Opening-Night Gala: Bolero
This amazing program, inspired by the meeting of music and technology, features the talents of our players in Ravel’s mesmerizing Bolero and rarely-heard music by Beethoven. Iowa native Conor Hanick joins us for John Adams’ exuberant and jazzy Century Rolls for piano and orchestra, the perfect counterpoint to Jason Weinberger’s solo performance of New York Counterpoint by Steve Reich.
Beethoven – Wellington’s Victory
Adams – Century Rolls with Conor Hanick, piano
Reich – New York Counterpoint performed by Jason Weinberger, clarinet
Ravel – Bolero
A pianist who “defies human description” (Harry Rolnick, Concerto Net) and recalls “a young Peter Serkin” (Anthony Tommasini, New York Times), Conor Hanick has performed throughout the United States, Europe and Asia and collaborated with some of the world’s leading conductors, including Pierre Boulez, David Robertson and James Levine. Described as a “true champion of contemporary music” (Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found), Conor has performed dozens of new works at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to (le) Poisson Rouge, and worked with composers as diverse as Mario Davidovsky and David Lang. Most recently Conor collaborated with composer Vivian Fung on a recording for NAXOS with the Grammy-nominated Metropolis Ensemble, performing Ms. Fung’s Piano Concerto Dreamscapes and her prepared piano work Glimpses. Currently a doctoral candidate at the Juilliard School studying with Yoheved Kaplinsky and Matti Raekallio, Conor resides in Brooklyn, New York.
Beethoven - Wellington’s Victory
Around 1813 Beethoven had made the acquaintance of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a renowned inventor of mechanical instruments and early developer of the metronome. Maelzel approached Beethoven to compose the music commemorating Wellington’s victory over the French forces at Vitoria, Spain. Maelzel had invented what he called the “Panharmonicon” (pictured above), a kind of barrel organ consisting of military instruments and played much like the popular player pianos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Maelzel had adapted works by Cherubini, Haydn and Handel for his device, but he presumed that an original work by Beethoven would greatly further his fortunes.
While Beethoven gave in to Maelzel’s enticements, the work did not materialize in the way it was originally intended. Beethoven’s original composition called for such a large battery of brass and percussion that Maelzel could not assemble a mechanism of sufficient size. Thus, Beethoven proceeded with a complete orchestration and presented it on a public concert in 1813, along with the premiere of the seventh symphony and two marches proffered by another of Maelzel’s creations: a mechanical trumpeter.
This “Battle Symphony” begins with the approaching troops. “Rule Britannia” represents the British, while the French “tune” is a popular air of the day, “Marlborough has left for the War”. One might assume that the anthem of the French Republic—“La Marsaillese”—would be a more appropriate choice, however, this work was seen as seditious in the home of the family of the beheaded queen, Marie Antoinette (she was the sister of late Emperor Joseph II).
To offer a complete depiction of the battle, Beethoven expanded his brass section and included some eight to ten percussionists, playing timpani, two snare drums, two bass drums, two (four) rattles, and various muskets and other artillery sound effects. The work truly out sizes Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in its share of bombast: biographer Lewis Lockwood notes that the depiction of the “battle itself is a colossal noisemaker with cannon shots for both sides marked in the score”.
While one might view Beethoven as a “sell-out” (for certainly the work is not at the composer’s normal standards), it was wildly popular with its contemporary public; it demonstrated Beethoven’s own patriotic fervor, and presumably made the composer a good share of money.
- Brian Hughes
John Adams - Century Rolls
Century Rolls came into the world bidden by the pianist Emanuel Ax, who wanted me to create a concerto for him and the Cleveland Orchestra. The impetus for the piece was a sudden realization I had one night while listening in a drowsy state to a CD of player-piano music from the 1920s. Perhaps because I was half asleep my mind began to focus on the actual reproduction of the music rather than its “content.” I was struck by how the medium of the piano roll itself left an indelible mark on the music, radically altering its essence in a way that later recording techniques like the tape recorder did not do. Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” sprang to mind. It didn’t seem to matter whether the content of these pianola rolls was hot jazz or Chopin, whether the performer was Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Josef Hoffman or Sergei Rachmaninov. In all cases the resulting sound emerging from the mechanically controlled instrument shared a certain bright, edgy quality and a rhythmic alertness that could only have been the result of the mechanical black box through which it was channeled.
This minor epiphany provided the first and most important musical image for what was to become Century Rolls - that of an orchestra and solo piano tightly but happily aligned amongst the cogs and wheels of a bustling rhythmic machine. Perhaps because the inspiration came from this “era of mechanical reproduction” I also found myself drawn to the energy and musical imagery of the earlier part of the twentieth century, and hence “century” made its way into the title. The music came out as a kind of automatic re-writing of the pianola music of the century. Even the casual listener will be able to detect homages to Fats Waller, Gershwin, Zez Confrey and even to Ravel and Debussy, all of whom shared the experience of hearing their music transformed by the medium of the piano roll.
