Program notes for April Concert

Adams | Debussy | Actor | Gottschalk

Adams: Short Ride on a Fast Machine

The most famous American fanfare is Hail to the Chief. Next comes Aaron Copland’s thumping huff and puff in honor the “the Common Man.” Most fanfares are brilliant, some even aggressive (etymologists disagree whether the word “fanfare” is onomatopoetic or actually connected with the verbal family that gives us “fanfaronade,” meaning blustering and bragging behavior), though John Adams has also explored the possibilities of the restrained and pianissimo fanfare (in his Tromba lontana).

Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a joyfully exuberant piece, brilliantly scored for a large orchestra. The steady marking of a beat is typical of Adams’s music. Short Ride begins with a marking of quarter-notes (woodblock, soon joined by the four trumpets) and eighths (clarinets and synthesizers); the woodblock is fortissimo and the other instruments play forte. Adams sees the rest of the orchestra as running the gauntlet through that rhythmic tunnel. About the title: “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”

Short Ride in a Fast Machine features the usual minimalist earmarks: repetition, steady beat, and, perhaps most crucially, a harmonic language with an emphasis on consonance unlike anything in Western art music in the last five hundred years. Adams is not a simple—or simple-minded—artist. His concern has been to invent music at once familiar and subtle. For all of their minimalist features, works such as Harmonium, Harmonielhere, and El Dorado are full of surprises, always enchanting in the glow and gleam of their sonority, and bursting with the energy generated by their harmonic movement.

—Michael Steinberg
Reprinted with kind permission of

Debussy: Jeux

On May 29, 1912, Vaslav Nijinsky premiered his first ballet, choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to a short work by Claude Debussy, Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). Debussy’s “Faun” had been somewhat puzzling to his audiences at its premiere in 1894, with its almost improvisational feel. Pierre Boulez has famously called it the beginning of modern music: “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.” Nijinsky’s ballet to Debussy’s score, however, was more than puzzling—it was met by both cheers and jeers upon its opening. The ballet’s strange new movements (Nijinsky was trying to reproduce the stylized motions of figures in Grecian artwork) and its eroticism shocked even Paris.

But shock can have some publicity value, so Dhiagilev started planning for another ballet by Nijinsky to music by Debussy. Nijinsky’s diaries—which are not considered to be wholly accurate—describe the original scenario that he wanted to depict: a homoerotic encounter of three young men in a garden, perhaps interrupted by an airplane crash! Even Dhiagilev thought this would be too much for the Parisians, so the scenario changed to the following, as described in the original program:

“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”

Debussy declined the initial proposal, pronouncing the idea “idiotic and unmusical.” But Dhiagilev offered to double the commission, and Debussy accepted. Jeux (Games) premiered on May 15, 1913, and succeeded in surprising its audience, if not shocking them. There was no corps de ballet, no romantic setting, no elaborate costumes—just three people in tennis outfits! And there was no real ‘story:’ the boy kisses one girl, then the other; the first girl is upset, but the boy convinces all three of them to embrace, then they run off when startled. However, what really prevented the ballet from becoming the talk of the town was that it premiered only two weeks before Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, again with Dhiaghilev’s Ballet Russes and choreographed by Nijinsky. That scandalous opening eclipsed Jeux, which was soon forgotten. It was the last work for full orchestra that Debussy would write.

The composer called Jeux a poème dansé (danced poem), and if it is a poem, it is decidedly a modern one. Its thematic motifs are very short and rarely repeat, and tempo markings change around 60 times—in a work only 15 minutes long. It has been described as a piece made up entirely of textures: dreamy, swirling, fluttering, bold, languid. Debussy said that there was yet order in these juxtapositions, and that he wanted “to make something inorganic in appearance and yet well-ordered at its core.” At its heart is a waltzing triple meter that moves the piece along through its many scenes. It finally builds to the dancers’ ecstatic triple embrace, and a dramatic, vaguely threatening crescendo as they are interrupted. The music returns to the stillness of the opening, and ends with a quick flourish.

Actor: Concerto for Alto Saxophone

Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra is a work in three movements with a total duration of about 22 minutes. It is scored for a classical-sized orchestra: double woodwinds, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, and strings.

The existing solo saxophone literature is modest in size when compared to that of instruments such as the piano or violin, and generally tends to emphasize jazz-inflected or the lighter, popular stylistic elements often associated with the instrument. One of my goals in writing this piece was to exploit the considerable dramatic and expressive possibilities of the saxophone. I wanted to treat it as a serious solo instrument playing a serious concerto, in much the same way that instruments more commonly found playing in front of a symphony orchestra are treated. The result is a piece that expresses a full range of emotions, from intensely dramatic to poignantly lyrical to slyly humorous to triumphantly joyful.

The second movement, Adagio, begins with the saxophone playing a lonely solo; the mental image I had in mind while writing this music was of a saxophonist playing all alone at night under the light of a single streetlamp. This becomes a wistful, yearning melody accompanied by pulsating strings. The melody is passed among various sections of the orchestra as the solo saxophone plays increasingly elaborate figurations, leading to a brief but intense climax. The orchestra dies away, leaving the solo saxophone alone once again, and the main theme is reprised in its simplest form. An echo from the opening bars is heard and the movement ends quietly, similar to the ending of the first movement.

