Program Notes: April 23rd

Musical Offering Program Notes
for April 23rd, 2017, at Sundin Hall
by Jackson Bryce

Darius Milhaud (Marseille, September 4, 1892 – Geneva, June 22, 1974), was a conductor, teacher, member of the French group known as Les Six, and one of the most active composers of the 20th century.  He grew up in Aix-en-Provence, where his father, an almond dealer, was an excellent amateur pianist and his Italian mother a fine contralto.  Milhaud began playing piano duets with his father at the age of three; he had a lovely baritone voice as well, and was an excellent violinist.  At the age of ten he began to play 2nd violin in his teacher’s quartet, but soon turned to composition.  He studied at the Paris Conservatoire from age 17 to 23.  The Milhauds were Jewish, but at age 20 Darius became great friends with Paul Claudel, the fervently Catholic poet, playwright, and diplomat; this he called “the great stroke of luck in my life.”  At age 25 he embarked with Claudel, who was appointed ambassador to Brazil in 1917, to translate coded messages; he also organized concerts and lectures for the Red Cross.  A year later he went via the West Indies and New York back to Paris; he arrived in 1919, just in time to share the extraordinary musical culture there in the twenties.  He renewed friendships with Koechlin, Honegger, and Poulenc, and made new ones, notably with Satie.  He discovered jazz in London in 1920, where the Billy Arnold Jazz Band had just arrived from New York.  In Vienna in 1921 he met Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern; he toured the US in 1922 and 1927, and Russia in 1926; he wrote music criticism for the Courrier Musical, and later (1934-37) for the daily paper Le Jour.  By 1930 he had established himself as a major composer, for example with the great success of his multimedia opera Christophe Colombe (Berlin, 1930).  In the thirties he went from success to success, despite increasing attacks of rheumatoid arthritis which put him permanently in a wheelchair by 1948.  Learning that the Nazis had him on their list, he fled to the US in 1940, where he was appointed at Mills College, Oakland; he also taught at the summer music school in Aspen, and from 1948 to 1951 was honorary director of the Musical Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.  He was able to return to Paris in 1947, and became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire; but he lived and worked both in France and the US until 1971, when he retired from Mills College.  An enormous number of French and American composers were his students, including jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.  He composed to the end of his life, and left no uncompleted works.  His vast output includes work in every genre of music.

Milhaud’s Suite for violin, clarinet, and piano, op. 157b (1936), is in four movements.  Ouverture, marked vif et gai, is indeed lively and jolly, mostly in 4/4 time with an occasional 5/4 measure.  The opening theme is a kind of triumphal march; then comes a slightly triumphant but equally happy second theme.  The opening theme returns, and finally a small fragment of it is repeated over and over to conclude.  The second movement, Divertissement, begins with a sweet imitative passage for violin and clarinet.  A slower treatment of the theme introduces the piano to the texture, and the movement ends thoughtfully.  The third movement, Jeu, starts a delightful rapid game played by the violin and clarinet alone.  A more thoughtful, slower section follows, but the game returns, and then it’s over.  The fourth movement, Introduction et Final, begins slowly with a solemn introduction in 5/4 time that grows very gentle before the jolly main theme of the movement begins in 6/8 time.  A mid-section confirms Milhaud’s reputation for fascination with jazz.  Then a bit of turbulence leads to the restatement of the main theme, which ends the piece very quietly.

