Classics in the Cohan 2

Classic Series
Saturday, November 11, 2017

An Americana Salute to Our Veterans

Performing Arts Center, San Luis Obispo l 8:00 p.m.
Conductor: Andrew Sewell
Soloist: Jubilant Sykes, baritone
Concert Sponsors: Lyn C. Baker, Roger and Janice Verity, Diane and Michael Draze

Classics in the Cohan 2 is all Americana! Join us in saluting our veterans on Veteran’s Day with great American composers. Metropolitan Opera and Boston Pops baritone Jubilant Sykes sings Copland’s Simple Gifts from Old American Songs, the Spiritual Sometimes, I Feel Like a Motherless Child and more.

The Symphony kicks off with Gershwin’s popular An American in Paris and ends with Copland’s poignant Fanfare for the Common Man and a 100th birthday celebratory playing of Leonard Bernstein’s lively and emotional West Side Story Symphonic Dances. You’ll be singing, snapping your fingers and waving the flag throughout.

Repertoire: Click on the piece to hear the music

Gershwin l An American in Paris l 16 min.

Vocals by Jubilant Sykes
Copland l Simple Gifts from Old American Songs l 3 min.
Mozart l Non Piu Andrai from the Marriage of Figero l 3 min.
Barton l Motherless Child l 4 min.

Intermission l 15 min.

Copland l Fanfare for the Common Man l 3 min.
Bernstein l West Side Story Symphonic Dances l 22 min.

Program Notes

George Gershwin (1898–1937)
An American in Paris (1928)

Highbrow pundits never quite knew what to do about George Gershwin. That such a more or less self-taught Broadway tunesmith presumed to write ambitious concert works was annoying enough. That he was often boisterously successful with those same works was even more irritating. Some critics vented their umbrage via potshots at Gershwin’s perceived technical shortcomings. Others dismissed his works as mere passing fancies, such as the New York Evening Post’s Oscar Thompson, who allowed that while An American in Paris might be all the rage circa 1928, “to conceive of a symphony audience listening to it with any degree of pleasure or patience twenty years from now, when whoopee is no longer even a word, is another matter.”

Raised patrician pinkies notwithstanding, conductors knew a good thing when they heard it and snapped the piece up. The 1929 midwestern premiere was led by no less than Fritz Reiner, soon to be followed by such luminaries as Artur Rodzinski, Alfredo Casella, and erstwhile San Francisco Symphony maestro Henry Hadley. Even Arturo Toscanini—nobody’s choice as an advocate for American music—turned in a whipcrack rendition with the NBC Symphony. The first studio recording, with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting the Victor Symphony and featuring an uncredited George Gershwin Himself on celesta, took place on February 4, 1929, less than two months after the New York premiere. Umpteen performances and recordings later, An American in Paris dances blithely towards its centennial, bedrock repertory, familiar and loved the world over. Far more than a mere Jazz Age travelogue, this quintessentially American symphonic poem unfolds with radiant vitality and intoxicating energy. 

An American in Paris eschews formal symphonic development in favor of a loose episodic structure charting the adventures of an American tourist sampling the glories of Paris and succumbing to fits of homesickness along the way. The work’s most compelling features are its marvelous melodies—who isn’t enchanted by the central “blues” section with its wailing trumpet solo?—and its glittering orchestration, featuring that quacking quartet of Parisian taxi horns. “It’s not a Beethoven symphony, you know,” commented Gershwin, perhaps in reaction to elitist reservations about the work’s overriding joie de vivre. “If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.”

Songs and Spirituals

The American art song is a bit of a cheeky cousin to its European counterparts the chanson and the lied, in that it has often taken its inspiration from folk traditions, including the powerful music developed by African-Americans during their tragic captivity. Three songs—two American and one European—reflect both Old World and New.

First up: Simple Gifts, Aaron Copland’s sensitive setting of the familiar melody from the Shakers, a.k.a. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Shaker communities, once numerous, dwindled steadily; as of 2017 the sect is nearly extinct. Simple Gifts, written by Joseph Brackett in 1848, is perhaps best known from Copland’s 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s beloved 1786 The Marriage of Figaro is the source for the dazzling baritone aria “Non più andrai.” The lovesick young page Cherubino is to be packed off to military duty by Count Almaviva, who is wary of Cherubino’s puppy-love crush on Countess Rosina. Almaviva’s cocky valet Figaro reassures/teases a panic-stricken Cherubino with mock-military exhortations of the “beat of the bugle” and “plenty of honor, with little pay!”

The classic spiritual Motherless Child dates back to at least the 1870s if not before; a lament about the sorrows of a life spent in slavery, it compares a slave’s rootlessness to the despair of a child taken away from its mother. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long ways from home, it weeps. And yet a glimmer of hope remains: a vision of heaven, the sound of prayer.

Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
Fanfare for the Common Man (1942)

Copland’s sonic American icon was engendered by conductor Eugene Goossens, who commissioned a series of patriotic fanfares to open Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concerts. Copland’s is the only one to have remained in the repertory.

In 1944 Copland re-purposed the Fanfare as the main theme of the Third Symphony’s finale, but it is probably best known in its stand-alone version, surely one of the finest—and most popular—inspirational perorations in the modern orchestral literature. 



Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1961)

Chic celebrity he may have been, bellwether of contemporary American life, his patrician features and cultivated New England voice familiar to millions from his many appearances on radio and television. And yet Leonard Bernstein was something of a throwback to an earlier age when to be a musician meant to encompass the whole of the art rather than to segregate oneself into a well-defined specialty. Like those multitudinous kapellmeisters who peppered Europe from the 17th through 19th centuries, Bernstein could do everything. And he could do it all well: composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, writer. 

Bernstein’s theatrical masterpiece West Side Story, with lyrics by a then-unknown Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, opened to solid, if not overwhelming, success at New York’s Winter Garden Theater on September 26, 1957. A dramatic departure from Broadway norms in its threading of Jerome Robbins’s deeply integrated dance routines throughout an urban update of Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story constitutes a sophisticated hybrid of musical and ballet, the whole empowered by Bernstein’s magnificent, and now iconic, score.

In 1961, four years after the Broadway premiere, Bernstein assembled an orchestral suite that follows the show’s plot mostly via its dance routines, including songs such as “Somewhere,” later fused with “I Have a Love” in the tragic Finale. A point of particular interest: Bernstein’s skillful variants of the ecstatic love song “Maria” in both the “Cha-Cha” and the “Meeting Scene” as Tony and Maria discover each other, followed by an up-tempo variation of the same melodic figure as the nervous Jets dance the “Cool” fugue immediately before their climactic rumble with the Sharks.

Program Notes copyright Scott Fogelson

Tickets: $20-80