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Program Notes: An American in Paris (January 13, 2024)

Program

January 13, 2024


Leonard Slatkin, conductor

Scott Andrews, clarinet


Darius Milhaud

La Création du monde, op. 81a (The Creation of the World)


Igor Stravinsky

Ebony Concerto (First SLSO performance)

Allegro moderato

Andante

Moderato – Con moto


Scott Andrews, clarinet


Intermission


Kurt Weill

Little Threepenny Music – Suite from The Threepenny Opera

Overture 

The Ballad of Mack the Knife 

The Instead-Of Song 

The Ballad of the Easy Life 

Polly’s Song 

Tango–Ballad 

Cannon Song 

Threepenny Finale


George Gershwin

An American in Paris

Revised by Frank Campbell-Watson


 

Program Notes


Composers throughout history have found ways to embed popular music—whether street vendor cries or folk tunes—into their compositions. The explosion of jazz in the early 1900s brought about an exciting new source of popular inspiration, and many composers leaped at the opportunity to bridge the two seemingly disparate worlds. 


Tonight’s concert—the second in Leonard Slatkin’s mini-festival celebrating George Gershwin and his world—showcases four different composers’ approaches to bringing jazz into the concert hall. It also presents the orchestra in a very different light: in the first three works the SLSO’s woodwind, brass, and percussion sections have a chance to shine; only after intermission will you see the full string section on stage.


As Slatkin points out, Darius Milhaud’s ballet La Création du monde (The Creation of the World) was written before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and so “jazz hit France before it hit the main concert hall stage in the United States.” The critics at the Paris premiere in 1923 didn’t know what to make of Milhaud’s music, which they found “frivolous” and better suited to nightclubs. (The American response ten years later was much more enthusiastic.) With a scenario based on African art and mythology, Darius Milhaud’s colorful score employs jazz-inspired elements within a classical framework, including a “jazz fugue” to represent Chaos. In a similar vein, Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto—written for clarinetist Woody Herman—takes the Baroque concerto grosso and molds it into a modern idiom filled with raucous, big band energy. Here, says Slatkin, we have the jazz band sound (the double bass is the only string instrument) but Stravinsky’s style.


A slightly different approach characterizes Little Threepenny Music, the concert suite drawn from The Threepenny Opera. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical work used jazz and other popular music styles as a means to project a clear social commentary to their audiences. But the work was declared “degenerate” once the Nazis came to power, forcing Weill and Brecht—and later, Stravinsky and Milhaud—to seek refuge in America, where they continued to practice their craft as another world war loomed on the horizon.


The concert ends with a signature work for the SLSO, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, where the vibrant sounds of the Parisian streets and dance halls sit comfortably alongside tender, sweeping melodies. As Gershwin succinctly put it: “It’s not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.”

 
Darius Milhaud

La Création du monde (The Creation of the World)

Darius Milhaud

Born 1892, Marseille, France

Died 1974, Geneva, Switzerland 


Many of the jazz-inspired works of the 1920s by “serious” composers now strike us as period pieces. Of those that do not, Milhaud’s ballet score La Création du monde (The Creation of the World) stands out as pungently memorable, not only nostalgic, but an ever-fresh concert hall standard. 


Written in 1923, the year before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, La Création is the first work to integrate jazz explicitly with classical music. It began life as a short “jazz” ballet, on a scenario by the Swiss-born poet, novelist and journalist Blaise Cendrars, for the Ballets Suédois of the Paris impresario Rolf de Maré. Cendrars had recently edited a collection of African folk tales, and his ballet scenario portrayed a creation myth as told in African legend: giant gods, trees which impregnate the earth with their seed, leaves transformed into animals, men and girls emerging from the trees and performing a mating dance, until they disperse, leaving a single couple on stage, united in love. 


The setting, too, was inspired by African folk art, with animal costumes in dazzling colors, with unusual beaks, and totem figures. The backdrop was cubed and squared, with horned creatures and undulating clouds. 


For his hypothetical music of a prehistoric Africa, Milhaud used a band of 19 soloists, with prominent piano and percussion, and a “string quintet” in which the viola is replaced by the alto saxophone. It’s based closely on the instrumentation of the African-American musical Liza, by Maceo Pinkard, which he’d heard in New York’s Harlem. (Pinkard is best known as the composer of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”) Meanwhile, the colourful range of percussion instruments reflect the influence of his time in Rio as secretary to Paul Claudel, the French ambassador to Brazil (1916–18).


