This spring’s Orchestra Hall concert program brings together disparate voices exploring what it means to be an American. From immigrants drawn to a sense of rebirth in their new country, to a composer of color pushing back against segregation in life, and music, each composer is wrestling with finding, as Langston Hughes put it, “America to me.” Music Director Allen Tinkham wrote about his inspiration behind creating this program and what he hopes the audience will take away from this exploration of “Americas.”
At this spring’s Orchestra Hall concert, we’ll feature an all-American program, though not necessary in the way you might expect. Just as the centerpiece of our program, Varèse’s Amériques, is titled using the plural “Americas,” the program explores many different visions of America, featuring cross-genre voices that explore what it means to live in this country and to be American.
The concert opens with Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Associate Conductor Terrance Malone Gray, performing a seldom-heard version of The Star-Spangled Banner orchestrated by Igor Stravinsky in 1944 shortly before he became an American citizen in 1945. Although his subtle harmonic alterations seem fairly innocuous to our modern ears, he was threatened with arrest by Boston police for the piece. Luckily, by the time of the premiere performance conducted by Stravinsky himself, cooler heads had prevailed.
Philharmonic Orchestra will continue with the Chicago premiere of Dana Wilson’s Hold Fast to Dreams. Based on a poem by Langston Hughes, the piece focuses on how important it is to hold on to and nurture your dreams. A fitting beginning to a program performed by young Americans and devoted to this country and its many dreams and realities.
Edgard Varèse is among the most important composers of the 20th century, but his Amériques is seldom performed due to its huge instrumentation and modernist musical language. Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Amériques marks the first time an American youth orchestra has taken on this piece. Many are unaware that as an adult, Varèse decided to leave France behind, destroying all his works composed before emigrating. His Amériques became his new Op.1, composed as he worked towards becoming an American citizen.
Amériques is a modernist cacophony of musical ideas that explore the composer’s experience as a new New Yorker in the changing United States of the 1920s. While the unusual sounds, such as the siren, are often thought of as a literal representation of loud, bustling city life, Varèse himself said that Amériques was metaphorical: “symbolic of discoveries — new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.” In addition to his experimentation with sounds, Varèse explored what he called “sound masses,” interesting combinations of sounds that no one had heard before. Amériques has has no real form to speak of. There are ideas that you hear a number of times but it’s almost like a cubist painting in its construction. “Here’s an interesting idea. Here’s another totally different idea that has nothing to do with this. Here’s another totally different idea.”
The modernism of Amériques is a fantastic contrast to Barber’s lush, romantic Symphony no. 1, also on the program. One of our most important composers, Barber’s work is deeply retrospective. Something of an American Rachmaninoff, Barber wasn’t trying to push harmony forward or invent new sounds as Varèse did. Instead he wanted to perfect what was already there. A prime example is illustrated by the the fact that the Barber symphony ends with a passacaglia, a older Baroque form. It’s the total opposite of Varèse’s composition where the form is completely free.
The Orchestra Hall program also features the conducting debut of 18-year-old Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Emmy Hensley, recipient of the inaugural Doug and Sharon Carroll Conducting Fellowship. A high school senior, Emmy will be the first student in CYSO’s 71 year history to conduct one of our ensembles at Orchestra Hall. She will lead her peers in a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to West Side Story, continuing CYSO’s celebration of the Bernstein Centennial.
Finally, the concert finale features another first: Symphony Orchestra will be joined on stage by members of CYSO’s Jazz Orchestra. While jazz isn’t normally associated with orchestras or classical music, Duke Ellington’s work stands alongside any of the major 20th century American composers. We’ll play the rarely-performed Grand Slam Jam, originally entitled Nonviolent Integration, a clever nod to the melding of jazz big band and classical orchestra (not to mention race relations of the 1940s).
Generally speaking, classical orchestra music is the furthest kind of art from improvisation. In a classical score, everything is extremely calculated and laid out in the greatest detail possible. Jazz is totally the opposite—musicians are creating music in the moment. I love the idea that this piece brings these two completely opposite ideas of music composition together on one stage; musicians, who are used to diligently playing exactly what a composer has written, collaborate with musicians who are used to playing whatever they feel.
Plus, for us the Ellington piece brings together CYSO’s Symphony and Jazz Orchestras. In this concert finale we leave the audience with what is actually the newest piece. The essence of jazz is that the music is recomposed every time it is played, and the finale provides a hopeful image of how music new and old continues to bring us together.
The pieces in this program are all vastly different, yet each speaks to the possibilities of America and the different narratives that make up our “Americas.” These pieces draw on themes of rule-breaking and revolution, reaching to make dreams a reality, celebrating the beauty of perfection, and bringing people together. What better program to celebrate what it means to be an American?