All-American Notes

Enjoy these program notes for "All-American," written by our fabulous musicologist-in-residence, Kathryn Bacasmot! 

Mark O’Connor (b. 1951) :: Elevations

At the end of the 19th century came to a close, Antonín Dvorák was invited to The National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City with the assignment to discover and reveal the answer to the question, “What is ‘American’ Music?” Upon his arrival, he began searching for clues within the various music styles of different people groups in the country. He heard spirituals and plantation songs from the South, and reviewed transcriptions of Native American melodies. As Klause Döge notes, “In many newspaper articles and interviews he expressed his belief that a national American style could be based on such traditional elements.”

Building on that idea, Mark O’Connor has a strong connection to the rhythmic, tonal, and stylistic idioms of our nation’s many “folk” sounds, and has successfully dedicated his career to promotion and preservation of an “American” sonic identity that reflects those distinct components blended with the concert music tradition of Western Europe.

About Elevations, O’Connor has said in an interview:

“Elevations is based on my composition Vistas that I composed originally for Yo-Yo Ma and our project Appalachian Journey. Ever since we recorded Vistas in 1999, I had imagined it for orchestra. When I received the commission to compose for the New Century Chamber Orchestra of San Francisco, I thought of an idea for how to extend Vistas to a 2nd movement. So in every sense, Elevations springs from Vistas. The original Vistas conceptual design was informed by the views from my then writing studio and balconies in Southern California that are quite sweeping. I had noticed one day that there are three very distinct views from the balcony, one to the east where the desert begins to reveal itself; one to the north where you can see the distant mountains; and then a view off to the west where the beautiful Pacific Ocean sparkles in the distance. The idea of differences (desert, mountain, ocean) juxtaposed with the application of peripheral vision superimposing differences and in the process becoming one big picture in a giant panoramic view, was principle in the design of the piece. Vistas was a standout on the Appalachian Journey album. 

Since the original inspiration of Vistas was to take natural habitats and use them as metaphoric bridges to human conditions, pressing the point that differences are not that different at all. The concept of simply being on a “different page” of the same journey and in the end saying essentially the same thing all along is the thrust of the Vistas concept and the result of the canonic writing. This was key to the construction of the form. It became evident that the 2nd and final movement of Elevations could develop beyond the inspiration of three habitats, to three groups of people whose dynamic presence for the most part created American culture; Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans.

When I think about music and art, I feel there are three important bridges all artists seek to cross: In the end, we seek to elevate the spirit, stimulate the intellect and strengthen the heart. In America, certainly the beautiful contrasting landscapes as well as the hundreds of years of human cultures cross-pollinating to formulate new musical styles, helped to achieve these ideals.”

Philip Glass (b. 1937) :: Company

The so-called American “minimalists” (Reich, and perhaps most famously Glass, among them) composed music revolving around the idea of stasis, music that retained tonality but arranged it in very slowly shifting patterns with minimal harmonic movement. Glass, as Alex Ross puts it, “...focused with almost maddening thoroughness on the basic mechanism of repetition, addition, and subtraction.”

The String Quartet No. 2, titled Company, was originally written in 1983 as accompaniment to Samuel Beckett’s work of the same name, and was later premiered as a free-standing chamber music work.

Derek Bermel (b. 1967) :: Murmurations

When I listen to and watch a string orchestra play, I'm reminded of a flock of birds. Visually and aurally, the performers seek unity on many levels -- attention to tuning, tone, clarity of rhythm, consistency and pressure of bowing. They glide and dive in formation, soaring together or splitting into layers of counterpoint before regrouping into a single unit. During my year living in Rome, I was often treated to the graceful spectacle of a starling murmuration. Theirstunning, geometrical displays of aviation prior to settling down for the night are a humbling sight to behold. In fact, starlings' mass motion suggests "emergence", a concept in Game Theory that explains how simple interactions can engender complex systems.

In "Murmurations" I attempted to map onto a musical structure some of the behavior I observed in the starlings' flight. Their collective push and pull, swoop, and parallel movement manifests in the opening movement "Gathering near Gretna Green", titled for the Scottish village where starlings frequently assemble. The music hovers and swoops, culminating in a cadenza – the lone concertmaster briefly separates from the flock for a rare individual moment, and is again swallowed up into the mass motion. In the middle movement "Soaring over Algiers", the melodic line glides alone, then in double, and finally triple layers of counterpoint, over arpeggios in the lower strings. I was inspired to write the third movement, "Swarming Rome", upon learning that starlings signal and sense subtle directional intent to and from their neighboors seven birds distant. Here the notes travel in loose clusters, darting and fluttering, far enough from each other to maneuver through the air, yet close enough to respond to sudden shifts in the murmuration's rhythm and cadence.

"Murmurations" was co-commissioned by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and partner A Far Cry. For inspiration, violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Steve Copes, Jae Young Cosmos Lee, and Cho-Liang Lin; writer Siobhan Roberts and Noah Strycker; mathematician Helmut Hofer; and photographer Richard Barnes. Special thanks to Alecia Lawyer, Parker Monroe, Kyu-Young Kim, Todd Vunderink, Anthony Cornicello, and Elizabeth Dworkin.

- Derek Bermel

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) :: Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium

Written in 1954, when Bernstein was thirty-six years old, the Serenade took its inspiration from Plato’s Symposium. The work wasn’t intended as program music, per se, but does attempt to capture the rhythm and spirit of the dialogue as it unfolds.

Bernstein provided his own annotation to the work, explaining the overall concept, as well as the individual movements:

“There is not literal program for this serenade, despite the fact that it resulted from a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, The Symposium. The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet. The “relatedness” of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one.

For the benefit of those interested in literary allusion, I might suggest the following points as guideposts:

I.               Phaedrus—Pausanias (Lento—Allegro): Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of lover and beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.

II.             Aristophanes (Allegretto): Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.

III.           Erixymachus (Presto): The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.

IV.           Agathon (Adagio): Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.

V.             Socrates—Alcibiades (Molto tenuto—Allegro molto vivace): Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jiglike dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party music, but rather the national expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.”