Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Symphony Preview: All-American boys at Powell Hall October 16-18, 2015

Aaron Copland in 1970
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It's an all-American weekend at Powell Hall this Friday through Sunday as St. Louis Symphony Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi leads the orchestra in a program of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin. It includes two Big Pieces, one of which—Copland's 1926 "Piano Concerto"—is not heard all that often.

As Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, the concerto dates from a time when Copland—then a brash young man in his mid-20s—was making a name for himself with "works that vibrated with the exciting new rhythms of the Jazz Age." The popular style of more well-known works like "Rodeo," "Billy the Kid," and the "Symphony No. 3" was still a decade or more away, although you can still hear suggestions of that big, open sound in the opening measures of the concerto.

Serge Koussevitzky
"The Piano Concerto", writes Copland in the first volume of his 1984 autobiography (co-authored with Vivian Perlis), "was the last of my works to make explicit use of jazz materials. I have often described myself as a 'work-a-year' man—1926 was the year of the Concerto." He goes on to give a detailed description of how jazz elements are incorporated into the concerto, but since you can read much of that in Mr. Schiavo's notes there no reason for me to repeat it here.

The concerto was not particularly well received at its 1927 premiere with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the composer at the piano. "If I felt I had gone to the extreme of where jazz could take me," writes Copland, "the audiences and critics in Boston all thought I had gone too far. One critic actually accused Koussevitzky of being a malicious foreigner who wanted to show how bad American music was!" These days the concerto, while still not a core part of the repertory, rarely meets with that kind of hostility.

The soloist for the concerto will be Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, who currently serves as the New York Philharmonic's first Artist-in-Association—a position that guarantees him three years of performances with that prestigious ensemble. The orchestra's outgoing Music Director, Alan Gilbert, has described Mr. Barnatan as "the complete artist: a wonderful pianist, a probing intellect, passionately committed, and a capable contemporary-music pianist as well." Which certainly makes him sound like a good match for this material.

Inon Barnatan
Photo: Marco Borggreve,
In his discussion of the "Piano Concerto" in his autobiography, Copland goes on at some length to point out that he was "often critically paired with [George] Gershwin" and that some critics suggested that the latter's "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F" might have influenced Copland's own work. But he and Gershwin had, in fact, no contact with each other. "On one occasion," notes Copland, "when we were finally face to face at some party, with the opportunity for conversation, we found nothing to say to each other!"

Which brings us to the second Big Piece on the program this weekend: Gershwin's wildly popular tone poem "An American in Paris." Begun during a trip to Paris in the same year that Copland spent working on his concerto and completed during a longer visit to the City of Light in 1928, the work is a reminder of just how much solid craftsmanship lurks behind Gershwin’s irresistible tunes.

"This new piece," observed Gershwin in a 1928 interview in Musical America, "really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I've yet attempted. The opening will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and The Six, though the themes are all original. My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere."

Gershwin in 1937
Photo: Carl Van Vechten
As someone who has just returned from another trip to Paris, I have to say it works beautifully. The lively opening with its colorful evocation of the city's lively sidewalk cafes and bustling boulevards (complete with honking taxi horns in the percussion section) is a masterful bit of musical imagery. And the bluesy central section evokes not only the homesickness of the traveler but also the charm of Paris at night.

"An American in Paris" is also reminder of how far Gershwin came in such a short period of time. This is, after all, a guy who went from being a Tin Pan Alley "song plugger" to an accomplished composer and orchestrator in only thirteen years. In another seven years he would write one of the mainstays of twentieth century American opera, "Porgy and Bess". What might he have done had he not died so young?

The concerts open with a pair of suites by Leonard Bernstein: the "Three Dance Episodes" from his first major Broadway hit "On the Town" (which opened in December 1944) and the "Symphonic Suite" from his score for the 1955 Elia Kazan film "On the Waterfront."

Listening to the score for "On the Town" may feel like a nostalgic exercise now, but back in 1944 this story of three sailors out to see as much of New York as possible in one day had real resonance for a country that had been at war for four years. The D-Day invasion was just six months old and while the Third Reich was crumbling, the war with Japan still raged. Everyone in the audience understood that Chip, Ozzie, and Gabey were so desperate to see it all today because, for them, there might not be a tomorrow. You can hear that in the melancholy of the second movement ("Lonely Town") as well as in the frantic bustle of the finale ("Times Square: 1944").

Leonard Bernstein, 1945
Photo: Carl Van Vechten
"It was very hard for any of us on opening night to have a clear idea of what our show was really like," recall original cast members and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green in the liner notes for the 1961 studio recording of the show for Columbia. "World War II was on, and the theme of young people caught in it, and the urgency of their desperately trying to cram a lifetime of adventure and romance into a moment, seemed to move the audience and give the show an underlying poignancy, while never having to ask for sympathy."

The music from "On the Waterfront"—Bernstein's only film score—shows a different side of his musical personality. It's haunting, lyrical, and, in its final pages, builds to exultant climax. In the film, the music accompanies a scene in which Marlon Brando's character, despite being beaten to a pulp by goons hired by Lee J. Cobb's crooked union organizer, shakily gets to his feat and defiantly returns to work. It's an inspiring moment, even if the film itself sometimes comes across as anti-union agitprop from a director who, a few years earlier, had cooperated with McCarthy's anticommunist witch-hunt.

The essentials: Steven Jarvi conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Inon Barnatan on Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., October 16-18. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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