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An American programme with Dvořák? Many Americans see him as the founder of the American composition school. Heading the conservatoire in New York, he laid the foundation from which Gershwin, Ellington, and Copland, born in the early 20th century, emerged. Their works inspired by folk music and jazz will be conducted by American Keith Lockhart.
Suite in A major, Op. 98b (21')
Piano Concerto in F major (35')
— Intermission —
The Tender Land, suite from the opera (19')
Marc-André Hamelin piano
Keith Lockhart conductor
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Smetana, Dvořák, and great Czech musicians of the generations that followed them created a national school of composition with a clear identity. They set about doing this deliberately, but it was never obvious how they should proceed. For decades, there were heated debates over the influence of foreign music (especially Liszt and Wagner) and over how (if at all) Czech folk music should be incorporated into music for the concert hall.
When Dvořák spent a few years teaching composition in the USA in the early 1890s, American composers were also on the path of discovery of a national school. Dvořák was fascinated by the music of the African Americans and Native Americans he encountered during his stay in America, and he predicted that their music pointed the way to a uniquely American style.
Tonight we will hear four distinctive voices speaking with an American accent: Dvořák, with his European perspective, and three native sons of the USA, all born around the year 1900: Gershwin, Copland, and Ellington.
Keith Lockhart is Conductor of the Boston Pops and Artistic Director of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina (USA).
Now in his twenty-sixth season, Keith has served as Conductor of the Boston Pops since 1995, a tenure that includes nearly two thousand performances, forty-five national tours to more than 150 cities, and four international tours. He and the Pops have made eighty television shows and participated in such high-profile sporting events as Super Bowl XXXVI, the 2008 NBA finals, the 2013 Boston Red Sox Ring Ceremony, and, most recently, Game 2 of the 2018 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. The annual July 4 Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular draws a live audience of over half a million with millions more who watch on television or live webcast.
From 2010-2018, Keith was Principal Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra. Highlights of his tenure include critically acclaimed North American tours, conducting annual performances at The Proms, and celebrating the orchestra’s 60th year in 2012. In June of that same year, Keith conducted the orchestra during Queen Elizabeth II’s gala Diamond Jubilee Concert, which was broadcast around the world.
Keith concluded eleven seasons as Music Director of the Utah Symphony in 2009. Keith conducted three “Salute to the Symphony” television specials broadcast regionally, one of which received an Emmy award, and, in December 2001, he conducted the orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a national PBS broadcast of Vaughan Williams’ oratorio Hodie. He led the Utah Symphony during Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and conducted two programs for the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival.
In addition to conducting nearly every major orchestra in North America, Lockhart has worked with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Vienna Radio Symphony, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, the NHK Symphony in Tokyo, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. In October 2012, he made his London Philharmonic debut in Royal Albert Hall. In the opera pit, Keith has conducted productions with the Atlanta Opera, Washington Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, and Utah Opera.
Born in Poughkeepsie, NY, he began his musical studies on piano at the age of seven and holds degrees from Furman University and Carnegie Mellon University. He was the 2006 recipient of the Bob Hope Patriot Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, and was a recipient of the 2017 Commonwealth Award, Massachusetts’ highest cultural honor.
“A performer of near-superhuman technical prowess” (The New York Times), pianist Marc-André Hamelin is known worldwide for his unrivaled blend of consummate musicianship and brilliant technique in the great works of the established repertoire, as well as for his intrepid exploration of the rarities of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries – in concert and on disc – earning his place as a true icon of the piano. The summer of 2021 found Mr. Hamelin returning to live performances with the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, Chamber Music Northwest and in recital for San Francisco Performances which included the world premiere of his piano quartet Nowhere Fast with the Alexander String Quartet, and a return to the Festival International de Lanaudiere to perform all five Beethoven piano concerti over two nights with the Orchestre Metropolitain and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin which was followed by recitals at the Schubertiade and in Dubai.
