Thursday, November 6, 2014

Star-Cross'd Lovers: Part 2 with Bernstein's "West Side Story"

There's a place for you at the Harrisburg Symphony Masterworks Concert this weekend, “Star-Cross'd Lovers,” includes Shakespeare-inspired music by Leonard Bernstein and Sergei Prokofiev, works that may be familiar to most concert-goers. The concert is Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg and conductor Stuart Malina will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance (as well as the post-concert talk-back Q&A and everything in between).

This post is primarily about Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." You can read about Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo & Juliet, here.

Also on the program is a brand-new work no one's ever heard before, making it a responsibility for the performers – who can't just turn to a recording to hear “how it goes” – as well as the listeners. I wrote a little about Jeremy Gill and the whole idea of being a living composer (“making a living” is more than just “being alive”) in yesterday's post which you can read here.

But a word about our soloist, Christopher Grymes, the clarinetist for whom Jeremy Gill composed his Notturno concertante. You can read Mr. Grymes' biography here.

Christopher Grymes
You may be familiar with his playing with Concertante, the New York-based chamber ensemble, who performed regularly in the past here in Harrisburg, and with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic in past seasons where he performed in Quintets for Piano & Winds by Beethoven and Mozart with pianist Stuart Malina at Market Square Church.

In her column, Art & Soul, Ellen Hughes wrote about the up-coming concert.

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Gill calls [Christopher Grymes] an incredibly conscientious musician. 'He has the kind of musical personality that can make the work uniquely his own. With Chris and Stuart, my piece couldn't be in better hands.'

Grymes has had the clarinet part since May. 'I really like it, but I won't know what it sounds like until I hear it with the full orchestra,' he said. 'It's written beautifully for the clarinet.' He's memorized his part, which is quite a feat. 'It's easier when it's been memorized. I think it uses a different area of the brain. It's more “in the moment.” I've had to develop and broaden my technique, to get so much more athletic at the top range of the instrument than ever before,' he added.
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Leonard Bernstein, conductor!
For most music lovers of a certain age (which would be much of the traditional concert hall audience these days), Leonard Bernstein was probably an important influence on our musical awareness both as a conductor and composer, especially with his “Young People's Concerts” available on television starting in 1958, as well as works like West Side Story or his dramatic performances leading the New York Philharmonic whether it was Beethoven's 5th or Shostakovich's 5th.

Chances are good that more people are familiar with music from his West Side Story than might know any of the works by Bernstein's contemporaries and colleagues combined, composers whose works he conducted and often premiered.

West Side Story became a topic for discussion in 1949, though it wasn't until the mid-50s it began to take shape, a musical that takes Shakespeare's immortal couple, the “star-cross'd lovers” Romeo and Juliet, and translated them into modern Manhattan, placing them on the Upper West Side with feuding gangs – the Sharks and the Jets – replacing the feuding families of the Montagues and the Capulets.

Ironically, much of this neighborhood was leveled in the early-60s to build what would become Lincoln Center, the new home of more than just the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was named the philharmonic's music director in 1957, the same year West Side Story received its world premiere on Broadway.

Dance was a major part of the show – and whether you've seen the show or the movie based on it, you get a sense of how challenging the choreography is and how integral it is to the show itself. So it seemed natural that Bernstein should take some of the “best tunes” and turn them into a suite just as any composer would do with a stage work.

Oddly, though, the suite from West Side Story isn't that kind of a suite, a collection of hummable excerpts meant to bring music from the theater into the concert hall so more people would become familiar with it, creating a different and longer shelf-life compared to those who might only experience it on the stage.

Bernstein chose what dance numbers and songs he wanted for this concert work and gave it to his colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal to arrange and orchestrate. He called them “symphonic” dances not just because they were now to be played by a symphony orchestra but because, in the original sense of “symphonic,” they are developed beyond just being presented as charming tunes. They recreate the dramatic tension, perhaps, but also expand and evolve along lines the Broadway stage didn't have time for. Plus, it's basically in four parts, not quite movements, with a variety of moods and tempos, much like a four-movement symphony.

Here's a performance by Bernstein protege Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the San Francisco Symphony at a Carnegie Hall concert in 2008:

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Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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Leonard Bernstein was a talented pianist, often conducting concertos from the keyboard (before it was considered “historically informed”) and he may well have been one of the first great “cross-over artists” between classical music and the worlds of pop and jazz.

He was dynamic, brash, opinionated and often flamboyant and arrogant but certainly never bland. He brought us Mahler when nobody really listened to Mahler and he conducted the latest in new music whether it was the complex Elliott Carter or the complete opposite of complexity in John Cage and Earl Brown.

