April 26, 2015

Sunday at 3:00pm

Tickets $35

Program

Cuban Overture – Gershwin
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story  – Bernstein
A Medley for Orchestra – Ellington
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
Do Nothin til You Hear from Me
Sophisticated Lady
Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t got That Swing)
“Harlem” – Ellington

Today’s concert is sponsored by Mary S. Sauerteig

 

PROGRAM NOTES

Cuban Overture

George Gershwin

Born in Brooklyn, New York, September 26, 1898; died in Hollywood, California, July 11, 1937

In February 1932 Gershwin and his friends took a holiday in Havana—“two hysterical weeks in Cuba where no sleep was had.” He returned fired with a desire to write a work based on the fascinating music he had heard played in clubs and by roving street bands. In July he began composing a piece he called Rumba, in piano-duet form, which he tried out with one of his pianist friends—either Kay Swift or Oscar Levant—and orchestrated between August 1 and 9.

Rumba was first performed by the New York Philharmonic, led by English conductor Albert Coates, on August 16, 1932, on the first annual All-Gershwin Concert—an incredibly successful event that set an attendance record of around 18,000 at New York’s outdoor Lewisohn Stadium. Three months later for a benefit concert at the Metropolitan Opera, Gershwin changed the name to Cuban Overture so the piece would be considered more than just a novelty item. “When people read Rumba,” he said, “they expect the Peanut Vendor or a like piece of music. Cuban Overture gives a more just idea of the character and intent of the music.”

Gershwin had been particularly entranced by Cuban percussion instruments, and he brought back four of them to use in the piece—claves, bongo, guiro, and maracas. Because they would be unfamiliar to the musicians and to the audience of that time, he drew illustrations and labeled them on his manuscript, saying they “should be placed right in front of the conductor’s stand” rather than buried in the percussion section.

Another influential factor was Gershwin’s four-year course of study with Russian-born composer Joseph Schillinger (1895–1943), which he had just begun that spring. The Cuban Overture may not show the deep immersion in those studies of, say, the “I Got Rhythm” Variations, but its contrapuntal complexities show his thoughts beginning to be shaped by the Schillinger System. Gershwin touched on some of these contrapuntal details in his description for the first performance, noting the “three-part contrapuntal episode leading to a second theme,” the plaintive middle part’s “gradually developing canon in a polytonal manner,” the climax of this part “based on an ostinato of the theme in the canon,” and the finale that is “a development of the [rumba dance rhythms] in a stretto-like manner.”

A lively introduction sets the rumba mood, which colors the outer sections of Gershwin’s typical fast-slow-fast form. He employs his often-favored solo clarinet for a gently exotic cadenza to introduce the slow middle section. Following an imaginatively varied return of the rumba material, the composer brings back his main theme in a grand peroration with the Cuban percussion instruments featured in full force. In the final moments he builds a chord from the bottom up, punches out rapid-fire repetitions, and resolves it at the last second.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

 

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, August 25, 1918; died in New York, October 14, 1990

arr. Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story shares the central theme of New York City with many of the composer’s previous stage works: Fancy Free, On the Town, On the Waterfront, and Wonderful Town. This work differs from its predecessors, however, in that it presented the composer with the intriguing challenge of writing a serious musical. The idea of adapting the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a modern environment was first suggested by Jerome Robbins when he was choreographing Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety in 1949–50. Robbins and Bernstein originally thought the work might be called East Side Story, in which the lovers would come from different religious creeds. By the time the choreographer and composer emerged from other projects in the mid 1950s, race hatred and adolescent violence had become more prominent as current issues. So the title became West Side Story, with lovers Tony and Maria belonging to rival teen-age gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Along with Bernstein’s music and Robbins’s choreography, Arthur Laurents was engaged to write the book and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics. The show opened on Broadway in 1957, ran for 973 performances, and gained even more popularity when made into a film.