Highlights of the 2021/2022 season include a return to the Atlanta Symphony for the world premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s piano concerto led by Robert Spano, appearances with Dresden Philharmonic or Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, several recitals across the USA and Europe. He reunites with friend and colleague Leif Ove Andsnes for duo recitals at Wigmore Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, Bergen Festival, Bozar in Brussels, and Klavierfest Ruhr. He also joins the faculty of the New England Conservatory for a one-year appointment.
An exclusive recording artist for Hyperion Records, his discography includes more than 60 albums, with notable recordings of a broad range of repertoire. Mr. Hamelin has composed music throughout his career, with nearly 30 compositions to his name. The majority of those works – including the Études and Toccata on L’Homme armé, commissioned by the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition – are published by Edition Peters.
Mr. Hamelin makes his home in the Boston area with his wife, Cathy Fuller. Born in Montreal, he is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the German Record Critics’ Association and has received seven Juno Awards and eleven GRAMMY nominations, the 2018 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance and in December 2020 was awarded the Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award for Keyboard Artistry from the Ontario Arts Foundation. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada.
Antonín Dvořák wrote his Suite in A major, known in the English-speaking world as the American Suite, in New York City in early 1894. After his return to Bohemia, he created an orchestral version, which was published posthumously.
Dvořák wrote great works in large-scale genres like symphonies, oratorios, and operas, but he lavished great care on his miniatures as well, crafting pieces that always perfectly capture something essential and beautiful. Famous examples of this are his Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances. The Suite in A major also consists of perfect miniatures. Each of the five movements lasts about four minutes and is complete and satisfying, while also contributing to a beautifully balanced set.
The first movement begins with a sunny pentatonic theme that seems to yawn, not with boredom, but with complete contentment. As the music becomes livelier, the American mask comes down a bit, and we see the Bohemian face of the composer. The vigorous second movement is in a minor key, but the turbulence is never threatening. The gentle middle section is as beautifully melodic as anything Dvořák ever wrote. The third movement is a polonaise, but a graceful one, a far cry from Chopin’s patriotic fervour or Tchaikovsky’s imperial splendour. Three minor-key episodes introduce moments of sorrow and wistfulness. The nostalgic fourth movement brings to mind Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs or his much earlier Cypresses. Sophisticated harmony lies just beneath the surface of the seemingly innocent melody. Movement five begins as a wild dance with pounding tympani. Suddenly the music switches to the major mode, the drum subsides with just a triangle keeping the beat, and primitive athleticism gives way to graceful syncopation. And just when we expect the athletic beginning to return, we instead get the opening theme of the first movement, now triumphant. Dvořák then surprises us with a light-hearted ending that perfectly draws the curtain on possibly the most sublimely happy music he ever wrote.
George Gershwin, a native of Brooklyn of Ukrainian Jewish heritage, studied composition under Rubin Goldmark, who had been a colleague of Dvořák at New York’s National Conservatory, and who, being in his early 20s, had taken the opportunity to study with the Czech master.
Gershwin first won fame as a composer of songs for Broadway, then he branched out into music for the concert stage in works that incorporate the sound of vaudeville and jazz into a unique idiom all his own. Gershwin wrote his Concerto in F on commission for Walter Damrosch, the conductor of an orchestra that later merged with the New York Philharmonic. Damrosch wanted to capitalise on the brilliant success of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Gershwin was interested in another project crossing over into the world of classical music. The strikingly original result is one of the first modernist piano concertos ever composed.
The first movement opens with a crash and bang, little fragments of themes, and the rhythm of the Charleston. After a drum roll fades away, the spotlight turns to the solo piano. Underlying the bluesy melody is an acridly dissonant accompaniment more reminiscent of Schoenberg than of the jazz we know from that period. This theme becomes the motto of the concerto, and it recurs throughout, although sometimes cleverly disguised. More than a half dozen themes appear, and Gershwin takes the rhythm of one theme and recombines it with the melody of a second and the character of a third, resulting in an almost endless series of permutations. The increasingly grand recurrences of the motto theme serve as formal guideposts.
