Performance Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 7:30 PM

American Composers Orchestra

Orchestra Underground: American Accounts

Zankel Hall
Grammy winner Michael Daugherty describes his Trail of Tears as a “journey into how the human spirit discovers ways to deal with upheaval, adversity, and adapting to a new environment.” Perseverance in the face of change is but one facet of the American spirit. On this concert, the American Composers Orchestra performs musical narratives—including Trail of Tears—that connect our national past, present, and future.
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The Program

From the Psalter

About the Composer

The compositional and intellectual wisdom of Milton Babbitt has influenced a wide range of contemporary musicians. An array of distinguished musical achievements in the dodecaphonic system and important writings on the subject have generated increased understanding and integration of serialist language into the eclectic musical styles of today. Babbitt established his reputation with an astonishing command of American jazz and popular music language, along with his pioneering achievements in synthesized sound. His piece All Set for jazz ensemble reveals an extraordinary compositional flexibility that is uniquely American and vintage Babbitt.

Babbitt was a founder and member of the Committee of Direction for the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and a member of the editorial board of Perspectives of New Music. A recipient of numerous honors and commissions, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize Citation for his life’s work as a seminal American composer. Babbitt was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In the Composer’s Own Words

The text of From the Psalter conjoins Psalm 13 with two stanzas each from Psalms 40 and 41, as realized in verse by Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586). As one would expect of the author of the celebrated The Defence of Poesy and the immense sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, these versions of the Psalms are scrupulously formed, particularly in their syllabic and terminal rhyme structure. The three instances I have chosen feature a predominant
10-syllable line that alternates with a three-syllable line (in Psalm 13), with six- and eight-syllable lines (in Psalm 40), and with six-syllable lines (in Psalm 41). This verbal, metrical constancy was an initial, defining condition of the composition, and is mirrored musically in the genidentity of the musical “settings” by way of their shared referential norm.

I think of this composition as an accompanied recitative, dedicated to Judith Bettina and American Composers Orchestra.

Trail of Tears

About the Composer

Michael Daugherty is one of the most commissioned, performed, and recorded composers on the American concert-music scene today. With music rich with cultural allusions and bearing the stamp of classic modernism, Daugherty first came to international attention when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed his Metropolis Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1994. In 2011, the Nashville Symphony’s Naxos recording of Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony and Deus ex Machina was honored with three Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Performances with ACO include Fire & Blood in 2004 and Oh, Louis! in 1989.

Daugherty studied music composition at the University of North Texas and the Manhattan School of Music, and received his doctoral degree from Yale University, where his teachers included Jacob Druckman, Earle Brown, Roger Reynolds, and Bernard Rands. He has also collaborated with jazz arranger Gil Evans in New York and pursued further studies with composer György Ligeti in Hamburg, Germany. After teaching music composition through 1990 at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Daugherty joined the music faculty as professor of composition at the University of Michigan in 1991.

Daugherty has received numerous awards and distinctions for his music, including a Fulbright Award, the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, and the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His recordings can be heard on Albany, Argo, Delos, Equilibrium Music, Klavier, Naxos, and Nonesuch labels.

In the Composer’s Own Words

One of the tragedies of human history is the forced removal of peoples from their homeland for political, economic, racial, religious, or cultural reasons. In America, the forced removal of all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River began with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. In 1838, 15,000 Cherokee men, women, and children were forcibly taken from their homes by the US Army and placed in stockades and camps in Tennessee. From November 1838 to March 1839, the Cherokee, with scant clothing and many without shoes, were forced to make an 800-mile march for relocation in Oklahoma during the bitter cold of winter. Suffering from exposure, disease, and starvation, nearly 4,000 Cherokee died during the five-month march known as the “Trail of Tears.”

My flute concerto is a musical journey that explores how the human spirit discovers ways to deal with upheaval, adversity, and adaptation to a new environment. The first two movements of the concerto are played without pause. The first movement reflects on meaningful memories of the past, inspired by a quotation from the Native American leader Geronimo (1829–1909): “I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.” The end of the first movement becomes a death march, marked “Trail of Tears,” and concludes with a turbulent instrumental coda. The reflective second movement, entitled “incantation,” meditates on the passing of loved ones and the hope for a better life in the world beyond. The third and final movement, “sun dance,” evokes the most spectacular and important religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians of 19th-century North America. Banned on Indian reservations for a century by the US government, the dance is practiced again today. I have composed my own fiery musical dance to suggest how reconnecting with rituals of the past might create a path to a new and brighter future.