The finale, Allegro molto, is colorful and full of energy and high spirits. In structure, it is closer to sonata form than the first two movements. The vigorous first theme is marked by the relentless presence of triplet rhythms in both the theme and accompaniment. The second theme is impish in character and brings to mind the gypsy-like melody from the first movement. The music builds steadily, leading to a section that is transitional and developmental in character. Soon another new theme is introduced, based on a motif from the opening movement. This leads directly to a reprise of the material from the beginning of the movement, though nothing is quite the same as before; unexpected turns and harmonic surprises abound. A brief coda ends the movement with a flourish.

Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra was commissioned by the Mission Chamber Orchestra, and was written between March and November 2009. The concerto is dedicated to saxophonist Ashu.


America’s first internationally recognized classical composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, was the product of an exotic and tangled heritage. He was born a Creole in New Orleans, a slave port in 1829, a mere 25 years after the Louisiana Purchase, and only 15 years after the Battle of New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson summarily drew the War of 1812 with England to a close.

Moreau’s father, Edward, a merchant and slave trader who kept a free woman of color as his mistress, was a secular, London-born, German-educated Jew. His mother, Marie-Aimée de Bruslé, was French creole. Her family had fled from Saint-Dominique (Haiti) to Louisiana because of the slave rebellion of the 1790s. His maternal great-grandfather, Count Antoine de Bruslé, had been a cavalry commander under Louis XV and appointed Governor of French-­controlled Saint-Dominique.

During the early part of the 19th century, classical music was more popular in New Orleans than in any other American city. Louis Moreau enjoyed hearing quite a mixture of French and Italian opera, creole music and dance, as well as the ever-present minstrel shows. The musical legacy that informed Louis Moreau Gottschalk not only as a composer, but as a concert performer were the creole melodies and Afro-Cuban rhythms he experienced from the streets of his New Orleans childhood. This rich musical heritage became the source elements of his compositions later presented in Paris, a model analogous to the Polish airs that Chopin brought from Warsaw to Paris, and transferred into his mazurkas and polonaises.
Gottschalk began his study in Paris in 1841. His Salle Pleyel debut there, in 1845 at age 16, was attended by musical royalty. Upon hearing Gottschalk perform his E minor Concerto, Chopin was quoted as exclaiming, “Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists.” Berlioz, also a noted music critic, wrote of his performance:

“He phrases soft melodies with perfect grace and has mastered the keyboard’s delicate traits. ...his playing dazzles and shocks. In the presence of a musically civilized public, Mr. Gottschalk’s success is immense.”

Gottschalk was adored by the French public, who were as crazy about his piano compositions as they were about his piano playing. And, his earliest piano compositions were the rage in Spain as well, with a command performance before Spanish Queen Isabella.

Gottschalk’s syncopated rhythmic figurations, and inclusion of material from the early American creole folk tradition are recognized as the musical forerunners of ragtime and the rhythmically complex New Orleans jazz that came out of the latin Quarter, some 60 years before Scott Joplin (1868–1917), and Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, also known as Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941). It should also be noted that Gottschalk was the first American composer to make use of the folk materials of this New World as melodic/rhythmic material for classical compositions, many years before Dvorak advised American composers to harvest their own rich musical resources.

Gottschalk’s first symphony, La nuit des tropiques (A Night in the Tropics), was written in two movements that could be best be heard as two linked tone poems. The first movement, Nuit dans les tropiques (Night in the Tropics), was composed in 1858 and premiered in Havana in 1860. It recalls Berlioz (Gottschalk’s mentor) and Wagner (whose works Gottschalk championed via transcription for piano in his famed “monster” concerts for multiple pianos). The second movement, heard this evening, dates from 1859 and is referred to as Une fête sous les tropiques (A Party in the Tropics), subtitled Fiesta criolla. The Bamboula theme, used in his early 1848 piano work, subtitled “danse des negres,” and taken from a creole tune Quan’ patate la cuite (‘Like a baked potato’) is the prominent rhythmic and melodic impetus of the Fiesta Criolla movement heard this evening.

The original scoring was for 50 players, including a huge primary orchestra, a full band, and extra percussion that includes bamboula and other tropical drums. (Bamboula is a drum made from a section of giant bamboo with skin stretched over the ends. It is also a dance accompanied by the drum; both brought to the Americas (notably New Orleans, Mobile, and the Virgin Islands) by African slaves.
Une Fête sous les tropiques is a quick-time, action-filled “genre painting” depicting a creole festival. Long before Bizet and Saint-Saens began employing habanera motifs, Gottschalk drew a riot of Caribbean rhythms into his compositions. Not only did he employ nearly a dozen variations on the syncopated Cuban cinquillo rhythm,

but set these variations off each against each other, employing woodwinds, brasses as well as percussion in the fray. Sliding through numerous key centers, “modulating through half a dozen tonalities, moving among his several themes. In the midst of this exuberant display, he insinuates a little fugue near the climax to provide his symphony some academic solidity, but the splashy music never skips a Latin beat.
The profound symphonic innovation of Fiesta Criolla was the scoring for Cuban percussion. Gottschalk called for a plethora of Afro-Cuban drums of various sizes, as well as maracas, and guiro; instruments never before employed in symphonic ensembles. This multi-cultural innovation electrified the Havana audience when the symphony was premiered in 1860. Later performances of La Nuit des tropiques in Havana would team Gottschalk’s huge symphonic orchestral forces with an entire band of Carnival musicians; Afro-­Cuban drummers from a well-know Cuban island group called La Tumba Francesca.

—Stephen Ruppenthal