Paquito D’Rivera (born in Havana, 4 June, 1948) is a saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer who plays and composes both jazz and classical music; he lives in North Bergen, NJ.  His father was a classical saxophonist and instrument salesman; he started Paquito on sax when he was five, introduced him to recordings by Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, and took him to clubs and concerts in Havana.  At age 12 he started at the Havana Conservatory, and at 17 soloed with the Cuban National Symphony.  He and Chucho Valdés founded the Orchestra Cubana de Musica Moderna and a fusion group, Irakere.  But he was troubled by the communist government in Cuba, which followed the old Soviet line, condemning jazz and rock as “imperialist”—what a concept!  Other family had already become US citizens; so Paquito too, while on tour in Spain, sought asylum with the American embassy and fled to the U.S.  He made a huge hit in the New York jazz scene, and went on to release several albums.  He played with important orchestras in the U.S., London, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.  He formed an award winning quintet with American drummer Mark Walker and pianist Alex Brown, Argentinean trumpeter Diego Urcola, and Peruvian bassist Oscar Stagnaro, which won the Latin Grammy Award for best Latin jazz album, Live at the Blue Note, in 2001.  He has received eleven other Grammys; was given an honorary doctorate by the Berklee College of Music in Boston; won the National Medal of the Arts in 2005; was named Clarinetist of the Year 2006 by the Jazz Journalists Association; received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007; got the Living Jazz Legend award in 2007; got the President’s Award from the International Association for Jazz Educators in 2008; and took another honorary doctorate in 2012 from the State University of New York at Old Westbury,

D’Rivera’s Aires Tropicales for wind quintet (1994) is a major piece, in which the flutist also plays alto flute and piccolo, and the oboist doubles on English horn.  This afternoon we will hear six movements, starting with the very brief, soulful Alborada or dawn song.  Then comes Son or song, featuring a plaintive melody accompanied by hot, repetitive figures; a slow meditative midsection follows before a return of the opening material.  In these movements the English horn is used, but there’s a switch to oboe for Habañera, written for the three reed instruments only, and featuring soulful melodies with swirling elaborations.  Vals Venezolano, or Venezuelan Waltz, is a happy tune in minor mode, with some scary horn licks; the flutist changes to piccolo at the end.  Contradanza is a jolly piece in a fast duple rhythm, with the flute switching to piccolo in the middle, and ending with some foot stomping. Afro is the most complex movement, starting with a slow introduction featuring the alto flute.  Then the bassoonist begins a fast, convoluted texture in 6/8 time; I enjoy trying to follow the rhythm without getting altogether lost.  A contrasting midsection is mysterious and a bit disjointed; but gradually it leads back to earlier ideas, and then suddenly the piece is all over.

Aaron Copland (Brooklyn, November 14, 1900 – Sleepy Hollow, NY, December 2, 1990), known as “the Dean of American Composers,” also wrote, taught composition, and conducted.  The youngest of five children in a Conservative Jewish family of Lithuanian origins originally named Kaplan, he studied in New York City with Rubin Goldmark, who also taught George Gershwin.  Then in Paris he studied for three years with Nadia Boulanger, who “could always find the weak spot in a place you suspected was weak…she could also tell you why it was weak.”  In Paris he met Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, and André Gide.  Back home, during the great depression, he abandoned the modernist style of composition he had learned abroad for a more accessible style.  He travelled to Europe, Africa, and Mexico, where he befriended the composer Carlos Chávez.  In the 1950’s he was investigated by Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, included on a list of 151 artists thought to have Communist associations; astonishingly, this suspicion caused his super-patriotic piece A Lincoln Portrait to be withdrawn from the 1953 inaugural concert for President Eisenhower.  In the 1950’s and sixties he began to compose using twelve-tone or serial techniques, but later turned more towards conducting, primarily in the U.S. and Britain.

Appalachian Spring arose from a collaboration with the great American choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991).  In 1943, fortified with a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in Washington, D.C., she proposed creating a quintessentially American work.  She cautioned Copland, “it is hard to do American things without becoming pure folk, or a little like a mural in a middle western railway station or post office.”  In the end they chose an abstract plot which suggests, as Copland put it, “youth and spring with optimism and hope.”  Originally their work was called Ballet for Martha; but a little before the first performance Graham suggested a different title, which comes from Hart Crane’s poem The Dance:  “I took the portage climb, then chose / a further valley-shed; I could not stop. / Feet nozzled wat’ry webs of upper flows; / one white veil gusted from the very top. / O Appalachian Spring!  I gained the ledge; / steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends / and northward reaches in that violet wedge / of Adirondacks!—wisped of azure wands, / over how many bluffs, tarns, streams I sped!”

(These notes are composed with the aid of articles from Wikipedia and the World Wide Web.)

Posted in Uncategorized.