New York City neighbourhood.”
Beginning with a rhapsodic double-bass solo, the work then moves through several different sound worlds, fusing music as varied as English consort, samba, mbira dance music from Ghana, sing, and techno. “My reason for choosing these styles,” Jessie notes, “sometimes stemmed from an actual experience of accidentally hearing a pair simultaneously, which happens most days of the week walking down the streets of New York, or one time when I heard a parked car playing Latin jazz while I had rhythm and blues in my headphones. Some of the pairings are merely experiments. Working in this mode, the orchestra takes on the role of a DJ of a multicultural dance track.”
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for solo clarinet and orchestra (arr. Lukas Foss)
One of 20th-century American music’s significant figures, Leonard Bernstein (1918–90) had a multifaceted career as a conductor, composer, and music educator through television. Although primarily known for his dramatic music (notably, the musical West Side Story), several of his concert works are staples of the performance repertory. Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is one of these, and while a smaller piece than others, it neatly features hallmarks of his eclectic compositional style—that is, a compelling fusion of elements from American vernacular music, such as jazz rhythms and harmonies, with Western classical music techniques.
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs was originally commissioned in 1949 by jazz clarinetist Woody Herman for his band, as part of a series of jazz-inspired works that included Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. However, by the time Bernstein completed the work in November, Herman’s band had disbanded. The score remained filed away until 1952, when Bernstein adapted some of its music into the musical comedy Wonderful Town. Not until October 16, 1955, was the original work finally performed, on an episode of the CBS television show Omnibus, entitled “What is Jazz?” and hosted by Bernstein. At this premiere, conducted by the composer, the solo clarinet part was played, not by Benny Goodman as has often been incorrectly stated, but by Al Galladoro, who had made his name as lead alto saxophone for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and bass clarinetist for the NBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Arturo Toscanini. Goodman is the piece’s dedicatee though, and he was the soloist on the first recording of it, with Bernstein, in 1966.
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is a vibrant musical showstopper that Bernstein, when he introduced it in the broadcast, said he hoped the audience “will feel in it the special beauty of jazz that I felt when I was writing the piece.” It unfolds in three short continuous sections—a prelude for the brass, then a fugue for five saxophones, followed by riffs “for everybody”. Tonight, you’ll hear a symphonic arrangement of it from 1998 by Lukas Foss, who, while maintaining many sections in the original dance-band instrumentation, judiciously incorporates the sonority of strings throughout, particularly in the Fugue, where they and the solo clarinet play the saxophone parts.
In the “Prelude”, trumpets and trombones intone a punchy tune, which later gives way to a sultry melody, with strings adding warmth to the brassy timbre. The “Fugue”, initiated by the strings, is a playful episode of energetic counterpoint; lyrical lines provide contrast while interweaving with the main subject’s characteristic bouncy figures. “Riffs” begins with solo piano, over top of which the clarinet plays virtuosic flourishes—all written out in the score though they have the feel of improvised jazz. Various band instruments and percussion are highlighted in turn, while reminiscences of the fugue’s subject are developed. Later, a clarinet glissando slides into a slow swinging blues passage, after which the energy picks up and builds to a boisterous big-band finish.
Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra (arr. Ferde Grofé)
American composer and pianist George Gershwin (1898–1937) was one, if not the most successful of “crossover” artists in the popular and classical music spheres of the early 20th century. In the 1920s, with already a burgeoning career as a songwriter in New York’s Tin Pan Alley and for Broadway revues, he would establish his reputation as the composer who brought “jazz” music to the concert hall with his work Rhapsody in Blue.
The commission came from the dance orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, who was then keen on encouraging composers to write jazz-inspired works using classical techniques. He requested from Gershwin a concerto-like piece for piano and band; George initially refused, but then later accepted when he discovered that Whiteman had already publicized in the New York Tribune that “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto” for an upcoming concert. The piece was written quickly, over three weeks in January 1924, and was premiered on February 12 at New York’s Aeolian Hall by Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra with Gershwin at the piano. Billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music”, the concert, which also featured new works by Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, drew many music critics who attended alongside illustrious classical music figures such as composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, violinists Jascha Heifeitz and Fritz Kreisler, and the conductors Leopold Stokowski and Walter Damrosch. Rhapsody in Blue was a huge success; Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s top arranger who orchestrated the piece, soon revised the score for symphony orchestra, which is the version most performed in concert halls today.