The second movement begins with a meandering melody played by the clarinets with a muted trumpet obbligato. This ravishing passage lasts nearly three minutes before the piano enters, whereupon the tempo speeds up. This middle section wanders amiably, then a dreamy violin solo leads us back to the beginning, with the clarinets and muted trumpet joined by flute in a moment of sublime inspiration. After an atmospheric piano cadenza, a lyrical melody seems to come out of nowhere. In reality, the “new” melody was already present in the background of the quick middle part of the movement. This melody now leads us through an almost operatic dialogue between piano and orchestra, building to an emotional crisis that ends abruptly, like waking from a dream. The blues opening returns briefly, with the piano joining in, closing the movement in a mood of gentle repose.
In the short rondo finale, themes familiar from the previous movements fly past in mad succession, and the toccata-like piano writing drives ahead furiously. Finally, the motto theme comes back one last time in a peroration just as grand and convincing as any that Rachmaninoff or Grieg had conceived in their earlier concertos.
Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish emigrants, and apart from a few years of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, he spent all his life in or very near New York City. Like Gershwin, Copland also studied under Rubin Goldmark.
Copland wrote two operas, but neither is widely performed; certainly, Copland’s ballets are far better known. Nonetheless, his second opera The Tender Land (1952–1954) deserves a better fate, and the three-movement suite the composer crafted from it a few years later has led a life of its own, taking 20 minutes of the best music from the rather short, 100-minute opera.
The story is set in the farmland of the American Midwest in the Great Depression era, and the music belongs to Copland’s “populist” style, which reflects the composer’s sincere attachment to the ordinary people of his country. It is also music of wide-open spaces, far removed from the atmosphere of Copland’s hometown New York. The suite is in three movements. Movement I, Introduction and Love Music, opens with brilliant trumpet fanfares, but the passage that follows suggests hesitation and loneliness. The melodic lines seem to take encouragement from each other, and the mood brightens gradually. After a heartfelt climax, the music dies away slowly without losing its warmth. The nervous tension and brittleness of movement II, the Party Scene, hint at bitter undercurrents. Movement III, The Promise of Living, expresses an optimism that grows out of the depth of the human heart even under unpromising circumstances.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington came to New York City in his twenties and began playing at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1927. One of the greatest American musicians in any genre, his influence as a composer, jazz pianist, and bandleader can hardly be overestimated. An African-American, he enjoyed success performing for both black and white audiences in spite of the segregation that plagued American society.
Ellington wrote Harlem (also known as A Tone Parallel to Harlem or The Harlem Suite) in 1950. Toscanini commissioned the piece but never actually performed it. Ellington recorded it as A Tone Parallel to Harlem on his album Ellington Uptown on the Columbia label (now Sony). The album has been re-released on CD. Although called a suite, Harlem in many ways resembles a tone poem with about a quarter of an hour of continuous music, passing through a dizzying succession of scenes. At one point, the music abruptly changes tempo four times within the span of a minute. Ellington gave a description of the sequence of events: “We would now like to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem... It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood towards the 125th Street business area... You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands.”
It would be a disservice to Ellington to call Harlem a crossover piece. Harlem is jazz, and Harlem is also art music. This is true not because it takes elements of one idiom and puts them at the service of the other, but because inherently within jazz lies the potential for ambitious large-scale forms and for artistic expression of great depth. It is worth noting that on the original LP album Ellington Uptown, every track is over six minutes long, and Perdido and Take the ‘A’ Train last over eight minutes each. Take the ‘A’ Train is even divided into several sections at different tempos. Harlem is just a further step in the direction where Ellington’s art was naturally leading him. In turn, Ellington inspired later composers like Anthony Braxton, Charles Mingus, and Gunther Schuller, all of whom saw jazz as an end in itself, and not merely as a means to something else.
Harlem is also remarkable for the complexity of its harmonies and for its brilliant instrumental colour. On the album Ellington Uptown, Harlem is scored for jazz orchestra. The version for symphony orchestra heard tonight was arranged by Luther Henderson and edited by John Mauceri.