The musical score contains a masterful blend of various jazz elements, Latin rhythms, and romantic popular ballads. It also incorporates the kind of character identification that we associate with Wagner’s leitmotifs. In 1961, in order to make an orchestral concert work from the musical, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal chose a list of numbers, which they submitted to Bernstein, who chose the order. Having previously rescored the original show somewhat for the movie, they were already familiar with its symphonic conception. They did an admirable job keeping Bernstein’s music intact and retaining the composer’s brilliant orchestral effects. It was composer Jack Gottlieb, Bernstein’s assistant, who suggested using the haunting flute solo “I Had a Love” for the finale. Like the musical, the suite ends questioningly on a chord incorporating the unsettling interval of a tritone, which had played a role in other sections of the drama.

The work was first performed on February 13, 1961, by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lukas Foss. Its nine episodes, played without pause, follow the plot’s chronology, as summarized by Jack Gottlieb in the preface to the score:

 

Prologue (Allegro moderato)—The growing rivalry between the two teen-age gangs, the Jets and the Sharks

“Somewhere” (Adagio)—In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.

Scherzo (Vivace leggiero)—In the same dream, they break through the city walls, and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air, and sun.

Mambo (Presto)—Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs

Cha-Cha (Andantino con grazia)—The star-crossed lovers see each other for the first time and dance together.

Meeting Scene (Meno mosso)—Music accompanies their first spoken words.

“Cool,” Fugue (Allegretto)—An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.

Rumble (Molto allegro)—Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.

Finale (Adagio)—[After Tony has died in Maria’s arms.] Love music developing into a [funeral] procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of “Somewhere.”

 

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

 

 

Duke Ellington

Born in Washington, D.C., April 29, 1899; died in New York, May 24, 1974

One of the most celebrated figures in the history of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington is renowned both as a composer and as a performer. Dubbed “Duke” by a boyhood friend on account of his regal bearing, Ellington entered the jazz world as a pianist, influenced greatly by ragtime. A native of Washington, D.C., he began making a name for himself in New York in the 1920s with his four-piece band, the Washingtonians, which was soon enlarged to a ten-piece orchestra. Though he rose to the top of the jazz world, it took the overwhelming success of his Mood Indigo in 1930 to make his name a household word.

Between 1932 and 1942 Ellington produced his most creative big-band sonorities through unusual timbral effects, tonal experiments, and innovative voicings. Dubbed the “Ellington effect” by composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn, who joined his band in 1939, this hallmark sound depended largely on the individual traits of each band member, but it was Ellington’s genius that made a blend like no other. His enlargement of the band in the 1940s coincided with his writing a series of works of enormously ambitious scope, beginning with Black, Brown, and Beige, which he called a “tone parallel,” intended to depict the history of black people in the U.S. through their music. In addition to his myriad short jazz-band pieces and larger instrumental suites, Ellington wrote stage works, film scores, and sacred music, becoming one of history’s most prolific composers, with some 2,000 works to his name.

 

Ellington: A Medley for Orchestra

arr. Calvin Custer

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, July 15, 1939; died in Syracuse, New York, April 21, 1998

In 1991 arranger and longtime conductor of the Syracuse Symphony Calvin Custer arranged a suite for orchestra of four of Ellington’s greatest hits, beginning with Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, whose tune Ellington originally recorded as a big-band instrumental number in 1940 titled Never No Lament. Fit with lyrics by Rob Russell in 1942, the tune reached the top ten on the R&B and pop charts in 1943 as recorded both by the Duke himself and by the Ink Spots.

Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me also originated as an instrumental number: Concerto for Cootie—Cootie Williams was Ellington’s lead trumpet player, who recorded the piece with Ellington in 1940. Rob Russell again provided lyrics, this time in 1943, and the following year this, too, gained hit status on the charts.

First recorded in 1933, Sophisticated Lady is a musical portrait, said Ellington, of the teachers of his youth, who spent the academic year with their students but then traipsed off to Europe in the summers. Band members Lawrence Brown and Otto Hardwick apparently came up with the tunes of the A and B sections, respectively, though they later sold their right for $15 apiece. Ellington structured and harmonized the piece with lyrics provided by Irving Mills, his booking agent and manager, along with Mitchell Parrish.