It may seem surprising to those of us who experienced the force of nature that was Leonard Bernstein then that, according to friends and family, he was not always the secure, flamboyantly self-confident artist we would've thought, one who had fame, fortune and an immense and seemingly unending talent.

Defining the idea of “eclectic,” drawing from classical traditions, from jazz and pop as well as Jewish music, both sacred and secular, Bernstein created a musical language that, despite its eclecticism, always sounded to me like Bernstein, the man who created “West Side Story” or “Chichester Psalms” or his wild and crazy “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” or the Kaddish Symphony of 1963.

But deep down, while he conducted the newest works of the major composers of the day, he felt the pressure of not being one of them himself, not being accepted by them as part of a “big boys' club” as one family member expressed it in a special program broadcast on Public Radio, Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, an 11-part series narrated by Susan Sarandon. “The series culminates with a look at Bernstein's legacy: his final days are colored by his own sense of failure.”

He strove to write “serious” music that was complex and “original” but these pieces not only failed with the general audiences, it was not taken seriously by the composers he hoped most to “impress.” Inevitably, it led to a great amount of frustration and a creative roadblock, a tragedy, I thought, for a man who could not see how “original” something like West Side Story was, how sincere “Chichester Psalms” was or how brilliant Candide was (despite its tortured history of failure and revision, enough to rival Beethoven's Fidelio).

Bernstein in 1955
I wonder how many of these questions, these doubts – personal as well as artistic – would've been revealed in the memoir he was working on at the time of his death in 1990 at the age of 72. “The draft of his memoir, Blue Ink, having only existed in electronic form in a password-protected document that still remains unopened to this day, has become a poster-child in the probate community for the need of increased awareness of digital assets during the estate planning process.”

And yet music from West Side Story and Candide – both written before he was 40 – appear regularly in “serious” concert halls alongside the great composers he championed as a conductor – and more frequently, no doubt, than most of those composers he'd hoped to impress. Certainly, when it opened in 1957, there was never a musical like West Side Story and there's never been another one like it since.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jeremy Gill's Notturno Concertante, World Premiere

Jeremy Gill
This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina features two works inspired by Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers," Romeo and Juliet - plus the world premiere of a brand new concerto for clarinet by Jeremy Gill with Christopher Grymes. You may have heard other works by the Harrisburg-born composer and heard clarinetist Grymes performing with his colleagues in Concertante (whose name figures in the title of the piece Gill wrote for Grymes: concertante means a work in which instruments are featured in a solo role, like a concerto) - as well as playing Mozart and Beethoven quintets with Stuart Malina at the piano in past "Summermusics" with Market Square Concerts.

The HSO Masterworks concerts are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with conductor Malina offering his insights into the music an hour before each performance. Between that and the post-concert "talk-back" Q&A session, you have ample opportunity to find out more about the music, the performers and, in this case, the composer of a new work.

While Leonard Bernstein's music from West Side Story needs no introduction and Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo and Juliet, has its own interesting back-story, I wanted to focus in this post on a work you've not had a chance to hear, yet. But first...

A Brief History of Living Composers...

During the first thousand or so years of the history of Western Classical Music, composers were generally employed by the Church and wrote mostly sacred music which was written down and stored in church libraries. Composers and performers of secular music – more like today's “popular” music – were supported by medieval noblemen, the feudal lords, but, being more profane, were of no interest to the church-dominated society, so it wasn't (usually) written down and saved. It's almost as if it never existed.

Jeremy Gill visits Bach's church, Leipzig, in 2009
Starting with the Renaissance around 1600 (not coincidentally, around the time the printing press was invented) and into the Classical era, up until about 1800, a mere two centuries, composers were more likely to be employed by the aristocratic courts scattered across the highly fragmented map of Europe. Think of Haydn and Prince Esterhazy or Mozart's father and the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who, alas, had little patience with the young Mozart's arrogance.

Then, with Beethoven following in Mozart's would-be footsteps, the image of the Romantic Composer, struggling to make a living, put the typical musician at the mercy of society, a kind of free-lance musical capitalism where, if you could sell your music to the public and convince people to buy tickets to come hear your concerts, you could make a living being a musician. But what was the difference between churning out hundreds of amateurish flute concertos for your flute-playing king (as Quantz did for Frederick the Great who was, as a flutist, more like Frederick the Okay) and Beethoven arranging 150 British folk songs for a London publisher because he needed the money?

A composers as famous as Brahms lived handsomely enough off the music he published (and one he didn't, a little lullaby you might've heard) while others, like Schubert, died in poverty for lack of a sustaining audience.

Then, somewhere in the 20th Century, composers – especially American ones – found that, in order to pay the bills, teaching music at universities was a little more steady (remembering the first American music department was established at Harvard in the 1870s – before that, would-be composers had to go to Europe to study). Academia then became the equivalent of the Church and the aristocratic Courts that had maintained composers in previous centuries.

