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November 17, 2012
By Composer in Residence
The word “classical” might seem to imply an unchanging collection of dusty, old pieces by antiquated composers. Actually, the world of classical music is very dynamic and constantly changing. A composer whose music is the rage may be almost forgotten a few years later, and every once in a while, a new voice makes an unforgettable impression and becomes part of the enduring legacy of great music.
The JSO’s November concert, “Young, Exciting and Very Cool,” features works by three master composers who made a tremendous splash while they were very young, and a jazzy new concerto by a twenty-four year old pianist and composer who seems to have tremendous potential.
In February of 1932, George Gershwin (1898-1937) spent "two hysterical weeks in Cuba, where no sleep was had." He was bowled over by the exciting, rhythmic dance music he heard, and late that summer he wrote an exuberant overture he called Rumba.
The thirty-three year old Gershwin was fascinated by the exotic percussion instruments he heard in Cuba and brought home claves (which he called Cuban sticks), bongos, maracas and a gourd. He included them in his new score and insisted they appear on the front of the stage near the conductor.
Rumba was performed on August 16th in Lewisohn Stadium by conductor Albert Coates and the New York Philharmonic. This groundbreaking all-Gershwin concert was such a huge success it became an annual event. Gershwin said “It was, I really believe, the most exciting night I have ever had...17,845 people paid to get in and just about 5,000 were at the closed gates trying to fight their way in—unsuccessfully.”
The audience loved the new music immediately, and critics shared their enthusiasm.
Three months later, Gershwin renamed the piece Cuban Overture for a benefit concert at the Metropolitan Opera, saying he didn’t want audiences to think it was just a novelty. He felt the new title gave “a more just idea of the character and intent of the music" that was intended to “embody the essence of the Cuban dance.”
First Essay for Orchestra
It was obvious very early that Samuel Barber (1910-1981) had extraordinary talent. He set out to write an opera, The Rose Tree, when he was ten and became a church organist at the age of twelve. He entered the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when he was fourteen, and some of his finest music dates from his school years.
Barber wrote his First Essay for Orchestra in 1937 at the urging of conductor Arthur Rodzinsky, who had conducted Barber’s first symphony in Cleveland, New York and Salzburg.
The twenty-something composer sent the music, along with his famous Adagio for Strings, to Arturo Toscanini and waited impatiently as more than a year went by with no word from the maestro. Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti were eventually invited to visit Toscanini at his summer retreat at Lake Maggiore, but Barber stayed away, saying he was ill.
Toscanini told Menotti to reassure Barber. “He’s just angry with me,” he said, “but he has no reason to be - I’m going to do both his pieces.” Toscanini premiered both works in a radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on November 5, 1938, and performed both works on several other occasions.
Barber provided no program or accompanying story for his Essay, but the music amply demonstrates his rich imagination and powerful gift for musical expression.
Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town”
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) burst onto the scene on November 14, 1943, when conductor Bruno Walter had a fierce attack of the flu. Bernstein, Walter’s assistant, had to step in at the last minute to conduct a concert for a national broadcast. That performance won Bernstein enthusiastic kudos, and he cemented his fame quickly with his ballet Fancy Free and his first symphony Jeremiah.
His Broadway musical, On the Town, opened the next year, and the twenty-six year old was on his way to one of the most illustrious careers in music.
Bernstein wrote that On the Town “... is concerned with three sailors on a twenty-four hour leave in New York, and their adventures with the monstrous city which its inhabitants take so much for granted.” He later said “The subject matter was light, but the show was serious."
The score of On the Town is filled with dances. "It seems only natural that dance should play a leading role in the show,” he wrote “... I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts.”
Bernstein introduced this set of three dances from the show with the San Francisco Symphony on February 13, 1946.
In The Great Lover, the three sailors take a wide-eyed tour of the bustling city. Lonely Town is a lyric episode in which one of the sailors, Gabey, imagines a poignant romantic encounter. Times Square 1944 is a bustling celebration based on a comic duet, I Get Carried Away, originally sung by the show’s two lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also starred in the show.
Let There Be Light
The story of Consumers Energy began in 1886 when William Foote and Samuel Jarvis designed a system of arc lights to illuminate downtown Jackson. This past summer, on June 20th, Consumers marked their 125th anniversary as a Michigan company with a gala celebration on the plaza of their headquarters building, and they graciously commissioned me to write a fanfare for the occasion. Maestro Osmond conducted the piece with the JSO brass section in 90 degree heat, even though he had a nasty virus and should have been home in bed!
I enjoyed working with the piece so much I couldn’t leave it alone, and this fall I adapted it into the version for full orchestra we will hear tonight.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Julian Waterfall Pollack (born in 1988) started studying piano at the age of five and signed a recording contract with Jazzschool Records when he was seventeen. He has already had many impressive experiences, including appearing on the Marian McPartland’s national radio program Piano Jazz, performing at The Blue Note Jazz Club in New York and opening for artists like Chick Corea and Gary Burton.
Critic David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Pollack’s second Album, Infinite Playground, "provides ample evidence that Pollack is a ferociously assured and creatively dazzling pianist, composer and arranger." Wiegand later told NPR, "You often hear young people who are really, really talented; what you don't hear - that I hear in Julian's music - is maturity and soul and a lot of thoughtfulness."
Berklee College of Music in Boston offered Pollack full scholarship, but he chose to attend New York University in Manhattan, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition and piano.
Pollack performed the world première of his piano concerto with the Camellia Symphony in Sacrament, California on February 25, 2012.
He described his creative process in a candid interview taped as the piece was in rehearsal: “I’m a pretty happy guy, but I was experiencing a rather low point.” The first movement, he said, was based on his time in New York, while the third movement came out of his experiences in California.
“It’s not a piece that’s supposed to be about music, not supposed to challenge other music,” he said, “... it’s a personal statement about, basically, what my life has been like.”