Our concert season opener is a musicological journey through the history of American music featuring composers from the late 1900s to present day. Come to hear your favorite works by American composers and support our 2022 Charles F. Davis concerto competition winner, Karlie Thomas, performing Scaramouch for alto saxophone and orchestra.
The opening concert of the season features GLCO’s strings in a program the explores the development of American classical music from the mid-19th century all the way to contemporary trends in the 21st century. The program includes compositions from the early 20th century (William Grant Still) showcasing the developments pivotal in the history of American classical music as it established the characteristics that set it apart from its European ancestors. Composers like Grant Still, Piazzolla, & Morton Gould created synthesis of music from several traditions (popular music, jazz, European music). Many of the classical composers of the 20th century (Barber, Villa-Lobos) were influenced by folk traditions capturing the “Americana” spirit in their compositions. A number of important works came from immigrant composers (Milhaud) who came to America for a variety of reasons, including persecution, aesthetic freedom and economic opportunity. The remaining two composers featured on this program (Bolcom, Paus) represent the contemporary trends that pay homage to the past generations of American composers by picking up the dropped thread of American classical music traditions.
William Grant Still: Serenade
Astor Piazzolla: Oblivion
Samuel Barber: Serenade op. 1
Darius Milhaud: Scaramouche – Modere, Brasileira
Aaron Jay Kernis: Elegy (For those we lost)
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brazileiras No 5. Aria (arr. M. Naughtin)
William Bolcom: 3 rags – Poltergeist, Graceful ghost, Incineratorag
Marcus Paus: Two Lyrical Pieces
Morton Gould: String music – Tango, Ballad and Strum movements
Prolific and influential composer William Grant Still is regarded as the “Dean of African American composers.” Still was born on May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to middle class parents of mixed race. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and was raised by his mother and grandmother after his father died. Still studied medicine at Wilberforce University, but spent most of his time there conducting the band, playing, arranging, and composing music. He began his formal music composition training at Oberlin Conservatory and later studied with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory and privately with ultra-modernist composer Edgar Varese. Early on he entered the world of commercial popular music, working in Harlem for blues musician W. C. Handy and creating musical arrangements for theater orchestras and radio. Still was a pioneer; he was able to create music with a distinct American voice and style that gained interest, admiration and attention from conductors, orchestras and audiences. He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. Still composed his Serenade for Orchestra in 1957 on a commission by the Great Falls High School in Great Falls, Montana. The piece reflects Still’s interest in American folk idioms, with conventional melodies and harmonies that nonetheless express a fresh and individual compositional voice.
Astor Piazzolla was born March 11, 1921 in Argentina to Italian immigrants and spent much of his youth and adult life shuffling back and forth between Buenos Aires and New York. In his early years, he worked as a bandoneonist in tango orchestras. A member of the accordion family, the bandoneon was brought to Argentina by German and Italian immigrants, and it provided the signature sound for that internationally beloved Argentinian dance and music genre, the tango. Aspiring to more serious musical achievements, Piazzolla studied music for five years in the early 1940s with Alberto Ginastera, and then for one year in the mid-1950s with the outstanding French musician-pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of Copland and many other illustrious composers. Encouraged by Boulanger, his favorite teacher, to continue to work with the tango genre, Piazzolla developed something alternately called “nuevo tango” (“new tango”) and “avant-garde tango,” a genre incorporating tango and jazz along with modern high art techniques and forms, and one that eschewed improvisation in favor of composition. This was tango, explained Piazzolla, that was intended to be listened to rather than danced to.
Oblivion became one of the most (if not the most) famous compositions by Astor Piazzolla, which he composed in 1982 for Mario Bellochio’s film Enrico IV. Oblivion greatly demonstrates Astor Piazzolla’s melodic power. The haunting succession of notes leaves plenty of room to the interpreter for his own expressiveness, while in the background, the rhythm based on the original slow milonga from the countryside of Argentina, gives a smooth but harmonically colorful framing.