The music is in six sections that flow into each other without a break. In the slow and mysterious overture, the saxophone presents a darkly lyrical theme, which will emerge as a recurring idea. The prominence of the saxophone suggests obvious jazz associations, but it also recalls the pioneering saxophone part in Georges Bizet’s music for L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles), a play set in Milhaud’s native Provence. This leads to the interweaving lines of a brief fugue, its complexity corresponding to the ballet scene The Chaos Before Creation. The first of the fast sections in the music, it is led by the double bass and illustrates Milhaud’s contention that in La Création he’d blended jazz style with classical feeling.


This is followed by a gentle romance with a return of the saxophone solo (The Birth of Flora and Fauna) and a rhythmic, spirited section (The Birth of Man and Woman) as living things are brought to life. The clarinet features in a grooving miniature “concerto” for the longest scene (Desire), arriving at a joyous climax before the oboe and horn introduce a lyrical coda (Spring or the Coming of Peace). As James Harding has written: “Moving swiftly from incantation to frenzy and back to peace again, the music beautifully expresses the mystery and sweetness of its theme.”


A genial and lovable personality, Darius Milhaud was one of the 20th century’s most prolific composers. As a member of Jean Cocteau’s circle of composers, Les Six, he made his worldwide reputation with music well-attuned to the chic Parisian fashions of the 1920s, which the depths of his imagination and skill often transcended. Among his 400-plus works, however, the most fascinating and compelling remain those based on his travels and experiences as a young man: the ballet L’Homme et son désir (Man and His Desire, 1918), inspired by the mysterious Brazilian forest at nightfall, and La Création du monde

Adapted from a note by David Garrett © 2003

First Performance: October 25, 1923, in Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

First SLSO Performance: November 11, 1955, Vladimir Golschmann conducting 

Most recent SLSO performance: April 9, 2017, David Robertson conducting 

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, piano, 2 violins, alto saxophone, cello, double bass

Approximate duration: 16 minutes 

 
Igor Stravinsky

Ebony Concerto


Igor Stravinsky

Born 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia 

Died 1971, New York City


In 1916, Igor Stravinsky made a surprising statement: “I know little about American music except that of the music halls, but I consider that unrivaled. It is veritable art and I can never get enough of it to satisfy me. I am convinced of the absolute truth in the utterance of that form of American art.”


The composer of such earth-shattering works as The Rite of Spring had a deep affinity for American popular music, particularly jazz and ragtime. And many jazz musicians were quick to express a mutual fondness for Stravinsky. Supposedly, saxophonist Charlie Parker once spotted Stravinsky at one of his sets in New York and, in a musical tip of the hat, incorporated a quote from The Firebird into his solo. Stravinsky was so taken by this that he spilled his scotch. 


The harmonies and rhythms of jazz and ragtime found their way into several Stravinsky scores over the years, but the Ebony Concerto—composed for American clarinetist Woody Herman and his big band—is perhaps his clearest homage to American popular music. The work’s exact origins are tricky to pinpoint. One story says that Neal Hefti, a trumpeter in Herman’s band, met Stravinsky while in California and played some of their records for the enthralled composer. It turns out, Hefti invented this meeting as part of a joke on his bandmates, but he was so convincing that word got out to Stravinsky’s publisher, who then arranged the commission. The composer was reportedly enthusiastic, dashing off the score in late 1945. 

Herman’s band initially had trouble adapting to Stravinsky’s difficult writing, but the kinks were ironed out, and the work was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1946. Stravinsky himself later conducted three recordings of the work, two with Herman and one with another great American clarinetist, Benny Goodman.


The Ebony Concerto begins playfully, with perky chatter from the winds and brass. The first movement is set within a clear two-beat pattern, occasionally broken up by devious rhythmic tricks—a typical Stravinskian device. Soon after, a stratospheric solo for the clarinet highlights the instrument’s wide range and technical capacities. The music jumps back 

to the opening before a final punctuation from the trumpets (using the distinctive “wah-wah” effect so common to jazz).


Stravinsky’s title refers not to the dark wood of the clarinet but to Black culture, specifically the blues. True to that inspiration, the second movement is a slow blues, opening with a languid melody for tenor and baritone sax, answered by muted trumpets. A middle episode—with syncopated winds over a “walking” bass line—provides some contrast, but the sultry music of the opening ultimately returns.


Another model was the concerto grosso form of the Baroque era, in which a larger ensemble accompanies a small group of soloists. This is most audible in the final movement, where the opening melody is passed around the ensemble, allowing various players to show off their technical “chops.” At the same time, Stravinsky presents the melody in a set of short yet complex variations. (The third of these offers a particular workout for the woodwinds.) In its final statement, the melody is placed in the saxes and trombones as “flutter-tongued” chords from the horn and trumpets bathe the ensemble in a shimmering halo.

