On the Town: Three Dance Episodes
Work composed: 1944
Oregon Symphony performance history: November 22, 2014; Marvin Laird, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, English horn, clarinet, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, side drum, bass drum, traps, triangle, wood block, xylophone, piano, and strings
Estimated duration: 11 minutes
On the Town, a collaboration of composer Leonard Bernstein, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was the perfect anodyne for a nation weary of war. Written during the last year of World War II, it tells the simple story of three sailors and their adventures while on a 24-hour leave in New York City. “We wanted [the sailors] to possess the quality and attitudes of the servicemen we had seen coming into the city for the first time, and at least touch on the frantic search for gaiety and love, and the terrific pressure of time that war brings,” said Comden.
Dance is central to the show, both as a means of forwarding the narrative, and also as an end in itself. Bernstein explained, “It seems only natural that dance should play a leading role in the show On the Town, since the idea of writing it arose from the success of the ballet Fancy Free. I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts … that these are, in their way, symphonic pieces rarely occurs to the audience actually attending the show, so well integrated are all the elements.”
Not long after On the Town’s Broadway premiere on December 28, 1944, Bernstein arranged three of its dance interludes for concert band. In Dance of the Great Lover, Gabey, one of the sailors (played in the 1949 film by Gene Kelly), falls in love with Miss Turnstiles, whose poster he sees in the subway. In a dream Gabey imagines meeting and wooing her. The music captures the hustle and bustle of New York traffic and Gabey’s hopeful optimism. The Pas de Deux features one of Bernstein’s indelible tunes, “Lonely Town.” Gabey watches a callous sailor entice a young high school girl into a romantic tryst in Central Park and then abandon her. The final episode, Times Square Ballet, captures the sailors’ frantic attempts to see everything in New York “in just one day,” to the tune of the show’s most recognizable number, “New York, New York, It’s a Helluva Town.”
Work composed: 2015
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: solo piano, piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, kick drums, slapsticks, guiro, temple blocks, opera gongs, triangle, flower pot, washboard, wood blocks, brake drum, bongos, splash cymbal, vibraphone, ratchet, log drum, tin cans, spring coil, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 25 minutes
Andrew Norman’s music often explores the intersection of mechanical or computer-generated realms with human interfaces. He draws on an eclectic mix of instrumental sounds and notational practices, and his work has been cited in The New York Times for its “daring juxtapositions and dazzling colors” and in the L.A. Times for its “Chaplinesque” wit. Norman currently serves as composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and as director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer Fellowship program.
“Split is a hyperactive fantasy for piano and orchestra,” Norman explains in his program note. “The piece was written for Jeffrey Kahane, and I took much inspiration from the wit, vitality, and expressive character of his playing. I started with the idea of casting Jeffrey as a mercurial trickster, wreaking havoc in and among the various sections of the orchestra, but as the piece progressed he became less the prankster and more the pranked, an unwitting protagonist trapped in a Rube Goldbergian labyrinth of causes and effects who tries, with ever greater desperation, to find his way out of the madness and on to some higher plane.
“In one sense the piece could be read as the spirited inner dialogue of a pianist with many conflicting personalities. Each of these personalities is associated with and amplified by a different group of instruments in the orchestra.
“In another sense, the piece is an epic battle between the pianist, who has many different stories to tell, and the percussionists who are constantly interrupting these stories and switching the music to different channels entirely. Each percussion instrument acts as a very specific trigger in this game of channel-changing jump-cuts: the pop of a bongo drum starts a minimalist perpetual-motion-machine, the metallic zing of a spring coil unleashes florid and effusive arpeggios, and the scrape of a washboard sends everyone down a relentless spiral of asymmetric suspensions (and the list of actions / reactions could go on and on…). This is a universe with a lot of rules, and for the most part I abide by them all.
“In yet another sense, the title references my thinking about the orchestra and its dual nature as both organism and machine. Talk to any player in a symphony orchestra and they will describe their role as a cog in a well-oiled clockwork. Indeed, part of the thrill of watching an orchestra is to behold the mechanistic precision of its members. On the other hand, what makes the orchestra unique and indispensable (especially in this age when almost all the sounds in the music around us are made, in one way or another, by a computer) is the unmatched and unfiltered human energy and collective human expression of its constituent musicians. Split seeks to explore this clockwork vs. organism dialectic, to celebrate the outer reaches of both precise synchronicity and complete freedom, and to chart and traverse the distance between people being machines and people being people.”
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Work composed: 1877–78
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: September 14, 2014; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings
Estimated duration: 44 minutes
When a former student from the Moscow Conservatory challenged Pyotr Tchaikovsky about the “program” for his fourth symphony, the composer responded, “Of course my symphony is programmatic, but this program is such that it cannot be formulated in words. That would excite ridicule and appear comic … In essence, my symphony is an imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth; i.e., I imitated not the musical ideas, but the fundamental concept.”
In December 1876, Tchaikovsky began an epistolary relationship with Mrs. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and ardent fan of Tchaikovsky’s music. Mme. von Meck offered to become Tchaikovsky’s patron on the condition that they never meet in person; Tchaikovsky agreed. Soon after von Meck first wrote to Tchaikovsky, he began work on the Fourth Symphony. As he wrote, Tchaikovsky kept von Meck informed of his progress. He dedicated the Fourth Symphony “to my best friend,” which simultaneously paid tribute to von Meck and insured her privacy.
Six months later, Tchaikovsky encountered Antonina Ivanova Milyukova, a former Conservatory student obsessed with her one-time professor. She sent Tchaikovsky several impassioned letters, which alarmed the composer; eventually Milyukova threatened to kill herself if Tchaikovsky did not return her affection. This untenable situation, combined with Tchaikovsky’s tortured feelings about his sexual orientation and his desire to silence gossip about it, led to a hasty, ill-advised union. Tchaikovsky fled from Milyukova a month after the wedding (their marriage officially ended after three months, although they were never divorced). Tchaikovsky subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and three years passed before he was able to compose again.
Beginning with the Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky launched a musical exploration of the concept of Fate as an inescapable force. In a letter to Meck, Tchaikovsky explained, “The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the central theme. This is Fate, i.e., that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from entirely achieving its goal, forever on jealous guard lest peace and well-being should ever be attained in complete and unclouded form, hanging above us like the Sword of Damocles, constantly and unremittingly poisoning the soul. Its force is invisible and can never be overcome. Our only choice is to surrender to it, and to languish fruitlessly.”
The Fate motive blasts open the symphony with a mighty proclamation from the brasses and bassoons. “One’s whole life is just a perpetual traffic between the grimness of reality and one’s fleeting dreams of happiness,” Tchaikovsky wrote of this movement. This theme returns later in the movement and at the end of the fourth, a reminder of destiny’s inescapability.
The beauty of the solo oboe that begins the Andantino beckons, and the yearning countermelody of the strings surges with surprising energy before it subsides. In the Scherzo, Tchaikovsky departs from the heaviness of the previous movements with pizzicato strings. Tchaikovsky described this playful movement as a series of “capricious arabesques.”
Like the first movement, the Finale bursts forth with a blaze of sound. Marked Allegro con fuoco (with fire), the music races by in a raging inferno. Abruptly, Fate returns and the symphony concludes with barely controlled frenzy, accented by cymbal crashes.
© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com