by Susan Swinburne —
Our final concert of the 2022-2023 season offers a cornucopia of distinctly American 20th and 21st century music, with works encompassing idioms, styles, and tonalities completely unique to their very American composers’ differing lives and times.
Brian Nabors – Pulse
Composer Brian Raphael Nabors has accomplished quite a lot in 32 years. Born April 10, 1991, in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in a home infused with music and art, the precocious youngster taught himself to play piano at age six, prior to embracing all the musical technicalities as a teenager. With a doctorate in Musical Arts by the age of 28 and a rapidly expanding brag sheet of fellowships and awards, he is sought after for commissions and collaborations by orchestras and ensembles around the globe.
Nabors’ Pulse, composed and premiered in 2019, was inspired by his own introspective ruminations on the nature of connection between humans and their surroundings, both physical and spiritual. “The universe seems to have this natural rhythm to it. It is as if every living and moving thing we are aware and unaware of is being held together by a mysterious, resolute force… our deep connection as living beings to everything within, over, under, and around us.”
Ellington — Harlem
It is no exaggeration to call Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington an American Icon. His decades-long career as an internationally acclaimed conductor, performer, and composer is legendary, as is his reputation as a cultural ambassador for the explosive artistry of Harlem during and after its groundbreaking Renaissance in the first half of the 20th century. His tone poem Harlem from 1951 harnesses the sounds and images unique to this distinctive Manhattan district at a distinct moment in time, rich with African American cultural innovation and creative energy.
While Ellington’s orchestral compositions are not nearly so well-known as the extensive canon of his jazz works, there is no shortage of exuberant praise for his richly imagined symphonic and chamber orchestra pieces. Eminent composer and critic Gunther Schuller called him, “one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time.”
So, from whence cometh the “Duke” in Ellington? Ellington acquired his royal nickname at a very young age. As the story goes, his mother made sure he
learned refined habits and manners. Apparently, it worked. He credits the nickname to his childhood friend Edgar McEntree, who felt his grace and style seemed very distinguished. “So, he called me Duke,” and it stuck.
Nan Schwartz – Romanza
Trail-blazing Grammy-winning and Emmy-nominated composer and orchestrator Nan Schwartz proudly stands shoulder to shoulder with legions of her male peers who score for film and TV. This prolific artist, known for collaborations with Alexander Desplat and others, and for her work on benchmark films including Oscar winners Argo and Life of Pi, broke the glass ceiling in film composing while still in her twenties. With a body of work that has enlivened film-going audiences for three-plus decades, she is also the next generation of an American musical dynasty. Her father originated the “Glenn Miller sound” as that orchestra’s clarinetist as well as recording often with Frank Sinatra and others; her mother sang with Tommy Dorsey, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and too many more stars to name.
In Romanza, Schwartz envelopes the listener in a lush carpet of sound, building anticipation that leads delicately to a sweet, piercing solo violin singing of passionately of love.
Florence Price — Piano Concerto in One Movement
The genius of Florence Price, lost to history for decades after her death in 1953, is justly being revived as 21st century audiences discover her remarkable life and boundary-breaking career.
As a young woman of mixed race born in 1887 Arkansas, Price excelled in school and began musical studies as a child with her mother, a music teacher. She was admitted to and attended the New England Conservatory of Music only by “passing” as a Mexican, but she thrived there, graduated in 1906, and subsequently taught music at the college level. In 1927, she relocated to Chicago with her family to escape racial bias and, there in the windy city, her legacy as a composer took flight.
Price achieved an unprecedented triumph in 1932 when her Symphony No. 1 in E minor, having won a prestigious music award, was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and became the first full orchestral work by an African American woman to be performed by a major American symphony orchestra. It received a glowing review in the Chicago Daily News: “a faultless work…worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.”
Two years later, in 1934, the CSO premiered the composer’s Piano Concerto in One Movement. The work demonstrates a masterful weaving of Price’s sophisticated and elegant talent for orchestration with her delightful creative exploration of African American musical themes and spirituals. Again garnering great acclaim, the work was performed in multiple venues around the region. The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph anointed the Concerto, “real American music.”
Despite the acclaim her work enjoyed during her lifetime, Florence Price became a footnote to 20th century music until a miraculous discovery occurred in 2009, when a derelict house outside of Chicago – later determined to have been her vacation home – was found to contain hundreds of her lost manuscripts… but, not the piano concerto. That turned up only in 2019 at a private auction. Happily, publisher G. Schirmer eventually purchased the entire extant Price catalog and her genius is now attracting the attention it rightfully deserves.
George Gershwin — An American in Paris
George Gershwin, a powerhouse popular composer of show tunes, rags, and patriotic anthems, did a swan dive into the classical music deep end with his experimental composition Rhapsody in Blue. In the audience for that performance in 1924 was New York Symphony (later Philharmonic) conductor Walter Damrosch, who was overwhelmed by the performance and later commissioned Gershwin to write two works for orchestra. Gershwin was eager to do it, but according to his own recollections, he ran out and got “four or five books on musical structure” to be sure he knew what was expected.
The second of these commissions, An American in Paris, was an immediate gangbusters success when it premiered in 1928. Gershwin described it as a “rhapsodic ballet” and explained his intention to “portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises (Gershwin brought home real Parisian taxi horns for its performance), and absorbs the French atmosphere.” It spawned a beloved film in 1951 that won the Oscar for best picture, which later spawned a blockbuster Broadway musical. An American in Paris continues to be a toe-tapping staple of 20th Century American symphonic music.
Susan Swinburne has been a lover and student of music since demanding piano lessons at age six. Her work in orchestra management has enriched her life personally and professionally for the past three decades. A habitué of concert halls throughout southern California, she lives, listens, writes, and researches in the South Bay.