If not a university, then, some other “day job” – like Charles Ives who ran a very successful insurance company in New York City which allowed him the income to compose the music he wanted to write but which few people wanted to perform (at the time).

As a composer teaching in college, I heard a lot of very academic music from composers who were more interested in writing for their colleagues' approval than for the average audience's. Some of this was exciting and challenging but a lot of it was... well, very academic.

The same could be said of a lot of the music turned out by hundreds of little court composers composing in little courts in 18th Century Germany, music that has – unlike Bach's or Haydn's – not withstood the tests of time and might be unknown today if producers of compact discs had not been desperate to find other stuff to record. Some of it is good, possibly refreshing; some of it, not so much.

Sometime around the 1970s, young composers wanted to get away from the academic world modern music had become and like everything else changing (or breaking) in the '60s and '70s (for those of us who can remember them), becoming a composer on your own was a new and usually challenging life style.

It still is, today, especially in a society that will gladly pay you Tuesday for a new composition today, assuming it succeeds – or better yet, offer to play your new work “for the exposure” rather than pay you for it, forgetting that composers like other people still have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Free-lancing today often means cobbling together enough “gigs” to put food on the table and while that may mean playing in four different orchestras and other, smaller performance ensembles (December is an especially crazy time for musicians playing Christmas programs across the landscape) plus teaching private lessons and as an adjunct professor in a couple of different college music departments for little pay and no benefits, for composers it means being asked to compose a new piece and, most importantly, getting paid to do so – then hoping there's enough of a success with it that it'll be played again somewhere.

Today, a successful composer gets commissioned to write enough pieces, he or (finally) she doesn't have to write something unless someone pays for it in advance, rather than writing something and farming it out hoping to find someone who'll play it.

Jennifer Higdon, one of the busiest and most performed composers on the American scene today, has commissioning projects lined up years in advance and can pick and choose which ones she wants to fulfill. You may have heard her Percussion Concerto when it was played – twice in recent years – by the Harrisburg Symphony with Chris Rose, our principal percussionist, as the soloist. The commission to write that for its initial soloist, Colin Currie, came from three different orchestras and numerous financial organizations and new music projects.

Would she have composed a percussion concerto and shipped it around to various percussionists saying “Would you please please please play my new concerto?” Not likely. But now, people line up to ask her “would you please please please write me a new [insert instrument here] concerto?”

JEREMY GILL, his story...

Jeremy Gill was born in Harrisburg PA in 1975 where he studied oboe, piano and composition before attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY where he earned his Bachelor's degree in composition (with distinction) in 1996 before pursuing his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania which he received four years later. He studied with several great American composers, including George Crumb, George Rochberg, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse and Samuel Adler. On his own, in Academia, he taught at West Chester University, Messiah College and Temple University.

Jeremy Gill, with Lucy Shelton, members of Dolce Suono Ensemble
Not too long ago, he decided to take the leap from full-time academic teaching to being a free-lance composer, pianist, conductor and teacher in Boston. He's also a part-time visiting professor of music at Dickinson College in Carlisle but at the same time a Fellow of the American Opera Project’s “Composers and the Voice” program (based in Brooklyn, New York), where he composed solo songs for the resident singers and worked toward the production of his first opera.

Active as a performer and conductor, he has also been a pre-concert lecturer here with the Harrisburg Symphony is years past, with Philadelphia’s Dolce Suono Chamber Music Concert Series and most recently with the Boston Symphony.

In Harrisburg alone, I've had the chance to hear a number of Jeremy Gill's works including his Symphony No. 1 (which you can read about here when it was performed by Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony) and another orchestral work, “Novas,” the song cycles “Helian” and “Songs about Words” (this last, setting poems by Lucy Miller Murray), two string quartets, one called “25” and the more recent “Capriccio,” both played here by the Parker Quartet, and another one, “Variations” performed by the Casal Quartet, a set of piano pieces performed as tribute to Elliott Carter's centennial celebration called “Eliot Fragments (for Carter)” (in which the “Eliot” refers as a double reference to lines by T.S. Eliot) plus the “8 Variations and Toccata on Betzet Yisrael” for organ.

(You can sample many of these works with sound clips at the composer's website.)

It's possible I've forgotten something, but these, certainly, stick out in my mind as outstanding works and to say I'm looking forward to the new clarinet concerto, Notturno Concertante, should be obvious!

Quoting from Ellen Hughes' Art & Soul column in Harrisburg's Patriot-News, she asked Stuart Malina about this new piece:

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"Like Aaron Copland, Jeremy's work has become easier to grasp as he's matured. You could say that he is in the middle of his middle period," Malina said, with a hint of a smile. "This is a dramatic, accessible work without being banal – a great piece."

