American Stories

Saturday, December 7, 2019 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

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American Stories Julius Wirth

Pieces

Leonard Bernstein - On the Waterfront
Program Notes

LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)

ON THE WATERFRONT – SYMPHONIC SUITE

COMPOSED: 1954

PREMIERED: Tanglewood, MA, 1955

Astonishingly, given the success of Bernstein’s music for Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie On The Waterfront , it was to be his only completed original score for the movies. He hated the entire process of writing to split-second time tolerances, and suffered agonies of frustration and belittlement at the hands of the director and music editor; the dubbing session was one of the major traumas of his entire professional life. However, he was sufficiently confident in his own work (and status) to ensure that his right to recompose the music as a symphonic suite after the movie’s premiere was written into his contract; this was unheard of at the time.

Unlike most compilations of movie music, the On The Waterfront suite does not consist of a succession of cues from the film. Bernstein takes the individual elements of the music – motifs associated with characters and events in the picture – and composes them into a satisfying symphonic arc that owes its overall shape to the movie without slavishly following its narrative. So, following the bleak, cold (and very high) solo horn that opens the movie and introduces a wintry Hoboken, we meet Marlon Brando’s tortured Terry and his conflicted girlfriend Edie. Their initially hesitant love music is constantly threatened by the ferocious timpani battle that symbolizes the Mob and its baleful influence on their world; musical details identified in the picture with plot points varying from Karl Malden’s brave parish priest to Terry’s pet pigeons become elements of a genuinely tragic symphonic structure. The closing passage, based on Terry’s bloodied stagger into the warehouse as Mob boss Johnny Friendly blusters in defeated impotence, has a power equal to anything in Bernstein’s hero Mahler. Love, in the shape of Edie’s theme, conquers all, but at terrible cost.

For all its power, Bernstein’s music was defeated for the Oscar by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for The High And The Mighty ; Bernstein could only look on in bewilderment as John Wayne quite literally whistled the music to the top of the charts. Maybe Hollywood was not for him after all.

Aaron Copland - Lincoln Portrait
Program Notes

AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)

A LINCOLN PORTRAIT

COMPOSED: 1942

PREMIERED: Cincinnati, OH, 1942

It is one of the ironies of American music that the composer most associated with patriotic music (after Sousa) was a card-carrying Communist. However, in the highly-charged months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Aaron Copland’s own patriotism was not to be doubted; he leapt at Andre Kostalanetz’s request for a musical portrait of “an eminent American,” and produced one of the truly great works of American nationalism. The words he chose from the writings of Abraham Lincoln have the ineluctable force of scripture; following their first recitation by the now mostly-forgotten actor William Adams, they have been read in performances of this work by orators ranging from Gregory Peck to Margaret Thatcher. Strangely, Vincent Persichetti’s choice of very nearly the same words for a piece to commemorate the inauguration of Richard Nixon was condemned as “too political”. The piece has power beyond the merely musical: a performance in Caracas in 1957 was credited with starting the revolution that ousted dictator Marcos Jimenez. There has been and there is no time in our American lives when Lincoln’s words have not been all too relevant; we cannot, indeed, escape history.

Cast in Copland’s most accessible all-American tonal language, the music enshrines Lincoln’s words in pillars of sound just as often associated with the prairies and Monument Valley, while snatches of familiar melodies such as Camptown Races and On Springfield Mountain act almost literally as landmarks. Copland sets up a steady climb to the pinnacle of “Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” allowing Lincoln to declaim unhindered across the ages. The music, written in the throes of wartime, speaks to all times.

Gabriela Lena Frank - La Llorona
Program Notes

COMPOSER'S NOTE

Dedicated to my dear friend Wayne Brooks, La Llorona: Tone Poem for Viola and Orchestra is inspired by the many existing myths in Latin America regarding a female spirit known as la llorona, or "crying woman." Somewhat similar to female ghosts from other cultures (such as the rusalka from Russia or the Kuchisake-onna from Japan), the llorona generally comes about as the result of a violent death: drowning, suicide, childbirth, and murder at the hands of a lover are common causes. The riverbanks are typically the places where one might encounter the llorona, for these are frequently the sites of the tragedies that took away her human life.

