Performance Wednesday, April 24, 2013 | 7:30 PM

American Soundscapes

Zankel Hall
Guided by composer John Adams and conductor David Robertson, talented young conductors take the podium to lead a handpicked ensemble of dynamic young instrumentalists in the first of two concerts featuring landmark American works of the 20th and 21st centuries.
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The Program

Ground Swell

About the Composer

Highly regarded as a leader of American contemporary music, Steven Mackey's musical training began in the 1970s as an electric guitarist with rock bands in California. He went on to study guitar and lute at the University of California, Davis, and composition at Stony Brook University and Brandeis University. Now professor of music and chair of the music department at Princeton University, Mackey continues to perform on electric guitar, featured frequently in his own works-which are considered trailblazing for their inclusion of the instrument-and with his band Big Farm.

Mackey's widely varied music-regularly performed by the most respected soloists, chamber ensembles, and orchestras around the world-is influenced harmonically by the Western classical tradition and in character by the wit of popular music, creating a complex world layered in rhythm and sound. Recent commissions include Stumble to Grace, a piano concerto for Orli Shaham, and a piece for the Brentano String Quartet jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Nasher Sculpture Center to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. In addition to a Grammy Award, Mackey has been honored with Guggenheim, Lieberson, and Tanglewood fellowships, as well as the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award.

About the Work

Ground Swell musically depicts a variety of topographies, from sea level to mountainous terrain and back again. As the composer writes, "The [solo] viola functions as a guide, controlling the pace, highlighting points of interest, leading the group around tricky corners, stepping forward with acts of heroism, and standing aside to allow the group to experience their own personal awe."

The seven movements of Ground Swell are presented in symmetrical pairs (i.e. I-VII, II-VI, III-V), with the middle movement ("Peak Experience") standing alone at the core. Mackey chose this structure to imitate the rise and fall of the land—with the middle movement representing the highest altitude—and the symmetrical ecosystems on either side of the peak.

The suite was inspired by Mackey's travels during 2006: hiking in Aspen, Colorado, and honeymooning in Italy. Throughout the work, he delves into "how the earth and our relationship to it changes at different altitudes," capturing the swelling of the ocean waves against a rented boat, the rocky Mediterranean coastline of Tuscany, the cypress tree- and olive grove-speckled landscape, and the dancing inflections of the spoken Italian language, alongside the limited oxygen supply at high altitude (and the resulting giddiness), and the austere beauty of the treeline against the Rocky Mountains.

—Dr. ToniMarie Marchioni

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Gnarly Buttons

About the Work

The clarinet was John Adams's first instrument, taught to him by his father, who played it in swing bands during the Depression era. Father and son also played together in a local marching band and community orchestra during the composer's teen years. Given the symbolism of the clarinet and their relationship, when his father passed away from Alzheimer's disease, Adams was inspired to write Gnarly Buttons. The intertwining of his father and the instrument, he wrote, "stretching from Benny Goodman through Mozart, the marching band, the State Hospital to my father's final illness, became deeply embedded in the piece." His choice of orchestration, especially the appearance of the banjo, emphasizes the folk and vernacular roots of the music. The piece also features a keyboard with pre-recorded sound samples, including an accordion, clarinet, and mooing cow.

The three-movement concerto contains "The Perilous Shore," a variation on a Protestant hymn; the dance-like and rustic "Hoedown (Mad Cow);" and "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me," a simple song that begins tender and quiet and becomes, in the composer's own words, increasingly "gnarled and crabbed."

Several levels of meaning are embedded into the title of the work. Not only does "gnarly" mean knotty, twisted, or covered with gnarls, but in slang, it means awesome or beyond extreme. The "buttons" are not only a reference to Gertrude Stein's groundbreaking experiment Tender Buttons (1914), but also an acknowledgement of the age of technology and the role that pressing buttons plays in our daily lives.

—Dr. ToniMarie Marchioni

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Double Concerto

About the Composer

An icon of American contemporary music, Elliott Carter is known for his rigorously organized compositions, beginning with his early neoclassical aesthetic and ending with atonal works of extreme rhythmic complexity (including metric modulations, a term used to describe the frequent and precise tempo changes in his works). He was prolific even in his late years, completing his final composition, 12 Short Epigrams for Piano, in August 2012—only three months before his death at age 103. About Carter's music, Allan Kozinn wrote in his New York Times tribute, it "could seem harmonically brash and melodically sharp-edged on the first hearing, but it often yielded drama and lyricism on better acquaintance." Well-integrated into the fabric of everyday New York musical life, Carter will be remembered not only for his longevity and vast output, but also his relationships with important performers of the past century and the immeasurable musical contributions that arose from these collaborations.

Carter wrote only two works for the harpsichord, the Sonata for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, and Cello (1952) and Double Concerto (1961). Both pieces stretch the instrument beyond its historically precedented limit and thus require a modern instrument of expanded register, expressivity, and timbre.

About the Work

Elliott Carter's Double Concerto was initiated by the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, who had envisioned a duo for harpsichord and piano in which both instruments assumed equal roles. A generous commission from the Fromm Foundation allowed Carter to expand this idea into much larger forces-a group of 18 virtuosos-creating a work of extreme activity, energy, and complexity.

The Double Concerto is antiphonal, scored for two soloists each leading their own small orchestra. The solo harpsichord is accompanied by flute, horn, trumpet, trombone, viola, bass, and percussion, and the piano by oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello, and percussion. The result is that the ensembles are isolated not only in space, but in sound world as well. Each ensemble is also associated with their own set of melodic motives and intervallic material (piano: major seconds, major thirds, perfect fifths, major sixths, major sevenths, and major ninths; harpsichord: minor seconds, minor thirds, perfect fourths, augmented fourths, minor sixths, minor sevenths, and minor ninths), and each interval is typically governed by a particular speed (piano in polyrhythms of 3s and 5s and harpsichord in 4s and 7s). These partnerships yield a diverse set of behaviors and gestures that combine across ensembles to create connected, recognizable patterns.

Though it is performed without pause, the work is structured in seven larger sections. The Adagio movement is at the center, surrounded immediately by two fast movements, further out by cadenzas by each soloist, and on the outer edge by an Introduction and Coda. As Carter described it, "the motion of the work is from comparative unity with slight character differences to greater and greater diversity of material and character and a return to unity."

Though many other composers of the 20th century wrote works for the modern harpsichord—among them Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Vincent Persichetti, and Halsey Stevens—Carter's Double Concerto, which impressed even Igor Stravinsky, remains one of the most daring and challenging to this day, offering an important historical landmark yet to be surpassed.

—Dr. ToniMarie Marchioni


© The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Professional Training Workshops are made possible, in part, by Mr. and Mrs. Nicola Bulgari and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.