Gill agrees with Malina about the accessibility of his piece. "I've been changing generally in the past couple of years," he said. "In the past, I've thought a lot about the performers. Does the experience of playing my music feel good? Does it work well on their instruments? But recently I've been thinking about the audience in that way. I've always loved the great old music, like Brahms and Beethoven, so I began to ask myself, what do I want an audience member to feel while listening to my music?"

"In the past, my tendency has been toward introspection, but not in this piece. It's written for a big orchestra, and all of the players have a role, a moment when their instruments are showcased. And there's excitement, including a loud and satisfying ending," Gill said.

(you can read the entire article here.
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Of this latest work to be heard in his hometown – commissioned by the Lois Lerhman Grass Foundation for Christopher Grymes and the Harrisburg Symphony – the composer writes in his program note:

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Christopher Grymes
Roughly around the same time, in mid-2013, I received commissions to compose two wind concertos (Serenada Concertante for oboist Erin Hannigan and the Dallas Symphony and Notturno Concertante for clarinetist Christopher Grymes and the Harrisburg Symphony). I immediately knew that I wanted them to form a pair, and since wind instruments are historically associated with the outdoors, I decided to reference two popular, and closely related, Classical-era outdoor ‘forms’: the serenade and the nocturne. Both of these celebrate the natural world, with the serenade focusing more on the diurnal. Ever since reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake I’ve loved the idea of composing a pair of works that explored day and night, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

Notturno Concertante begins with the solo clarinet imitating its ancestor, the ‘chalumeau’ (literally ‘reed’), a melodic instrument of the late Baroque. Chalumeau is also the name of the lower register of the clarinet, so it is in this range that the soloist plays for the entire introduction. [...]

Balancing the chalumeau opening of Notturno Concertante, the ending focuses on the ‘clarino’ register of the clarinet. The clarinet’s early role in Classical repertoire was to play trumpet parts, and the ‘tiny trumpet’ appellation continues to apply to the upper register of the clarinet. This clarino coda is begun with offstage trumpets and drum, and the solo clarinet affirms its brassy history by playing short fanfares that are taken up by the orchestral winds.

These two sections, exploring the chalumeau (lowest) and clarino (highest) registers of the clarinet are bookends to the much more extended middle section of Notturno Concertante. They may also be heard as framing an extended dream sequence […] because Notturno Concertante is a ‘nocturne’ in the truest sense: a night piece that explores the internal world of the sleeper.

The middle, or ‘dream,’ part of Notturno Concertante is in sixteen short, continuous sections, and each is recognizable y the orchestral instruments it features (oboes and English horn in the first, muted trumpets in the second, etc.). Each section also features one category of pitches that remain the same within instrumental families: the winds always play chromatically, the brasses use whole-tone-based scales and chords, and the strings use the white notes of the piano keyboard (diatonic but not necessarily tonal). The percussion is mostly unpitched, and is always associated with the deep REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep.

Taking a cue from Freud, who suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that dreams are often psychic responses to physical events (one dreams of suffocating and awakens to find one’s face buried in the pillow), I have the clarinet always following the orchestra: in terms of its pitch and melodic content it is always reacting to what has recently happened, such that it is possible to imagine the orchestra as the body and the soloist the psyche of one sleeper.

The middle sections of the work suggest the four stages of sleep as it moves in and out of the REM state. […] As with real sleep, the sleeper is unaware that time has passed and returns to the waking life as if it were continuing without interruption.

What ultimately made me focus on the internal nocturnal world (rather than the natural nocturnal world, which is far more commonly encountered in music), was a dream relayed to me by Christopher Grymes, Notturno Concertante’s dedicatee. He dreamed of a clarinetist who could only play white notes but was so adept that people would travel far and wide to hear him. He remembered specifically a densely chromatic passage in Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto in which the clarinetist ‘whitened’ the sound to great effect. This, of course, led me to include that very passage from the Nielsen (played correctly by the orchestral clarinets and ‘whitened’ by the solo clarinet in successive sections near the work’s center), and also to the idea of mixing pitch collections and having the solo clarinet always out of phase with the orchestra.
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You don't often get to find out about a piece of music you might hear right from the composer - imagine if Beethoven had given us a road-map to his thoughts about the Eroica? - and sometimes it may be more information than you think you need to enjoy it, but so much goes into how a composer conceives much less writes a piece - like the elements of clarinet history or the application of sleep and dreams (something we all can relate to) to the creative process - it gives us something else to think about as we hear something that no one has ever heard before.

- Dick Strawser