Usually Ellington’s tunes came first and the lyrics later, but in the case of It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), it was likely the reverse. His manager Irving Mills said he came to him backstage after an uneven performance for a Chicago dance-hall audience and said, “Duke, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing—we got to get back into this dance routine”—and Ellington composed an early version of the song on the spot. Others have also been credited with the lyrics, but whatever their origin the song helped usher in an entirely new genre with faster harmonic rhythm and more improvisation—“swing.” Ellington first recorded It Don’t Mean a Thing in 1932, when its brash syncopations and modern harmonic touches must have stood out against the year’s popular romantic ballads.

 

Harlem

arr. Luther Henderson/Maurice Peress

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, March 14, 1919; died in New York, July 29, 2003/

Born in New York, March 18, 1930

Composed in 1950, A Tone Parallel with Harlem, also called Harlem Suite or simply Harlem, counts as another of the Duke’s depictions of the black experience, celebrating in particular Ellington’s adopted home. The work had been commissioned, he wrote in his autobiography, by Arturo Toscanini for the NBC Symphony and composed on board the Ile de France on Ellington’s return from Europe that summer. The aging Toscanini never conducted it, however, and questions have been raised about his involvement in the commission. The first performance—by Ellington’s jazz band alone—took place at an NAACP benefit concert at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 21, 1951. The new extended work may have surprised audience members used to his shorter numbers, but the Downbeat critic pronounced it among the evening’s “most successful works . . . a charming bit of program music.”

Until relatively recently commentators assumed that the first performance with symphony orchestra was the one given by the Symphony of the Air (former NBC Symphony) on March 16, 1955, orchestrated by Luther Henderson and conducted by Don Gillis, who had been Toscanini’s assistant. We now know from an overlooked New York Times review that Ellington himself had conducted the premiere with the NBC Symphony on June 20, 1951, for a cancer research benefit in City College’s Lewisohn Stadium. The reviewer wrote that Harlem showed “the composer’s talent for melodic creation of atmospheric effects and enormous volumes of sound. It had its rhythmic moments that made even some of the symphony men tap their feet.”

It remains a mystery who made the orchestration for that occasion. Henderson said he had no hand in it, and, though he and Ellington’s other usual orchestrators knew that the composer was wholly capable of it, no evidence has surfaced about him orchestrating any of his symphonic pieces. A missing link is Ellington’s manuscript, which he personally presented to President Harry S. Truman in 1950, but which unfortunately has not been found. In any case, Henderson’s masterful 1955 orchestration, which aptly captures Ellington’s improvisational jazz feel, is the basis of the version performed here, reworked by Maurice Peress for an 1989 recording. Once an assistant to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic and one of Ellington’s orchestrators, Peress also worked with Henderson, and confirmed to Stanley Slome of the Duke Ellington Society that he had made his version from what he thought was Ellington’s original manuscript, but which turned out to be Henderson’s.

Ellington briefly described Harlem in his autobiography as a strolling tour of Harlem on a Sunday morning, “from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood toward the 125th Street business area. Everybody is nicely dressed, and on their way to or from church. Everybody is in a friendly mood”—even a “real hip chick” standing under a street lamp. “You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands. (Hereabouts in our performance, Cootie Williams pronounces the word on his trumpet—Harlem!)”

The piece begins with the “Har-lem” call by the trumpet in the interval of a descending third—a key ingredient in the piece, especially at the “Civil Rights” juncture. The district comes to life with instrumental stretches and yawns, until the stroll begins with a steady beat as various instruments interject their commentary. Ellington wrote prominent wind and brass solos with specific players in mind, requiring great virtuosity from each.

Along the way we encounter Harlem’s Latin-American element—a fast rumba—interspersed with swing “dance band” passages, a breathless accelerando into the “Civil Rights” Har-lem cry, and a bluesy clarinet solo. The sultry descending saxophones and horns bring to mind Milhaud’s Creation du monde (1923), another work inspired by the Harlem experience. The continuing lament over steady tread suggests a funeral march, which metamorphoses into a spiritual. Ellington’s imaginative treatments of this theme include some surprising contrapuntal dissonance before the variations increase in texture, volume, and speed. The wild yet elegant abandon of the concluding section—interrupted dramatically just before the end for a brief percussion solo—suggests that the day’s tour has ended up in the night clubs.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe