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Ives: Three Places in New England
Andy Akiho: Percussion Concerto (World premiere commission)
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1945 version)
Three Places in New England
Work composed: 1903–11, rev. c. 1929, 1933–5
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: December 7, 2019; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, snare drum, piano, and strings
Estimated duration: 31 minutes
In the mid-1940s, Aaron Copland wrote, “It will be a long time before we take the full measure of Charles Ives.” Copland’s prescient assessment of Ives still holds; more than 60 years after his death, Ives’ music continues to challenge and astonish.
Ives’ inimitable style, which combines bursts of vivid colors and rhythms with gentler passages, layered with fragments of recognizable tunes but rarely a conventional melody, shocked friends and colleagues. One day in 1912, Ives played “Boston Common” and “Putnam’s Camp” for Max Smith, music critic for the New York Press. When Ives finished, Smith exclaimed, “These were awful! How can you like horrible sounds like that?”
Conductor Nicolas Slonimsky, however, appreciated Ives’ unique approach. In his autobiography Perfect Pitch, Slonimsky described his first reaction to Three Places: “As I looked over the score, I experienced a strange, but unmistakable, feeling that I was looking at a work of genius.”
In a manner uniquely American in its origins, Ives’ Three Places in New England is impressionistic, but not in a way that evokes the French aesthetics of Impressionism à la Claude Debussy. Rather, Three Places consists of Ives’ apparently stream-of-consciousness impressions of three specific places, which the composer transformed into music. Ives’ musical vocabulary includes seemingly unrelated components: quotes from church hymns and marching band music, impenetrably dense bunches of notes known as tone clusters, and the aural confusion produced by familiar melodies played simultaneously in dissonant key areas. For Ives, this collage approach to composition best captured his musical experiences of the world.
Boston Common features fragments of three familiar songs of Ives’ day: Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe” and the Civil War songs “Marching through Georgia,” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Ives also wrote a poem to accompany his musical commemoration of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th, the first all-Black regiment in the Union army (their story was dramatized in the 1989 film, Glory). Saint-Gaudens’ massive bronze bas-relief stands at the top of Boston Common, facing the Massachusetts State House.
In introducing Putnam’s Camp, Ives wrote, “Near Redding Center, Conn., is a small park preserved as a Revolutionary Memorial; for here General Israel Putnam’s soldiers had their winter quarters in 1778–1779.” He describes an imaginary Fourth of July celebration at the historic campground, as seen and heard through the eyes and ears of a young boy. Children’s laughter, hot summer sun, and scattered picnickers give way to a cacophonous proto-“Battle of the Bands”: two marching bands playing different marches at the same time.
Ives included the following words in an early draft of The Housatonic at Stockbridge: “In this music, inspired by a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson, I captured a memory of a Sunday morning walk that Mrs. Ives and I took the summer we were married , in the meadows along the [Housatonic] river, and heard the distant singing from the church. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and the elm trees are something that one would always remember.”
The water murmurs throughout, over, under, through, and around melodies from several well-known hymns. The Housatonic’s quiet eddies and deceptively still surface reveal moments of sparkling iridescence in between the river’s shaded banks.
Percussion Concerto (World premiere commissioned bytheOregon Symphony Commission)
Work composed: 2018–19
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Prelude, Movement I: 13 chromatic ceramic bowls
Movement II, Interlude: marimba and large rubber band
Movement III: vibraphone, large tom, large metal, and glass bottle
Interlude: toy piano and glass with chopstick
Movement IV: vibraphone, glockenspiel, kick drum, snare drum and brake drum
Orchestra: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, brake drum, chimes, concert bass drum, crotales, glass bottle, glockenspiel, marimba, propane tank, ratchet, metal resonators, snare drum, tambourine, tam tam, triangle, vibraphone, woodblocks, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 32 minutes
Music critics often use the word “eclectic” to describe composer Andy Akiho, and for good reason. Akiho’s music embodies the diverse sound world of his percussion experiences: high school marching bands, elite-level drum corps, West African marimba ensembles, Trinidadian steel pan music, and the contemporary classical music scene of New York City.
When the Oregon Symphony approached Akiho for a new work for former Artist-in-Residence Colin Currie, Akiho was “blown away” by the opportunity to collaborate with the renowned percussionist. “I first met Colin in 2011 at the Aspen Music Festival,” says Akiho. “He was performing a concerto by Christopher Rouse, and I was inspired by Colin’s energy. I saw how he pulls in the audience – both through conversations and explanations, and also through his incredible virtuosity.”
