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About This Performance
Gustavo Dudamel brings us an international program of music from Europe (Spain and France) and the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, and the U.S.A.)
Song and Dance
Notes by John Henken
One possible way to look at Western instrumental music is as an arc of ascending abstraction. Earthier music with its roots in vernacular and ceremonial traditions has always been a subversive alternative, however, and has come into its multicultural, post-postmodern own. Put another way: symphonies may grab the brain, but songs and dances hook the heart and feet.
In actual experience, of course, music is seldom quite so polarized. A multifaceted case-in-point would be the Divertimento by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Composed for the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1980, Bernstein’s Divertimento is a neo-Classical cabinet full of cross-references. Open any movement and a raucous musical joke or subtle allusion is likely to pop out.
Bernstein had a long and deep relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He grew up in the Boston area and attended BSO concerts at Symphony Hall as a child. In 1940 he spent the summer with the BSO and Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, and he returned there later to teach; his last public performance would also be with the BSO at Tanglewood, in August 1990.
“Sennets and Tuckets” refers to Elizabethan theater fanfares, and Bernstein based it on a two-pitch musical symbol juxtaposing B and C – B for Boston and C for centennial – although he often ends up treating the B as leading to C, rather than in complete opposition. Bernstein makes jazzy allusions to works by Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky in this sassy opening.
A bent ceremonial introduction, “Sennets and Tuckets” was initially planned to be the entire work. But Bernstein found himself enthused by the occasion and by the potential of that two-pitch symbol, and quickly carried it on in seven further short movements showcasing different sections of the orchestra. The gentle “Waltz” features the strings, and its odd 7/8 meter lightly tweaks the traditional hesitations of the Viennese version of the dance. Gustavo Dudamel is a keen and insightful champion of Bernstein’s music, and this movement was a favorite encore on his tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in May.
The “Mazurka” alludes to Chopin, but in a sound world – double reeds and harp – that suggests Ravel in antique mood. As always in these pieces, Bernstein plays across the expected rhythms and meters of the traditional elements of his song and dance forms. The “Samba” is for the full orchestra again, propelled by Latin percussion that reminds us of the younger Bernstein’s verve in West Side Story.
The name “Turkey Trot” might refer to the popular foot races that take place around Thanksgiving, but it is also the name of a turn-of-the-century (20th) ragtime dance that was soon supplanted by the foxtrot. Bernstein’s example sounds a bit like drunken Copland, its off-kilter sense again the result of a septuple meter (4+3 in this case, where the “Waltz” was 3+4).
“Sphinxes” is an enigmatic – but clearly satiric – expansion of Bernstein’s original opening motif into a rising 12-tone row, given just once in the strings and then again a step lower in the woodwinds. Bernstein marked it “Adagio lugubre” and capped it with the most elemental tonal cadence possible, in barely audible pizzicato strings. It also serves as an introduction to the slow, hot “Blues” that follows for the brass and percussion.
The “In Memoriam” that opens the finale is a three-part canon for the flutes in honor of former BSO members. It begins with a B-C oscillation that spins off its own 12-tone line, and culminates in a furious unison trill that ushers in the March, “The BSO Forever.” This gets the full Sousa treatment, thematically referential and metrically goosed, of course. There are two trio sections, the first with that opening oscillation manically repeated over obsessive snare drums, the second with instructions to the clarinets, contrabassoon, and horns to play “dumbly,” “stupidly,” “imbecilically,” and “cretinously.” After a lurch into a “wrong” key, everyone marches home “tutti quanti tutta forza” – everyone with full force – to a final cadence that mirrors the one at the end of “Sennets and Tuckets.”
Tango is a hybridized urban genre, grafting the traditions of European immigrants to Buenos Aires onto the music of displaced gauchos and others. The favored song and dance form of the first half of the 20th century in Argentina and neighboring Uruguay, the tango began losing traction in popular music after World War II, until new wave composers and musicians such as Astor Piazzolla revitalized the genre. Among Piazzolla’s important contemporaries – and still living at venerable ages – are Mariano Mores (b. 1918) and Horacio Salgán (b. 1916).
A classically trained pianist and composer, Mores was born Mariano Martínez, but used his wife’s surname professionally. He was one of the first to add electric guitar and drum kits to traditional tango ensembles, but his popular tango milonga “El Firulete” is deliberately retrospective in style. Dedicated to the early tango master Alfredo Bevilacqua, “El Firulete” (The Arabesque) was first recorded in 1958. It was given lyrics for the 1964 film Buenas noches, Buenos Aires, where Julio Sosa and Beba Bidart sang and danced it before a group of teenagers who were doing the Twist, but are gradually lured into the steps of the tango. Rooted in the older milonga style, “El Firulete” sounds like a Latin-spiced Sousa march in José Carli’s arrangement for orchestra, which has been popularized by conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Salgán’s career ran parallel to that of Mores in many respects, including playing piano in some of the same tango orchestras and scoring films. Salgán was more ambitious artistically in some ways, and created his own large orchestrations, but he approached the music with great reverence for its heritage. “I, among other things, play all the genres – classical, jazz, etc. – but have an almost religious respect towards music itself, because music is a bridge to God,” Salgán said. “I never pretended I had come to save tango or anything of the sort. I have a great respect for the forerunners – Arolas, Bardi, Cobián, the De Caros – and I came neither to modify it nor to do anything to it, because tango does not need it. I simply came, with all humility, to expose my musical language…. What happened came because I spontaneously felt it.” Salgán wrote “A fuego lento” (Over a Slow Fire) in 1953. An intense, polyphonically layered piece with a lyrically contrasting center section, it too has been recently championed by Barenboim.