One of America’s most eminent composers, Samuel Osborne Barber knew his destiny at an early age. The 9-year-old Barber wrote his mother a letter saying, “I was not meant to be an athlete[sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be one, I’m sure.” A year later, he wrote a brief opera called The Rose Tree, launching his life’s work. Barber grew up surrounded by music. His pianist mother encouraged his musical studies. His aunt Louise Beatty Homer, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera, and his uncle Sidney Homer, a composer, offered crucial mentorship. At 14, Barber became one of the first students at a new conservatory — the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia — studying piano, voice and composition. His teachers included renowned conductor Fritz Reiner and composer Rosario Scalero. Early successes included prizes from Columbia University, winning the American Prix de Rome, and receiving a Pulitzer scholarship. In 1936 Barber arranged the second movement of his String Quartet op.11 for string orchestra at the behest of NBC Symphony conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Adagio for Strings rapidly became his most famous work and secured his status as a composer of lyrical music. The 1940s and ‘50s marked the height of Barber’s fame when he received three Guggenheim Fellowships, a Pulitzer Prize and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
Barber’s Serenade for String Quartet, op. 1, reveals a level of refinement and confidence befitting a composer of more mature years. Written in 1928 while Barber was studying composition with Rosario Scalero at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, the three movement Serenade is well-grounded in traditional harmonies but readily displays the composer’s fondness for metrical juxtaposition and expressive shifts between major and minor. Barber’s student colleagues in the Curtis Quartet premiered the work in May 1930 on a program of compositions by Scalero’s students. At that time, there appears to have been a fourth movement in the piece but no manuscript survives and all published versions are three movements. The Serenade was published in 1942; Barber added a bass part to create a string orchestra version. All three movements of the Serenade are compact. Passages of lyrical introspection are interspersed with moments of melancholy. The concluding Dance is lively and playful, with irrepressible youthful optimism and wry humor.
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), French composer and teacher, was born in Aix-en-Provence, France. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and was stimulated by the music of Debussy and Mussorgsky. In 1916, Paul Claudel, then French minister to Brazil, invited Milhaud to accompany him to Rio de Janeiro as his secretary. The atmosphere and native music made an indelible impression on the young composer. When he returned to Paris he became one of the group of young musicians known as Les Six. Les Six shared a desire for simplicity and freedom and a fondness for jazz. Milhaud became one of the best and most prolific composers of his generation. His vast output of four hundred forty-four opus numbers includes twelve symphonies, eighteen string quartets, thirty-four concerti, fifteen operas, nineteen ballets, twenty-five film scores, chamber and instrumental music, and many songs. His music is notable for the freedom with which he adopted whatever style seemed to him to be suitable for the task on hand. “I have no aesthetic rules, or philosophy or theories,” he said. “I love to write music. I always do it with pleasure; otherwise, I just do not write it. I have always made it my business to accept musical jobs of every kind.” Among his best-known works are the jazz-influenced La Création du Monde and the Scaramouche Suite for saxophone and orchestra.
Aaron Jay Kernis was born on January 15, 1960 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He taught himself to play the piano at age 12, and soon began to compose. Serious musical studies followed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Yale School of Music, and, as the winner of the Prix de Rome scholarship, the American Academy in Rome. In 1983, Kernis received national acclaim when the New York Philharmonic premiered his first orchestral work, dream of the morning sky, during its Horizons Festival.
Unlike many others of his generation, he has chosen to confront tradition rather than dismiss it. His compositional building blocks are the centuries-old traditions of Western music, re-mastered by a postmodern sensibility and extravagant imagination. His music embodies the aesthetic of Romanticism, but speaks in the musical language, and with the intellectual concerns of late 20th century America. He wrote Elegy (to those we lost) during the pandemic month of May 2020, when it became clear that the toll of COVID-19 on human lives was truly devastating. Kernis hopes that through this short work listeners can find a space of solace to reflect, remember and mourn those we have lost — known or unknown to us, and allow us to find compassion to share this time as brothers and sisters together.