Kevin McBrien © 2023

First performance: March 26, 1946, at Carnegie Hall, Walter Hendl conducting Woody Herman 

and his band

First SLSO-affiliated performance: March 3, 1984, Catherine Comet conducting the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, Tina Ward as soloist 

First SLSO performance: This concert

Instrumentation: solo clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 alto saxophones (1st doubling clarinet), 2 tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone, horn, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, percussion, harp, piano, guitar, double bass

Approximate duration: 10 minutes 

 
Kurt Weill

Little Threepenny Music

Kurt Weill

Born 1900, Dessau, Germany 

Died 1950, New York City


Germany of the 1920s was a country on the precipice—“dancing on the edge of a volcano,” as historian Peter Gay once said. Following the destruction wrought by World War I, the vestiges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were torn down and refashioned into the Weimar Republic. A new constitution brought wider freedoms and an end to state censorship, but resentments lingered. Many Germans were bitter after the war and its devastating economic effects—feelings that would soon boil over with the takeover of the Nazi Party in 1933.


Surprisingly, this volatile time saw an explosion of creativity in the arts. German filmmakers, writers, visual artists, and musicians seized the moment to create works under the banner of “New Objectivity,” which rejected Romanticism in favor of art that was more accessible and relevant, yet emotionally “neutral.” Many composers dabbled with experimentalism or turned towards more popular styles, such as the jazz and dance band music heard in German cabarets.


The Threepenny Opera (1928) is a prime example of the latter approach. Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht teamed up for this critique of 1920s German society, modeled after The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay (1728), with its Victorian London setting, lowlife characters, and catchy tunes intended to drive audiences to enact social reform. It was initially banned after its Berlin premiere, but by 1933 it had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times across Europe.


In 1929, at the request of German conductor Otto Klemperer, Weill extracted a purely instrumental suite from the work. Calling it Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music), he took the opportunity to reorchestrate the score for a larger ensemble and bring out the musicality of his tunes, since the original cast had featured singing actors rather than professional vocalists.


After a punchy Overture, we hear what is perhaps the most well-known tune in Weill’s output: The Ballad of Mack the Knife. Though grim in its original context—the text recounts the gruesome deeds of the antihero Macheath—its catchy melody was an immediate hit. Following this is the Instead-Of Song, a sly number for the scheming Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, who seek to have Macheath hanged after he marries their daughter, Polly.


A breezy foxtrot (The Ballad of the Easy Life) soon lightens the mood, though its appearance in the stage play is highly ironic: Macheath sings it after being dragged off to prison. Polly’s Song provides a tender moment for the heroine, while the Tango-Ballad is a sultry duet between Macheath and Jenny, one of his lovers. While on the run from the law, Macheath finds an ally in London’s chief of police, “Tiger” Brown, who reminisces on his army days with Macheath in the upbeat Cannon Song.


At the end of The Threepenny Opera, Macheath is sentenced to hang, but is pardoned by the Queen at the last minute. The Threepenny Finale reflects on the moral of the story: life is already harsh enough without those in power inflicting harsher punishments on the less fortunate. 


Despite the grim and sardonic nature of the original work, many of The Threepenny Opera’s songs found a second life in the jazz and popular music realm. “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” in particular, has been covered by artists ranging from Michael Bublé to Ella Fitzgerald (whose unforgettable live performance in 1960 was honored with a Grammy). While arranging the suite in 1929, Weill correctly predicted the ubiquity of his tunes: “I believe the piece can be played an awful lot, since it is precisely what every conductor wants: a snappy piece to end with.” 

Kevin McBrien © 2023


First performance: August 31, 1923, in Frankfurt, Germany, the composer conducting 

First SLSO performance: January 25, 1970, Leonard Slatkin conducting 

Most recent SLSO performance: January 18, 1997, David Loebel conducting 

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone (doubling soprano saxophone), bandoneon, banjo (doubling guitar) 

Approximate duration: 21 minutes 

 
George Gershwin

An American in Paris

George Gershwin

Born 1898, Brooklyn, New York

Died 1937, Los Angeles, California


A Parisian in America, Maurice Ravel, was much impressed by George Gershwin’s performance of the Rhapsody in Blue at a New York party in his honor in early 1928. Gershwin is said to have asked Ravel for lessons (Gershwin seems to have made a habit of dazzling established composers and then asking for lessons; possibly, the inevitable polite refusal became a badge of honor) but Ravel famously told him he should be “a first-rate Gershwin rather than a second-rate Ravel.”