Century Rolls begins with a chirping, lightly pulsating twittering machine that unfolds in a gradual and regular manner. The piano enters in the low register with a reiterated figure in equal eighths in what is probably the most “mechanical” of all the material in the entire concerto. Eventually a more extroverted mood takes over the foreground with a succession of brashly rhythmic, often jazzy, motives, one giving birth to another. Listening to this movement several years after its composition I am struck by how it gives the feeling of “sonata” form - or perhaps the “aftertaste” of it. In fact it lacks the traditionally opposed dialectic characteristic of sonata-allegro, but there is nevertheless an unmistakable feeling of old-fashioned “development” in the long central section, one in which the piano courses over a varied terrain of modes and harmonies, always impelled forward by the inner clock of the orchestra. (Some of these developmental ideas had first appeared in miniature in my string quartet from the previous year, John’s Book of Alleged Dances.)
This insistent energy eventually spends itself, giving in to a delicate transitional passage with bells, light metallic percussion and resonant piano chords. What follows is a gently rolling, amiable music for piano, low clarinets and plucked strings and harp. Whereas the opening movement seemed urged on by some kind of pace-maker electrical pulse, the music now seems to roll gently of its own free will, stopping now and then to linger on a note or a chord.
This relaxed music itself grows even more reflective and independent of the bar line, eventually ushering in a slow gymnopédiein 3/4 time (Manny’s Gym). The simple, repeated bass line and the harmonies it spawns control the shape of the entire movement. Even the figurations and passagework for the piano are all derived from the exceedingly simple material of this gymnopédie.
When in 1997 I overheard two people on a street corner talking about the much anticipated arrival of the famous comet of that year, I mistook the name they mentioned. What I thought I heard was “Hail Bop,” and that seemed to me a great name for an astronomical event. Only later did I learn that it was named after the two astronomers who had discovered it, Dr. Hale and Dr. Bopp (Ph.D., presumably). So Hail Bop, although it couldn’t be a comet, came to be the last movement of Century Rolls. It is music full of the jabbing, stabbing syncopations characteristic of bebop piano playing. In retrospect I realize also how much it was influenced by my exposition to the Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow. Nancarrow’s brilliant, punchy piano sound is another manifestation of “art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Hail Bop is certainly an homage to that sound, although I eschew the inevitable rhetoric of canonic imitation that is the hallmark of the Nancarrow composition, opting instead for a kind of fractured rondo form. The movement is centered around a bop-flavored melody which, in fact, is lifted from a song in my 1995 music theater piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky: “Song About Law School as a Natural Follow-up to Jail.”
The piano moves in and out of precipitous situations with the ease of a roadrunner, and in one particularly climactic moment, the orchestra seems at its heels like a barking terrier. The contrast with the previous movements is stark but amusing. Where the first movement runs on a knock-free regularly pulsating engine and the second movement floats freely in the ether, Hail Bop lurches forward in great seizures of manic energy only to come to a stubborn halt and then start up all over again.
- John Adams
Steve Reich - New York Counterpoint
New York Counterpoint piece is a continuation of the ideas found in Vermont Counterpoint, where a soloist plays against a pre-recorded tape of him- or herself. In New York Counterpoint the soloist pre-records ten clarinet and bass clarinet parts and then plays a final 11th part live against the tape. The compositional procedures include several that occur in my earlier music. The opening pulses ultimately come from the opening of Music for 18 Musicians (1976). The use of interlocking repeated melodic patterns played by multiples of the same instrument can be found in my earliest works, Piano Phase (for 2 pianos or 2 marimbas) and Violin Phase (for 4 violins), both from 1967. In the nature of the patterns, their combination harmonically, and in the faster rate of change, the piece reflects my recent works, particularly Sextet (1985).
New York Counterpoint is in three movements: fast, slow, fast, played one after the other without pause. The change of tempo is abrupt and in the simple relation of 1:2. The piece is in the meter 3/2 = 6/4 (=12/8). As is often the case when I write in this meter, there is an ambiguity between whether one hears measures of 3 groups of 4 eighth notes, or 4 groups of 3 eighth notes. In the last movement of New York Counterpoint the bass clarinets function to accent first one and then the other of these possibilities while the upper clarinets essentially do not change. The effect, by change of accent, is to vary the perception of that which in fact is not changing.
- Steve Reich
Maurice Ravel - Bolero
Ravel’s Bolero I submit as the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music. From the beginning to the end of its 339 measures it is simply the incredible repetition of the same rhythm … and above it the blatant recurrence of an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune that is little removed, in every essential of character, from the wail of an obstreperous backalley cat. - Edward Robinson, “The Naive Ravel” 1932
Upon reading reviews of original performances, it seems amazing that some of the “classics” survived to be performed a second time. The public is apparently often more forgiving than the critics; such has been the case with Bolero, a monumental popular hit since its first appearance in 1928. Actually a ballet piece (and not a true Bolero at all!) the scene represented is the interior of an Andalusian cafe, in which a gypsy girl climbs atop one of the tables and begins to dance. Through an almost endless array of repetitions, onlookers gather, mesmerized by the crescendo of the music and the incessant, sensual rhythm.
Allegedly among the most sensual of all orchestral compositions, Bolero is an essay in the art of orchestral scoring. With unique combinations of instruments, as well as the addition of saxophones (the French maintain a predilection for this wonderfully expressive instrument), the potent timbres are vibrant and stimulating. It is a very simple piece, as Ravel himself stated, “(it) constitutes an experiment in very special and limited direction … consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music - of one long very gradual crescendo.” The result is an ever-(so slowly)-changing kaleidoscope of vivid orchestral color above a static and simple rhythmic cell - a kind of precursor to the minimalistic efforts of the later twentieth century that are featured elsewhere on this program.
- Brian Hughes