In commissioning a work like Rhapsody in Blue, Whiteman’s aim was to show classical music artists, critics, and audiences that jazz, an American vernacular music then gaining popularity, was not the “superficial” artform they thought it to be, and that it could be suitable as concert music. As it turned out, Gershwin’s distinctive musical background—that is, not conservatory-trained but had studied classical compositional techniques, plus his talent and experience in writing popular song melodies—put him in a unique position to achieve a widely appealing fusion of jazz and classical. In Rhapsody in Blue, he incorporates throughout distinctive elements of the African American blues idiom, particularly “blue note” dissonances in his melodies and harmonies (the opening theme is one notable example), and call-and-response technique (like in the slow theme in the latter half of the piece). To this extent, the work’s title, which was given by George’s brother, Ira, is valid.
Structurally, the piece unfolds fluidly, not adhering to an established convention of classical form, but it does effectively maintain the dialogic relationship between soloist and orchestra in a concerto, and the anticipated displays of virtuosity. Following the opening low clarinet trill that transforms into an ecstatic slide, Rhapsody in Blue progresses, as Gershwin once told his biographer Isaac Goldberg, “as a sort of Kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Piano and orchestra in dialogue introduce and develop a series of musical ideas, all demonstrating Gershwin’s melodic flair. Later, after an extended piano solo musing on these motifs, comes another one of George’s memorable tunes: a warm romantic theme, first played by strings and woodwinds, then by the orchestra. Solo piano reflects further, after which it picks up energy, and its part becomes increasingly flashy. Together with the brass, it builds to one climax, then with the orchestra to another, culminating on a majestic march version of one of the work’s main ideas. In the final moments, piano and orchestra together exclaim one last time the opening theme, before closing with a roaring crescendo.
An American in Paris for orchestra
One of George Gershwin’s most successful and popular concert works, An American in Paris began as a fragment jotted down on a postcard. In April 1926, following a week-long stay in Paris, Gershwin sent one as a thank-you note to his hosts Robert and Mabel Schirmer. On it, he inscribed two musical quotations: one, the slow (“Andantino”) romantic theme from Rhapsody in Blue, the other he had written next to it “Very Parisienne” and labelled “An American in Paris”. Two years later, he returned to that snippet, and began sketching out an orchestral piece with that label as the title. To develop the music though, he needed a story to inspire him; as he explained in 1929, it finally came to mind one day while he was looking at the Hudson River from his New York apartment:
I love that river and I thought how often I had been homesick for a sight of it, and then the idea struck me—an American in Paris, homesickness, the blues. […] I thought of a walk on the Champs Elysées, of the honking taxi…
George completed most of the piece in the spring and summer of 1928, during an extended visit to Europe. On December 13 that year, An American in Paris was premiered at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch. The work later reached cinema audiences when it was used for the centrepiece dance sequence choreographed by and starring Gene Kelly in the acclaimed 1951 film of the same title.
Gershwin himself described An American in Paris as a “rhapsodic ballet”, though the classical music term would be tone poem—a single movement orchestral work evoking the content of an extramusical source. The “rhapsodic” element likely refers to the idea that the music proceeds according to the narrative, rather than the principles of an abstract formal structure. In this piece, the introduction, variation, and development of a series of tunes delineate the story’s arc, which Gershwin described in a Musical America interview as thus:
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. […] 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.
By way of Gershwin’s gift of musical storytelling through melodies, it’s easy to conjure up in one’s imagination the jaunty stroll of this American flâneur on a bustling Parisian street, complete with real taxi-horn honks. (Gershwin handpicked four taxi horns in Paris during his 1928 trip, and specified in the score when each, with their own tones, are to be used.) Brass instruments belt out boisterous tunes that are juxtaposed with moments in which the visitor seems to pause as if in a reverie, evoked by muted strings on sliding “impressionistic” harmonies (“in typical French style,” said Gershwin, “in the manner of [Claude] Debussy and the [composers of Les] Six”). At the heart of the piece is a soulful blues episode, with the melody introduced by trumpet; it’s then taken up by the violins and developed, becoming increasingly impassioned, as the American pines for home. Near the end, the nostalgic tune returns in grand fashion, with one last reminiscence before the final resounding chord.
Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD