Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra)
(b. Worcester, Massachusetts, 1947)
Composed in 1985.
Premiered on January 31, 1986 in Milwaukee, conducted by Lukas Foss.
Instrumentation: two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 12 minutes.
John Adams is one of today's most acclaimed composers. Audiences have responded enthusiastically to his music, and he enjoys a success not seen by an American composer since the zenith of Aaron Copland's career: a recent survey of major orchestras conducted by the League of American Orchestras found John Adams to be the most frequently performed living American composer; he received the University of Louisville's distinguished Grawemeyer Award in 1995 for his Violin Concerto; in 1997, he was the focus of the New York Philharmonic's Composer Week, elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and named "Composer of the Year" by Musical America Magazine; he has been made a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture; in 1999, Nonesuch released The John Adams Earbox, a critically acclaimed ten-CD collection of his work; in 2003, he received the Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, written for the New York Philharmonic in commemoration of the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, and was also recognized by New York's Lincoln Center with a two-month retrospective of his work titled "John Adams: An American Master," the most extensive festival devoted to a living composer ever mounted at Lincoln Center; from 2003 to 2007, Adams held the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall; in 2004, he was awarded the Centennial Medal of Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences "for contributions to society" and became the first-ever recipient of the Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, which included residencies and teaching at Northwestern University; he was a 2009 recipient of the NEA Opera Award; he has been granted honorary doctorates from the Royal Academy of Music (London), Juilliard School and Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Northwestern universities, honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and the California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.
John Adams was born into a musical family in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1947; as a boy, he lived in Woodstock, Vermont, and in New Hampshire. From his father, he learned the clarinet and went on to become an accomplished performer on that instrument, playing with the New Hampshire Philharmonic and Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera Orchestra, and appearing as soloist in the first performances of Walter Piston's Clarinet Concerto in Boston, New York and Washington. (Adams first met Piston as a neighbor of his family in Woodstock, and received encouragement, advice and understanding from the older composer, one of this country's most respected artists.) Adams' professional focus shifted from the clarinet to composition during his undergraduate study at Harvard, where his principal teacher was Leon Kirchner.
Rather than following the expected route for a budding composer, which led through Europe, Adams chose to stay in America. In 1972, he settled in California to join the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where his duties included directing the New Music Ensemble, leading the student orchestra, teaching composition, and administering a graduate program in analysis and history. In 1978, he became associated with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Edo de Waart in an evaluation of that ensemble's involvement with contemporary music. Two years later he helped to institute the Symphony's "New and Unusual Music" series, which subsequently served as the model for the "Meet the Composer" program, sponsored by the Exxon Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, which placed composers-in-residence with several major American orchestras; Adams served as resident composer with the San Francisco Symphony from 1979 to 1985. He began his tenure as Creative Chair with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the premiere of City Noir on October 8, 2009.
In his compositions through the early 1990s, Adams was closely allied with the style known as "Minimalism," which utilizes repetitive melodic patterns, consonant harmonies, motoric rhythms and a deliberate striving for aural beauty. Unlike some other Minimalist music, however, which can be static and intentionally uneventful, the best of Adams' early works (Grand Pianola Music, Shaker Loops, Harmonium, the brilliant Harmonielehre, the acclaimed operas Nixon in China  and The Death of Klinghoffer ) are marked by a sense of determined forward motion and inexorable formal growth, and by frequent allusions to a wide range of 20th-century idioms, both popular and serious. His links with traditional music are further strengthened by consistent use of conventional instruments and predominantly consonant harmony, this latter technique producing what he calls "sustained resonance," the quality possessed by the acoustical overtone series of common chords to reinforce and amplify each other to create an enveloping mass of sound. Adams' recent compositions incorporate more aggressive harmonic idioms and more elaborate contrapuntal textures to create an idiom he distinguishes from that of his earlier music as "more dangerous, but also more fertile, more capable of expressive depth and emotional flexibility." Among Adams' commissions are On the Transmigration of Souls (New York Philharmonic, commemorating the tragedies of September 11th, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize and the 2005 Grammy Award as Best Contemporary Classical Composition Recording), My Father Knew Charles Ives (San Francisco Symphony) and The Dharma at Big Sur (composed for Los Angeles Philharmonic for the opening of Disney Hall in October 2003). Dr. Atomic, based on the life of atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer, was premiered by the San Francisco Opera in October 2005. In May 2012 the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Gustavo Dudamel premiered The Gospel According to the Other Mary, an "oratorio in two acts"; Scheherazade.2, a "dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra," was introduced in March 2015 by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert, and violinist Leila Josefowicz.
The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra), written in 1985 on joint commission from the American Composers Orchestra and the National Endowment for the Arts, is a by-product of Adams' opera, Nixon in China, premiered in Houston in October 1987. The opera, explains Michael Steinberg in his liner notes for the recording of The Chairman Dances on Nonesuch Records, is "neither comic nor strictly historical though it contains elements of both. It is set in three days of President Nixon's visit to Beijing in February 1972, one act for each day. The single scene of the third act takes place in the Great Hall of the People, where there is yet another exhausting banquet, this one hosted by the Americans."
The preface to the score gives the following description of The Chairman Dances: "Madame Mao, alias Jiang Ching, has gatecrashed the Presidential banquet. She is seen standing first where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle, and slit up to the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins to dance herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, the night is warm, they are dancing to the gramophone ...
"Act Three, in which both reminiscing couples, the Nixons and the Maos, find themselves contrasting the vitality and optimism of youth with their present condition of age and power, is full of shadows; Jiang Ching's and Mao's foxtrot in the opera is therefore more melancholy than The Chairman Dances. This is, uninhibitedly, a cabaret number, an entertainment, and a funny piece; as the Chairman and the former actress turned Deputy Head of the Cultural Revolution make their long trip back through time they turn into Fred and Ginger. The chugging music we first hear is associated with Mao; the seductive swaying-hips melody — La Valse translated across immense distances — is Jiang Ching's. You might imagine the piano part at the end being played by Richard Nixon."
(b. Brooklyn, New York, 1900; d. North Tarrytown, New York, 1990)
Composed in 1942.
Premiered in Cincinnati on May 14, 1942, conducted by André Kostelanetz; Carl Sandburg was the speaker.
Instrumentation: two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 14 minutes.
Soon after the United States entered World War II, André Kostelanetz asked three American composers to write works that would convey "the magnificent spirit of our country." He felt that "the greatness of a nation is expressed through its people, and those people who have achieved greatness are the logical subjects for a series of musical portraits. The qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity and humor which are so characteristic of the American people are well represented in [our leaders]." Following Kostelanetz's request, Virgil Thomson composed the Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia Waltzes and Jerome Kern the Portrait for Orchestra of Mark Twain. Aaron Copland was the third composer approached by Kostelanetz, and he provided the following information about the composition and nature of the Lincoln Portrait:
"It was in January 1942 that André Kostelanetz suggested the idea of my writing a musical portrait of a great American. He put teeth into the proposal by offering to commission such a piece and to play it extensively. My first thought was to do a portrait of Walt Whitman, the patron poet of all American composers. But when Mr. Kostelanetz explained that the series of portraits already included a literary figure, I was persuaded to change to a statesman. From that moment on the choice of Lincoln as my subject seemed inevitable.
"On discussing my choice with Virgil Thomson, he amiably pointed out that no composer could possibly hope to match in musical terms the stature of so eminent a figure as that of Lincoln. Of course, he was quite right. But the sitter himself might speak. With the voice of Lincoln to help me I was ready to risk the impossible.
"The letters and speeches of Lincoln supplied the text. It was a comparatively simple matter to choose a few excerpts that seemed particularly apposite to our [wartime] situation. I avoided the temptation to use only well-known passages, permitting myself the luxury of quoting only once from a world-famous speech. The order and arrangement of the selections are my own.
"The first sketches were made in February and the portrait finished on April 16, 1942. The orchestration was completed a few weeks later. I worked with musical materials of my own, with the exception of two songs of the period: the famous Camptown Races and a ballad that was first published in 1840 under the title of The Pesky Sarpent, but is better known today as Springfield Mountain. In neither case is the treatment a literal one. The tunes are used freely in the manner of my use of cowboy songs in Billy the Kid.
"The composition is roughly divided into three main sections. In the opening section, I wanted to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln's personality. Also, near the end of that section, something of his greatness and simplicity of spirit. [Springfield Mountain is the thematic basis of this portion.] The quick middle section briefly sketches in the background of the times during which he lived. [Fragments of Stephen Foster's Camptown Races figure prominently in this passage.] This merges into the concluding section, where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame around the words of Lincoln."
Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Opus 70
(b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 1841; d. Prague, 1904)
Composed in 1884-1885.
Premiered on April 22, 1885 in London, conducted by the composer.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 36 minutes.
When Dvorák attended the premiere of the Third Symphony of his friend and mentor Johannes Brahms on December 2, 1883, he was already familiar with the work from a preview Brahms had given him at the piano shortly before. The effect on Dvorák of Brahms' magnificent creation, with its inexorable formal logic and its powerful shifting moods, was profound. Dvorák considered it, quite simply, the greatest symphony of the time, and it served as one of the two emotional seeds from which his D minor Symphony grew. The other, which followed less than two weeks after the first presentation of the Third Symphony, was the death of his mother.
Brahms not only encouraged Dvorák in his work, but also convinced his publisher, Simrock, to take on the music of the once little-known Czech composer. Dvorák always respected and was grateful to his benefactor, and when Brahms' Third Symphony appeared he looked upon it as a challenge presented to him to put forth a surpassing effort in his next work in the form. With Brahms' Symphony as the inspiration, and his grief at his mother's passing as the soul, the idea of a new symphony grew within him. He poured some of his sadness into the Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65, composed early in 1884, but the spark that ignited the actual composition of the Seventh Symphony was not struck until the following summer. Dvorák had been garnering an international success with his music during the preceding years, and his popularity was especially strong in England. As one of the stops on his busy conducting tours through northern Europe, he visited Britain for the first time in the spring of 1884, and on June 13th he was elected an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society and simultaneously requested to provide a new symphony for that organization. It gave him the reason to put the gestating Symphony to paper. Following another English foray in the fall that was even more successful than the earlier one, he set to work on the Symphony in December.
With thoughts of his mother still fresh in his mind, and with the example of Brahms always before him ("It must be something respectable for I don't want to let Brahms down," he wrote to Simrock), Dvorák determined to compose a work that would solidify his international reputation and be worthy of those who inspired it. In his study of the composer's work, Otakar Šourek wrote, "Dvorák worked at the D minor Symphony with passionate concentration and in the conscious endeavor to create a work of noble proportions and content, which should surpass not only what he had so far produced in the field of symphonic composition, but which was also designed to occupy an important place in world music." On December 22nd, Dvorák wrote to his friend Antonín Rus, "I am now busy with the new Symphony (for London) and wherever I go I have no thought for anything but my work, which must be such as to move the world — well, God grant that it may be so!" He was so pleased with progress on the piece, even during the busy holiday season, that on New Year's Eve he told another friend, Alois Göbl, "I am again as happy and contented in my work as I have always been up to now and, God grant, I always shall be." The orchestration was undertaken during the winter, and the score finished in March, only a month before its premiere in London.