“I love writing for specific performers – it’s the Duke Ellington approach,” Akiho continues. “I enjoy getting to know them and the things they love, and I also like to challenge them in new directions. Colin is so innovative and open to all types of composers’ voices, and he loves to take risks. He enjoys learning how to play new instruments, or new combinations of instruments, that not everybody would have the time or interest to learn.”
For this concerto, Akiho set himself a daunting task: write music that showcases Currie’s stellar technique and musicianship, and also engages the audience – musicians and non-musicians alike. “I want to hide the technique inside the music and make the piece sound like the easiest thing in the world,” says Akiho.
Each of the concerto’s four primary movements showcases a different sound world of the instruments or percussion “pods” Currie plays as he moves around the stage. “The first pod, a set of tuned ceramic bowls, is about innocence and intuition, pre-thought,” says Akiho. “It’s in a mobile, shape-shifting form with quirky orchestral conversations.” The second movement features the five-octave marimba in a warmer atmosphere of lyricism and counterpoint with strings and harp. The vibraphone pod, combined with metal, glass bottles and large tom in the third movement, allows Akiho to blend the sharp, clear articulations of a West African ballet with a resonant steel band (here the “steel band” is represented by the wash of sound created by the depressed vibraphone pedal, while the metallic bars are struck with timbale sticks instead of traditional woven mallets). “I’m mixing contours and timbres here; I love the way metal resonates after the rhythmic clarity.” In the final movement, Akiho features what he calls “a melodic drum set”: a pod with glockenspiel, snare drum, brake drum, and kick drum. “My goal is to create a hybrid-instrument by allowing the minimalistic melodies of the glockenspiel to idiomatically replace the cymbals and hi-hats of a traditional drum set.”
The Firebird Suite (1945 version)
Work composed: 1909–10
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 19, 2014; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 28 minutes
The Firebird was the first of several ground-breaking collaborations between Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev, head of the Ballets Russes. It also became the young and then unknown composer’s letter of introduction to the musical world. Before contacting Stravinsky, Diaghilev had approached five other composers about writing music for The Firebird, including the notoriously lazy Anatoly Liadov, who couldn’t (or didn’t) finish the music in time for Diaghilev to rehearse the dancers. Desperate, Diaghilev turned to Stravinsky, who jumped at the opportunity to work with the renowned Russian impresario and his equally famous ballet troupe. Stravinsky completed the music relatively quickly, during the winter and spring of 1909–10. The Firebird was an instant success for both impresario and composer from the moment it premiered on June 25, 1910, in Paris. The orchestral suites Stravinsky later created have remained equally popular with symphony audiences.
Stravinsky’s inventive, virtuosic use of orchestral colors and abrupt, repetitive rhythms took audiences on a sound journey unlike any they had previously experienced. The music, combined with Michel Fokine’s innovative choreography and the dazzling sets and costumes of Alexander Golovin, made The Firebird a unified creation, not simply a ballet with interesting music and costumes. It had been Diaghilev’s aim to present a work that synthesized all its elements, and critics were duly impressed. Henri Ghéon thought the work ‘the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium that we have ever imagined between sounds, movements and forms.’
The Firebird is a patchwork tale, whose story and characters are drawn from several sources in Russian folklore. In the Introduction, Prince Ivan, while hunting, discovers an enchanted garden wherein dwells the magical Firebird, and captures her. The murky opening notes, intoned by strings, low winds and brasses, establish the mythic nature of the story. In exchange for her freedom, the Firebird gives Ivan one of her magic feathers in the Dance of the Firebird (agitated strings alternating with pensive winds). Ivan continues his hunt and finds the castle in which the evil King Kashchei is holding 13 princesses captive. To amuse themselves, the princesses dance in the castle courtyard to a lyrical oboe solo while playing with golden apples. The princesses tell Ivan that the green-clawed Kashchei (in some versions a sorcerer-king, in others a terrifying ogre) turns people into stone. Ivan, protected by the Firebird’s magic feather, provokes Kashchei. Suddenly the Firebird appears and enchants Kashchei and his hideous ogres, causing them to dance themselves into exhaustion in the Infernal Dance. After they collapse, the Firebird’s gentle Lullaby, an ethereal bassoon melody, lulls them to an eternal sleep. The princesses and all of Kaschchei’s stone victims are freed, and the Final Hymn captures their joy with dazzling, triumphant chords.
—© 2019 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, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com