The music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (born In Rio de Janeiro, March 5, 1887) almost always reflected his passion for Brazilian culture and the music of J. S. Bach. His father, an amateur musician, taught him to play the cello and clarinet, and he taught himself to play the guitar. After 1899, Villa-Lobos began making a living playing guitar and cello in cafés and movie houses. As a composer, he was also mostly self-taught. Between 1905 and 1912 he made numerous expeditions into Brazil’s hinterland to study the music and folklore of the indigenous populations, whose music eventually became the inspiration for much of his own. In this regard, his career mirrored that of European contemporaries Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodály, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, all of whom studied and incorporated the music of their native countries. In 1918, pianist Artur Rubinstein “discovered” Villa-Lobos and encouraged him to visit Europe “to show his accomplishments.” Villa-Lobos stayed in Paris from 1923 to 1930, and upon his return to Brazil, he took charge of music education in the schools. Between 1930 and 1945, Villa-Lobos composed the nine Bachianas Brasileiras in “homage to the great genius of Johann Sebastian Bach … [whom] consider a kind of universal folkloric source, rich and profound … [a source] linking all peoples.” But while the Bachianas contain suggestions of Bach’s style and form, the music is unmistakably Villa-Lobos’ own and relies heavily on Brazilian folk melody and rhythm.
The fifth suite, originally scored for solo soprano and an ensemble of eight cellos, is, by far, the most performed of the set. It was written in 1938 and falls in two movements; the first “Cantilena,” as Villa-Lobos called it, begins with a ‘vocalise’ melody accompanied by the rest of the ensemble, followed by a brief, declamatory setting of a poem by Ruth Corrêa that describes the moon rising in the sky. A reprise of the ‘vocalise’ brings the movement to a haunting, memorable close.
William Bolcom (born 1938) began his compositional career very much in the European avantgarde tradition. After studies with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, Bolcom composed music using the complex serial procedures developed by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. However, partially inspired by the example of Charles Ives, he soon developed an original approach that drew on music from many traditions, combining the sounds of high modernism with those from various kinds of popular music. Bolcom has been an important pianist and curator of ragtime and, with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, of American popular song. Bolcom was an especially important figure in the North American ragtime revival that began in Toronto in the mid 1960s. Bolcom began to collect and to perform rags by Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott and other American musicians from the early 20th century. Bolcom began to compose his own piano rags, mostly between 1967 and 1973. These rags show Bolcom’s deep immersion in, and love for, the ragtime tradition, while also displaying his own distinctive compositional voice. The ghost of Poltergeist is apparently of the sneaky, devious variety, as the rag is predominantly quiet, with an accompaniment that bounces lightly, rather than thumping. A “stop time” section near the end leaves unexpected gaps in the music, heightening the witty effect. Graceful Ghost Rag is Bolcom’s best-known rag. Bolcom has described it as “an elegiac rag,” in memory of his father, a gentle man and a fine dancer. This is a slow, lyrical rag. Incineratorag is the one of the three rags that is closest to Joplin’s style, starting with a stereotypical four-bar introduction before continuing on to boisterous two-note groups. The contrasting middle section (the “Trio”) is particularly beautiful, with slow, dragging, syncopations. These three rags were arranged for string quartet in 1989, at the request of the violinist Emanuel Borok.
Norwegian composer Marcus Paus (born 1979) is one of the most performed and acclaimed contemporary classical musicians of his generation, and one of the most lauded Scandinavian composers working today. His diverse catalog includes chamber music, solo works, choral music, orchestral works, opera and theater and film music. Paus is one of the strongest representatives in the contemporary classical music world of a reorientation toward tradition, melody and tonality. His works are often distinguished by a flowing melodic vein, full of lyricism and characterized by a complex harmonic language. Paus studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and then got his Master’s Degree in composition at the Manhattan School of Music, where he was mentored by American composer Richard Danielpour. Growing up in a musical family, Marcus was always surrounded by music, but the spark that ignited his love for orchestral music were the classic scores composed by John Williams for films like E.T., Superman, Indiana Jones and the Star Wars saga. Paus acknowledges that the music of Williams has been one of the most profound inspirations of his life, becoming an element that helped him pursue his goals as a composer. Some of his most ambitious works, such as the Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra (2015), the Sonata for Cello and Piano (2009), the song-cycle for mezzosoprano and orchestra inspired by Dorothy Parker’s Hate Songs (2014), and the choral work based on Anne Frank’s diary The Beauty That Still Remains (2015) have been lauded by music critics and achieved a large success with audiences as well. Two Lyrical Pieces for string orchestra were commissioned by The New York Edward Grieg Society in 2007 and consist of two contrasting movements – contemplative Elegy and feverish Fanitull (Devil’s Tune).
