Get a sneak peek at some of the program notes for On the Town (Bernstein) and An American in Paris (Gershwin.) The Civic program notes are written by our own pianist Bill Long.
Tickets for the concert on Saturday, February 23 at 7 PM are available now and can be purchased online. The orchestra performs at the William D. Purser Center on the campus of Logan University.
Notes for Bernstein’s On the Town
On November 14, 1943, the German conductor Bruno Walter was scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic in a demanding program of music by Robert Schumann, Miklós Rózsa, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss. At the last minute, Walter contracted the flu and was unable to go on. He was replaced by the orchestra’s young assistant conductor, Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein’s performance was a triumph. The next day the New York Times carried the story of his success. The concert had been broadcast nationally by CBS, so every American could hear it. That publicity led to guest conductor appearances all over the country. It was a real-life example of that show biz cliché about the understudy who “went on stage a nobody and came back a star!”
Except by that time Bernstein wasn’t exactly a “nobody.” He had long since become a Young Man to be Watched who had dazzled the East Coast music establishment with his personality, intelligence, and musical gifts. He had studied with the biggest names in American music. He was a fine pianist and conductor. He was a promising composer who had already written a symphony by the time he’d finished his education at Harvard and The Curtis Institute. He was a restless jack-of-all-trades and you never knew what he’d do next.
What he did next after his Philharmonic debut was to turn his attention to music for the stage. Bernstein’s first venture into theater music was a ballet, Fancy Free, written in collaboration with choreographer Jerome Robbins. It was premiered in 1944 by New York’s Ballet Theatre. With two dozen curtain calls at the premiere followed by rave reviews, the ballet was so successful that it was immediately expanded into a full-scale musical, On the Town, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Bernstein. Like Fancy Free, On the Town was an instant success. The initial production closed two years after the premiere with 462 performances. There have been several revivals since then.
The plot of On the Town deals with the misadventures of three U. S. Navy sailors on leave in New York City. They are small-town boys with twenty-four hours to see the sights of the big city and to “pick up a date, or seven, or eight.” Its score was inspired by the jazz and popular music of the day, with occasional elements of the American classical style then being developed by composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson.
Bernstein combined three excerpts from the musical into an orchestral suite: On the Town: Three Dance Episodes. The first and shortest movement of the suite is The Great Lover. It starts with strident dissonant chords that eventually make way for the song “New York, New York,” the signature tune of the musical. The music of the first episode appears more than once in the show, including its opening scene. But the title of the episode refers to a dream sequence toward the end of the musical in which courtship is depicted as a kind of athletic contest between a boy and girl.
Opening Measures of New York, New York!
At one point in the show, the melancholy song Lonely Town is sung by a sailor who hasn’t found a date. Then he becomes even sadder as he watches a tender dance between a young man and woman who are clearly much in love. The music of that dance is the second movement of the suite, Lonely Town: Pas de Deux. It starts with clarinets accompanying a gently bluesy melody played by a muted trumpet and solo woodwinds. It builds to a climax joined by the full string section, then returns to its initial, quiet mood.
The final movement is entitled Times Square: 1944. In the show this accompanies a raucous pub crawl through a variety of nightclubs. With the emphasis on percussion and brass (including a saxophone), the orchestra becomes a dance band, the swellest big band ever. The “New York, New York” melody appears from time to time in various guises, at last bringing the movement and suite to a spirited conclusion.
In 1957 Bernstein’s theater compositions culminated in his greatest work, West Side Story.That same year the young musician became the first American to be regular conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Though he continued to compose “serious” music after that, his days as a musical theater composer were over.
Nowadays, Leonard Bernstein is one of the most frequently performed American composers. Performers generally prefer music from his theater ventures in the 1940’s and 1950’s. And that all started with On the Town.
Copyright William F. Long, 2018
Notes for George Gershwin’s An American in Paris
George Gershwin was a late-blooming musical prodigy. He didn’t start piano lessons until 1912 when he was fourteen years old. But as Gershwin himself said later, “I guess I must have had a little talent or whatever-you-call-it…” Within a couple of years, young George dropped out of the High School of Commerce to become a full-time music plugger for publisher Jerome H. Remick & Co. His job was to play Remick’s songs for potential sheet music buyers, important work since sheet music sales were a principal source of income for the firm. Still in his teens, he had already become a music professional.
By his early twenties, Gershwin had gone from being a song plugger to being a song writer who was earning a nice living composing tunes for Broadway shows, often in collaboration with his lyricist brother, Ira. He showed tremendous facility for writing music in all the then popular styles. As he said, “When I’m in my normal mood, music drips from my fingers.” Many of his songs included jazz elements: in particular, syncopation in which the rhythmic accent is shifted from the usual musical pulse and blue notes that are sung or played somewhat below the pitch of the corresponding notes of the conventional musical scale.
Gershwin’s Broadway reputation brought him in contact with the foremost classical musicians and composers of the time, including Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Henry Cowell, and Arnold Schoenberg. He enjoyed their company and admired their music. With his usual modesty, he figured that with the proper training, he could do what they did. He was pretty much right.
In between his show business duties, he augmented his previous catch-as-catch-can musical education with serious studies of theory, composition, and orchestration. Eventually he applied what he learned to produce an opera, Porgy and Bess, and a handful of orchestral pieces, which are now recognized as indispensable parts of the American repertoire.
Gershwin’s earliest forays into the concert hall were pieces like Rhapsody in Blue andConcerto in F that featured pianistic virtuosity. An American in Paris was his first purely orchestral piece.
On its title page, it is subtitled “a tone poem.” This is a compositional form developed in the 19th century that is intended to give a musical picture of something non-musical like a landscape, a journey, a folk tale, a poem, or even a philosophical idea. Most of the classic tone poems are devoted to lofty subjects. Gershwin’s composition deals with something more pedestrian: an American tourist’s stroll down Paris’ Champs-Élyseés. It was inspired by Gershwin’s own visits to Paris in 1926 and 1928.
The “Walking” theme
The music is in a single movement that can be subdivided into three sections, each connected to the next by transitional material, plus a coda. It opens with the “walking” theme in strings and woodwinds, which depicts the American meandering down the Champs-Élyseés enjoying the sights and sounds of the city. Even the honking taxi cabs seem musical in Paris; in fact, Gershwin famously scored parts for real car horns in his orchestration. This first section is full of Gallic insouciance in the style of Gershwin’s French contemporaries Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud.
Eventually the American traveler loses some of his initial enthusiasm, probably because he has no one to share his experiences with. His subdued mood is depicted at the beginning of the second section by a muted trumpet playing an understated blues melody.
The blues melody of the second section. The arrow indicates the flattened “blue note.”
The Charleston melody. Arrows indicate the syncopated notes.
Things look up in the third section when he runs into a friend, and they dance a vigorous Charleston in a cabaret. The Charleston melody is a bouncy, syncopated arpeggio played by the trumpet.
Finally, the friends part, and the American’s walk concludes accompanied by a grand coda that reprises previous themes.
An American in Paris premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Dec. 13, 1928. Gershwin’s amalgam of classical and popular elements presented something new and, as one might expect, it attracted its share of detractors as well as proponents. In the long run, though, the composition has had staying power. It is now one of the most programmed American orchestral pieces.
Copyright William F. Long, 2018