Post-modern before his time, the protean Brazilian musician Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was a stylistically omnivorous composer. Encouraged by his father, he studied several instruments, and in popular styles as well as classical ones. In 1930-1931 he did a sort of self-promoted tour of the state of São Paulo with several other similarly inclined musicians, playing in movie houses and clubs as well as more established concert venues.
On this tour much of the music that eventually found its way into his nine Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bachisms, roughly) was first written. The Bachianas Brasileiras are basically neo-Classical suites, although two of them have only two movements and the last is a prelude and fugue. The forces required range from flute/bassoon duo to wordless a cappella chorus and full orchestra. Every movement in the entire group has a Baroque title and a Brazilian one. Bach, Villa-Lobos wrote, was “a kind of universal folkloric source, rich and profound... linking all peoples.”
This may sound like a well-considered concept, but many of the Bachianas Brasileiras grew fitfully. The music for the first two was composed on that São Paulo tour, with the four movements of the orchestral No. 2 originally written as single pieces for cello and piano, or solo piano. The fourth movement, which Villa-Lobos labeled a toccata when he put it into the suite, is “O trenzinho do Caipira” (The Little Train of the Caipira, or “Brazilian Countryman” as Caipira is often translated). Its cheerful chugging, driven by lots of Brazilian percussion, sounds superficially simple, but it is remarkably sophisticated music, bitonal at the beginning, metrically deft, and melodically gracious. The full Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 was premiered at a festival in Venice in 1934, with Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting.
The Spanish master Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) spent the last years of his life in Argentina, but his Siete canciones populares españolas were finished in Paris long before, in 1914. (They were not performed, however, until January 1915, after he had returned to Spain.) These songs are based on folk models, combining simplicity of texture and statement with subtle sonorities and flamenco-inspired harmonies.
“I modestly believe that in folk song the spirit matters more than the letter,” Falla wrote in 1917, but in these songs he generally adapted authentic traditional tunes and texts. The first two come from the province of Murcia, and Falla’s piano accompaniments imitate guitar techniques and textures in both. “El Paño Moruno” (The Moorish Cloth) is a graceful song of Moorish origin, and the dashing “Seguidilla Murciana” is a muleteers’ song. (The seguidilla is a Spanish verse form that has attracted musical settings from the late Renaissance to the present and generated a corresponding dance.)
As its name indicates, “Asturiana” is from the northern province of Asturias. It is a lament, but consoling rather than despairing in character, over a tranquil but insistent pedal point. The “Jota” from Aragon is here a wry lover’s farewell, its accompanying bravura and vocal ardor gradually fading as the lover departs. “Nana” is a rocking Andalusian lullaby that Falla reportedly heard his mother sing when he was a small child.
“Canción” means simply “Song,” and Falla’s here is evidently closely modeled on a popular tune. The finale is a vivid flamenco “Polo,” as fiercely stressed and incisive as Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance.” The Siete canciones were immediately popular at home, and abroad after World War I ended. Falla’s student Ernesto Halffter orchestrated them, and they have since been arranged in many guises.
During World War I, neutral Spain received an invigorating influx of foreign artists looking for alternative markets to those along the usual Paris-Berlin-Vienna routes. Prominent among them was the impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, which became particular favorites of King Alfonso XIII. Diaghilev and Falla discussed several potential projects, settling on an adaptation of the 19th-century writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s comic novella El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat). Falla brought this to the stage first as the pantomime El corregidor y la molinera, on a scenario in two scenes written by his usual collaborators, the husband-and-wife team of Gregorio Martínez Sierra and María Lejárraga.
Alarcón’s novella contains a confusing amount of incident, but the central narrative line follows the traditional characters of a jealous miller, his beautiful young wife, and a lecherous corregidor (the local magistrate, whose position is symbolized by his three-cornered hat). The oafish but persistent corregidor is thwarted at every turn, mistakenly arrested by his own constables, and suffers the peasant justice of being tossed with a blanket in a finale of general merriment.
For Diaghilev, Falla increased the size of the orchestra and eliminated some incidentals from the second part, while adding a solo specifically for Leonid Massine, who choreographed the new ballet and danced the part of the miller. Pablo Picasso designed the sets and costumes, and at his request Falla wrote an introduction and solo song to be performed before Picasso’s curtain went up. The ballet had a hugely successful premiere in London in 1919 (as Le tricorne), establishing Falla’s international reputation.
The three dances of the Suite No. 2 are from the second part of the ballet, opening with the miller’s neighbors gathering to celebrate the Feast of St. John and dancing seguidillas based on traditional themes, including one also popularized in Jerónimo Giménez’ zarzuela La boda de Luis Alonso. The miller then has his solo, a dark and fiery flamenco farruca, the earthiest dance in the ballet. All of the ballet’s many themes are combined in the final jota, chaotic climax and jubilant resolution in one.
There had been several generations of musical cross relations between Spain and France by the time Falla studied in France. Among his friends and mentors there was Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), who had his own Spanish infatuations, of which the Rapsodie espagnole and comic opera L’heure espagnole were early evidence. Ravel had a flair for dance music, and in 1928 he was asked to orchestrate some of Isaac Albéniz’ piano pieces for the dancer Ida Rubinstein. But it turned out that another composer had exclusive rights to orchestrate the proposed works. Pressed for time when the project turned from just orchestration to the creation of something new, Ravel wrote Bolero, “a masterpiece… without any music in it,” as he later described it.
Bolero consists of a single, sinuous, long line over a hypnotic rhythmic pattern, repeated in brilliantly varied instrumental combinations, rising from pianissimo to a shattering climax. Rubinstein premiered it in Paris in November 1928, in a clichéd production that had her dancing on a café table, and this utterly pragmatic time-saver has proven an enduring inspiration ever since, danced in many forms and treated cinematically several times.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
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