Dvorák reported to Simrock that the Symphony's introduction was "an exceptionally brilliant success." Its triumph caused the eminent conductor-pianist Hans von Bülow, who led the Symphony in its Berlin premiere in 1889, to say of Dvorák, "Next to Brahms, [he is] the most God-gifted composer of the present day." (Bülow also called him, with all due respect, "a genius who looks like a tinker.") After Dvorák made some revisions in the score — including the excision of forty measures from the slow movement — he presented it to Simrock for publication with the expectation of a good payment. Simrock, however, argued that Dvorák's large works did not sell well (he conveniently ignored the fact that the Slavonic Dances were making huge profits) and offered only half the requested amount. Dvorák replied that not only was the D minor Symphony the best such work he had ever written and certain to be in demand, but that he was also a father needing to support a family. As a final argument, the composer, whose first job had been as a butcher's apprentice in a peasant village, and who throughout his life followed the country practice of keeping pigeons, added, "I have a lot of expense with my garden and it doesn't exactly look as if there'll be a good potato crop this year." Dvorák got his full payment. It was the second of his symphonies to be published, and was usually known as "No. 2" until the 1960s, when the first five symphonies finally became widely available.
Dvorák's D minor Symphony has been regularly heard in the world's concert halls ever since it was new, and it is regarded by many as his finest achievement in the genre. Sir Donald Tovey's comment is representative: "I have no hesitation in setting Dvorák's Seventh Symphony along with the C major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms as among the greatest and purest examples of this art-form since Beethoven." It has a gravity and austerity that are seldom encountered in the works of this composer, about whose music the great Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick once said, "In it, the sun always shines." Its texture and orchestration are often reminiscent of Brahms, but Dvorák's own distinctive personality is never suppressed, a difficult balance for him to attain during these years since he wanted to write music that would embody both the great German symphonic tradition and the unique characteristics of the Bohemian folk music that he held so dear. Though they are very different works, he succeeded remarkably well in each of his last three symphonies.
The Symphony begins with an ominous rumble deep in the basses reminiscent of both the introductory measures of Bruckner's symphonies and the beginning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, another work in D minor and coincidentally also commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society. The haunting main theme is introduced by the violas and cellos, then echoed by the clarinets. Almost immediately, the possibilities for development built into the theme are explored, and the music rapidly grows in intensity until a climax is achieved when the main theme bursts forth in dark splendor from the full orchestra. The tension subsides to allow the flute and clarinet to present the lyrical second theme. The development, woven from the thematic components of the exposition, is compact and concentrated. The recapitulation is swept in on an enormous wave of sound that is capped by the re-entry of the timpani. The main theme is abandoned quickly, and the repeat of the flowing second theme is entrusted to two clarinets in a rich setting. The main theme returns, at times with considerable vehemence, to form the coda to this magnificent movement.
The second movement opens with a chorale of an almost otherworldly serenity that had been little portrayed in music since the late works of Beethoven. A complementary thematic idea with wide leaps of pathetic beauty is heard from the strings. The unusual form of the movement, part variations, part sonata, is perhaps best heard as the struggle between the beatific grace of the opening and the various states of musical and emotional tension that militate against it. It is likely that Dvorák intended this deeply expressive music as the heart of the Symphony, as a cathartic portrayal of the feelings that had troubled him since the death of his mother.
The Scherzo, the greatest dance movement among Dvorák's symphonies, is at once graceful and compelling, airy and forceful. Its bounding syncopations give it an irresistible vivacity set in a glowing, burnished orchestral sonority. Though the trio is more lyrical, it has an incessant rhythmic background in the strings that lends it an unsettled quality.
The finale, which continues the brooding mood of the preceding movements, is large in scale and assured in expression. Unlike many minor-mode symphonies of the 19th century, this one does not end in a blazing apotheosis of optimism, but, wrote Otakar Šourek, "rises to a glorious climax of manly, honorable and triumphant resolve." It is a moving climax to one of Dvorák's greatest creations.
Of Dvorák's Seventh Symphony, Sourek wrote, "The spirit of the great symphonist-architect emanates in full glory from the work as a whole, and from each movement, from each section and, indeed, from each bar, building up before us a composition of monumental proportions, unified in all its parts, bold in design, of material without flaw or fracture, a composition which is one of the greatest and most significant symphonic compositions since Beethoven."
©2016 Dr. Richard E. Rodda