Gershwin and his brother Ira spent three months in Paris shortly after this, warmly welcomed by Ravel among others; Ravel would pay Gershwin the compliment of imitation in his Piano Concerto in G the following year. On an earlier visit Gershwin had dashed off a piece that he noted was “very Parisienne.” During and after his 1928 visit he returned to this fragment, elaborating it into An American in Paris, a “rhapsodic ballet,” which “depicts the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” (The score provides the climactic finale to the 1951 film An American in Paris, a ballet in which characters danced by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron declare their love against a backdrop of famous French paintings.)


Gershwin was no “untutored genius”—while working as a successful song-writer, between 1915 and 1921 he had been taking lessons in “classical” harmony and counterpoint—and while works such as Rhapsody in Blue were indeed orchestrated by others, Gershwin was at pains to note that the orchestration of An American in Paris was all his own work. (The published version was slightly revised by Frank Campbell-Watson.) 


In an interview with Musical America that he gave while composing the piece, Gershwin noted that “the opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six [Les Six], though all the themes are original,” a clear signal that he rightly considered himself a peer of his Parisian art-music contemporaries such as Darius Milhaud.


The piece is, broadly speaking, in ternary form with a final coda. The opening section evokes the maxixe, a fashionable Brazilian dance, and depicts the bustle of Paris through the repetition of short rhythmic cells, including those produced by taxi-horns (of which Gershwin purchased several for the New York Philharmonic’s premiere of the work), which add a knockabout air to the score. The first section is also notable for its deft use of tuned percussion.


A violin cadenza leads into what Gershwin described to Musical America as: 

a rich blues…Our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a couple of drinks, has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simpler than in the preceding pages. This blues rises to a climax, followed by a coda in which the spirit of the music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impression of Paris.

Gordon Kerry © 2014


First performance: December 12, 1928, at Carnegie Hall, Walter Damrosch conducting 

First SLSO performance: February 14, 1930, Georg Szell conducting 

Most recent SLSO performance: December 31, 2021, Stéphane Denève conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (including taxi-horns), celesta, strings 

Approximate duration: 18 minutes 

 
Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin

Conductor


In addition to his role as Conductor Laureate of the SLSO, Leonard Slatkin is Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Honorary Musical Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria in Spain. He maintains a rigorous schedule of guest conducting throughout the world and is active as a composer, author, and educator.


He has received six Grammy awards and 35 nominations. His latest recordings are Jeff Beal’s The Paper Lined Shack, and Slatkin Conducts Slatkin, a compilation of pieces written by generations of his musical family, including three of his own compositions. For Naxos he has also recorded works by Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Berlioz (with the Orchestre National de Lyon); as well as Copland, Rachmaninoff, Borzova, McTee, John Williams, and the complete symphonies of Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky (with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

In addition to his appearances as a titled conductor, his engagements include concerts for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, Spokane Symphony Orchestra, Yale Symphony Orchestra, Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin, Beethoven Festival in Warsaw, Sacramento Philharmonic, Nashville Symphony, and Rhode Island Philharmonic.


A recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Arts, he also holds the rank of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor. He has received the Prix Charbonnier from the Federation of Alliances Françaises, Austria’s Decoration of Honor in Silver, the League of American Orchestras Gold Baton Award, and the 2013 ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award for his debut book, Conducting Business. A second volume, Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry, was published in 2017, and his latest book, Classical Crossroads: The Path Forward for Music in the 21st Century was released in 2021.


Leonard Slatkin has conducted virtually all the leading orchestras in the world. As Music Director, he has held posts in New Orleans, St. Louis (1979–1996), London (BBC Symphony Orchestra), Detroit, Lyon, and Washington, DC. He has also served as Principal Guest Conductor in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cleveland.

 
Scott Andrews

Scott Andrews

Clarinet


Scott Andrews was appointed Principal Clarinet of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2005. He came to St. Louis from Boston, where he had been a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 11 years. Andrews also served as chairman of the Woodwind Department at Boston Conservatory and taught at the Tanglewood Music Center during that time.


Andrews has been a regular participant in the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival since 2008, and has performed with the Saito Kinen, Philadelphia, and Cleveland Orchestras, as well as the Mito Chamber Orchestra. He has also taught at the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Pacific Music Festival, and the Interlochen Arts Camp.


Originally from Virginia, Andrews studied piano and violin before discovering the clarinet, studying with Edward Knakal of Virginia Beach. He attended the Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts and also studied at the Interlochen Music Center in Michigan. He graduated with distinction from the New England Conservatory, where he was a clarinet student of Harold Wright.

 

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.

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