Clarinet Concerto

About the Composer

Aaron Copland’s name is synonymous with American music. It was his pioneering achievement to break free from Europe and create concert music that is characteristically American. In addition to writing such well-loved works as Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, Copland also conducted, wrote books on music, organized concerts, and served as an American cultural ambassador to the world.

While studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Copland became interested in incorporating popular styles into his music. Upon returning to the US, he advanced the cause of new music through lectures and essays, and organized the famed Copland-Sessions concerts.

Copland was one of the most honored cultural figures in the history of the US: The Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors, an Academy Award, and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany were only a few of the honors and awards he received. In 1982, the Aaron Copland School of Music was established in his honor at Queens College.

About the Music

Commissioned by Benny Goodman, the Clarinet Concerto was premiered in November 1950 in a radio broadcast by Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. Two weeks later, clarinetist Ralph McLane gave the piece its public premiere with The Philadelphia Orchestra. The following year, choreographer Jerome Robbins set his ballet The Pied Piper to the concerto, which helped the piece gain critical and audience acclaim.

Copland’s work from this period blended popular and serious styles in a productively intimate synthesis. The concerto, with its jazz influence, is such a blend. The piece’s structure and instrumentation are unconventional; Copland explained his instrumentation this way:

The instrumentation being clarinet with strings, harp, and piano, I did not have a large battery of percussion to achieve jazzy effects, so I used slapping basses and whacking harp sounds to simulate them. The Clarinet Concerto ends with a fairly elaborate coda in C major that finishes off with a clarinet glissando, or “smear” in jazz lingo.  

Written in two movements rather than the traditional three-movement concerto form, the first movement, “Slowly and expressively,” showcases the clarinet’s ability to blend with strings and play lyrically. The virtuosity that audiences expect from a “concerto” doesn’t appear until the cadenza that links the two movements. Fans of Leonard Bernstein might hear hints of his style in the cadenza, as the soloist leaves the wistfulness of the first movement behind and transitions into the Latin-jazz–influenced second (“Rather fast”). The piece has been recorded many times, including a recording by Goodman himself.

Crane Palimpsest

About the Composer

Composer and performer Gabriel Kahane is a peerless musical polymath, invested equally in the worlds of concert, theater, and popular music. Launched by his 2006 song cycle Craigslistlieder—heard frequently both in august concert halls and dirty bars—Kahane’s rapid ascent as a composer of concert works came into focus during the 2010–2011 season with the premieres of three commissioned works: The Red Book, a string quartet for the Kronos Quartet; a hybrid sonata-song cycle for cellist Alisa Weilerstein and himself; and a large chamber work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

As a performer, Kahane moves with ease between musical realms. His self-titled debut album—featuring performances by Sam Amidon, Sufjan Stevens, and Chris Thile—was released in 2008 and was followed up by a second LP in fall 2010. Among his various credits as a performer, he has appeared with Rufus Wainwright on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle television series, sung lieder with pianists Jonathan Biss and Jeremy Denk, and performed as a pianist with bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff in recital throughout Europe.

In demand as a theater composer, Kahane was commissioned to write music and lyrics for February House at The Public Theater, where he was named the inaugural Musical Theater Fellow in 2008. Kahane has also received commissions from the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia; and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which produced his show Caravan Man in 2007. A 2010 MacDowell Colony Fellow and 2009 composer-in-residence at the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, Kahane makes his home in Brooklyn, in close company with a century-old piano and many books.

In the Composer’s Own Words

Crane Palimpsest is a meditation on the Brooklyn Bridge that juxtaposes settings of stanzas from Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge” with songs set to my own lyrics in response to Crane’s text. I’ve literalized the idea of “the bridge” in the sense that two distinct musical vocabularies are in play and cross paths—the first being the more formal language heard in the introduction and first several stanzas of the Crane, the second being the vernacular or pop-based harmonic language in the songs with my own words. As the piece reaches a kind of peripeteia around the line “O harp and altar,” it’s as if the two languages meet on the bridge and are exchanged: The final song with my own lyrics begins in a dense and dissonant setting before giving way to the final stanzas of the Crane poem, which are set in an unapologetically open harmonic atmosphere.

This performance is part of American Composers Orchestra.

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