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Know Before You Go: Americans and Paris
Welcome to the New Year and to our 2017 January Festival: “Our American Music.” This month we explore and celebrate the American musical voice, in a breadth of programming ranging from classical to hip-hop.
American classical music in the first two decades of the 20th Century sought its own voice. Despite Jeanette Thurber’s creation of the National Conservatory in 1895, talented artists continued to travel to Europe for study; by the 1920s, the musical Mecca was Paris. Aaron Copland returned from his studies in Paris in 1925 to discover that Gershwin had become an international sensation with Rhapsody in Blue, a piece he followed that year with his Concerto in F, while Jazz continued to explode in popularity throughout the country. Copland’s own experiments with jazz would culminate in his 1926 piano concerto—a two movement work, incorporating jazz, yet undeniably classical, in which Gershwin’s influence is at times eclipsed by Copland’s hero Igor Stravinsky: it’s all about the rhythm!
In the meantime, George Gershwin was headed off to Paris! Gershwin harbored an insecurity about his lack of formal composition training—he admired the French impressionists, and they admired him as well: Maurice Ravel was enthralled when George visited him and improvised at the piano. Gershwin returned from his second visit to France with an eight-volume set of the works of Claude Debussy and the manuscript of his own An American in Paris, and endeavored to capture some of the techniques of the impressionists. Most critics, however, felt that unless you counted the actual French taxi horns Gershwin had written into the music, there wasn’t actually anything French about the music at all: Gershwin composed Jazz music. Francis Poulenc called An American in Paris the greatest 20th Century work.
Not until 1935, would Copland begin to create what would come to be known as the sound of America. By 1938, in his ballet Billy the Kid, he had codified the new sound—harmonies built on fourths and fifths creating a sensation of open spaces, suggestive of the great expanses of the American frontier. The elemental nature is further suggested by simple melodies in intervals of thirds and fourths, often borrowing from folk tunes and actual cowboy songs. Copland’s music so established the sound of the West, that film composers ever since have been all but obliged to emulate Copland when writing scores for Westerns.
This program also includes Suspend, a piano concerto written for Emanuel Ax by the young American composer Andrew Norman, recipient of the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the prestigious Grawemeyer award. Suspend was a part of Emmanuel Ax’s Brahms Project, and he suggested to Norman that he incorporate two three-note motifs, which were important to Brahms in his own music: F-A-E (Standing for Free, but Alone, in German) and F-A-F (Free, but Happy). Norman builds a rumination on isolation vs. interaction out of this, creating an unusual atmosphere by having the pianist muse over these notes, and almost by force of will drawing the orchestra into those notes and patterns.
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