Morton Gould, composer, conductor, pianist, arranger and administrator, was born on December 10, 1913 in New York City. By the age of four, he was playing the piano and composing; at six, he had one of his first compositions published, and by the time he was eight, he had played piano on broadcasts of WOR Radio in New York. In 1932, when he was nineteen, he became staff pianist at Radio City Music Hall. After a brief stint with NBC, he was engaged as composer, arranger and conductor by WOR. In addition to his light compositions for radio, Gould has written for film (Windjammer), television (the World War I series, Holocaust and Celebration), ballet (Fall River Legend), Broadway (Billion Dollar Baby and Arms and the Girl), symphonic band, chamber ensembles and chorus, and has also produced some fifty works for orchestra, including American Salute, Spirituals, Vivaldi Gallery, Apple Waltzes, Burchfield Gallery, Lincoln Legend and Symphony of Spirituals. He is also widely known as a conductor, having won a Grammy Award for his recording of the music of Charles Ives with the Chicago Symphony. His other honors include twelve Grammy nominations, the 1983 Gold Baton Award from the American Symphony Orchestra League, the 1985 Medal of Honor for Music from the National Arts Club, membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Music Council’s Golden Eagle Award. In addition, Morton Gould is president of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).
Stringmusic is a large-scale suite, or serenade, for string orchestra, comprising five movements. There is much antiphonal writing — sometimes suggesting two separate string orchestras, using such devices as col legno (tapping the strings with the wood part of the bow) and playing without vibrato. Basically, Stringmusic is a lyrical work, reflecting, in a way, a man and musician we have all come to know for the intensity and emotion of his commitment to music and life, Mstislav Rostropovich, known as “Slava” to his friends and for whom this piece was written.
The second movement is a ‘Tango.’ It begins with an upward sweep, and a formal tango rhythm. There is a sequence of varied and contrasting tango evocations; early on, after a strident Argentine-style episode, with its pronounced rhythm, there is a change to a languorous episode for four solo violins, in the old Mittel-Europa cafe style. The movement alternates between the languorous rhythmic ‘tango’ character.
The ‘Ballad’ that follows is lyrical and romantic and song-like — a love note.
‘Strum’ is the self-descriptive title of the final movement, a perpetual motion. Here the pizzicatos are played not with each note cleanly plucked, but in a strumming way, rapidly across the strings. It starts very fast, with tremolo effects and lots of contrast, and takes off as a virtuoso and jubilant piece. Following a fugato played pianissimo at high speed, the piece accelerates to the end with a loud pizzicato snap.
Notes by Libor Ondras
Special thanks to the Charlevoix County Community Foundation for sponsoring this concert
Violinist, violist, conductor and professor Dr. Eric Lawson has had a varied career in performance and education. Past performances as a conductor, soloist and lecturer have taken him to Austria, Brazil, China, Germany, Romania and Scandinavia. Before returning to his home state of Michigan, he was based in North Dakota where, in addition to serving as a violin instructor at Bismarck State College, Jamestown College, and the University of Mary, he was also concertmaster of the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra and established the Bismarck-Mandan Youth Symphony. Other former academic appointments have included Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Central College in Pella, Iowa and the University of North Dakota where he founded the string program and the UND Chamber Orchestra.
Here in Michigan, Dr. Lawson as been very active with the Alpena Symphony Orchestra as its concertmaster, conductor and president of the board. He also performs with many other orchestras in Northern Michigan and participates in the Traverse Symphony as a first violinist, in the Gaylord Symphony as concertmaster and as assistant concertmaster in the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra.
And finally, in what has been one of the most important experiences of his life outside of music, he also served almost four years as an Alpena County Commissioner, representing Ossineke and Sanborn Townships. In addition to serving as chair of the Salary and Personnel Committee, he also served on the Airport, Ambulance, District Court, Circuit Court Management and Jail Committees. He also represented Alpena County in Gaylord with the Northern Michigan Regional Entity Substance Use Disorder Board and continues to serve on the Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health Board. Dr. Lawson resides in Ossineke with his wife and two children.