This programmatic work is a portrait of the internal shift that happens as the llorona accepts her new existence. It consists of seven continuous movements:

I. Slumber: It is just minutes after the llorona has lost her human life and crossed over into the new realm. Not fully conscious, she is still in the fog of a supernatural sleep.

II. Awakening: After the quiet orchestral tutti which builds, the solo viola’s entrance signals that the llorona has sprung to new life.

III. Flight: The llorona denies this new reality and tries to escape, literally. Irrationally, she runs here and there, crying for what was.

IV. Danza de las Chullpas: In the course of fleeing her fate, the llorona stumbles upon a scene of other spirits normally unseen to humans. The chullpas are ancient spirits (hailing from Peruvian culture) in the form of skeletons hobbled over from having been bound into fetal positions as mummies. The llorona reluctantly begins to realize that she has indeed crossed over into another realm.

V. Canto de la Luna: Revered in many cultures, the moon is often a female deity that communicates with humans and spirits alike. Here, moonlight sings to the llorona, asking her to find acceptance.

VI. Flight: The llorona cannot find it in herself to accept, and tries once again to escape.

VII. Coda: The llorona slowly retreats into the shadows to join the other spirits unseen by the rest of us. It is the acknowledgement that tragically, she simply can’t change what’s not hers to change.

— Gabriela Lena Frank

George Gershwin - An American in Paris
Program Notes

GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

COMPOSED: 1926-1928

PREMIERED: New York, NY, 1928

When Gershwin visited Paris in 1926, he asked Maurice Ravel for composition lessons. Ravel simply asked him how much he earned, then roared with laughter at the reply; Gershwin, he said, should give him lessons. Gershwin set up a 20-concert US piano-playing tour for Ravel that would earn the Frenchman $10,000 – less than Gershwin’s weekly earnings that year. Gershwin did, however, return to New York with a melody that he called “Very Parisienne;” this would be the “walking” theme that opens An American In Paris. Walter Damrosch actually asked Gershwin for a concerto in the wake of the dazzling success of the Rhapsody In Blue. That would come later; in the meantime, this “symphonic poem” would have to suffice. Gershwin had been listening to Ravel and Satie, and had something to show for it.

“Very Parisienne” did not come to the United States alone; Gershwin also brought with him four Parisian taxi horns that would be used to evoke the French capital; these form one of the quirkier features of this work, which is unique in Gershwin’s output in its attempts to square Gershwin’s instinctive rhapsodic gift with something resembling Classical structure. The piece is actually in a rough ABA form, with the famous trumpet solo – a melody evoking the American’s homesickness in the midst of the Satie – as its centerpiece. The melody is often referred to as a blues, but is nothing of the sort. It is, however, one of Gershwin’s greatest melodies – no small statement.

Although the piece was not intended to tell any particular story, Gene Kelly would choreograph it for the 1948 movie of the same name, and had problems with the structural balance of the music. So, ironically, did Gershwin, who tortured himself with doubts as to his status as a “real” composer; the original score is nearly five minutes longer. Following the first performance (which he walked out on, hating Damrosch’s tempi), he excised a few repetitions and redundancies to leave us the piece we hear tonight. He was right – but he had nothing to worry about regarding his status as a composer.

About the Concert

Four great American composers share a program of very different American stories!

American folk melodies are deftly interwoven into Copland's masterful setting of Lincoln's stirring rhetoric. Marlon Brando's iconic performance as an ex-prize fighter standing up to corrupt union bosses is matched in intensity only by Leonard Bernstein's riveting score. Gershwin's carefree French travel log contains some of his most famous melodies, complete with taxi horns!

Gabriela Lena Frank was born in Berkeley, California to a mother of mixed Peruvian-Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, and she explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Her tone poem for viola and orchestra featuring Julius Wirth is inspired by the many myths in Latin America of the female spirit known as La Llorona, or "weeping woman."

Free pre-concert lecture at 6:30pm!