28 April 2016

From the Archives: Pre-concert Talk - "Inspired by Jazz"

This talk was given on 16 July 2015 before the Auckland Philharmonia's "Inspired by Jazz" concert. The programme was the overture to Gershwin's Girl Crazy, Copland's Clarinet Concerto (with soloist Julian Bliss), Bernstein's Prelude Fugue and Riffs, and Russo's Street Music: A Blues Concerto (with harmonica soloist Corky Siegel). 


Classical music and jazz might seem to many to be irreconcilable opposites, chalk and cheese, black and white. One is thought of as being spontaneous, improvised, the other laboriously worked out and written down; one aspires to teleological long forms, the other usually employing short circular, repetitive forms, or series of “changes”; one swings, the other doesn't. These are the perceptions, often used to justify the superiority of one over the other. But with the explosion of musical styles in the twentieth century, classical and jazz have come into contact an awful lot. Those intersection points take all sorts of forms – collaboration, juxtaposition, antipathy, conflict, fusion. Tonight we'll  hear a lot of that, and hopefully too we might also have our prejudices shaken, on what jazz, classical, music can be.

I'd like to take a minute to acknowledge the wonderful job of the APO's artistic team, putting together another very creative and engaging concert programme. Far from being a variety show or potpourri of orchestrated jazz numbers, this evening's concert does what a good programme should: allows the listener to draw connections, and take away some questions to ponder.

George Gershwin might be the very first name one associates with jazz in the concert hall: Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris – we all know exactly what Gershwin sounds like, effortless tunesmith and skilled entertainer that he is. Gershwin's overture to Girl Crazy is pumped full of adapted vocal hit tunes from the musical, and rather than strictly being influenced by jazz, it's Gershwin reaching the other way, intensifying his Tin Pan Alley textures with classical forces.

Gershwin's style sits easily with the orchestra because of its lyrical origins and the pragmatic orchestration, leaving the driving syncopations to the brass and the sweeping tunes to the strings. Like many of Gershwin's orchestral works it's a medley, a series of connected episodes rather than a fully integrated long-form movement.

The original Broadway production of Girl Crazy not only made overnight sensations out of Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers, but the pit orchestra included a number of what would become the great bandleaders of the following years – Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

The tunes in the overture include Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, But Not For Me and Bronco Busters. It's not dissimilar in its railroad rhythms and soaring strings to Gershwin's breakout hit, Rhapsody in Blue six years earlier. Although we won't hear Rhapsody tonight we will hear more than once that definitive clarinet glissando, or “smear” that opens the work:

Rhapsody in Blue opening

American conductor Kenneth Woods says of Gershwin, “I suppose what really sets his classical pieces apart is the extent to which he is able to straddle the worlds of jazz and classical music so masterfully. I think he and Bernstein were the only composers who could do that consistently, and people have been trying to equal them for many generations without much success.”

It can't be said convincingly that this is what Aaron Copland was attempting when he wrote his Clarinet Concerto in 1949. In the same way perhaps that Charlie Parker's coruscating solos and eye-wateringly fast bebop tempi could be said to have something of the manic mechanistic modernism of Edgard Varese, so too Copland here has the spirit of latin jazz; Copland himself describes it as “an unconscious fusion” of elements of American music and his own vernacular style. But it's not a deliberate attempt to meet halfway between two quite distinct languages.

Of the four works on tonight's programme, Copland's is the one who treats its medium, i.e. the orchestra, with the most care and craft, subtly adapting the body of strings to both lyrical and percussive effect. There is certainly the colour and spirit of jazz at the fringes but also a keen awareness of the fundamental difference  - not only in timbre and texture but most significantly in articulation and phrasing – between a string orchestra and, say, a Benny Goodman swing band. Copland could be said to be just as much influenced by Mahler and Stravinsky as by jazz. Nevertheless there are a couple of important connections between him and Gershwin.

One is that glissando we heard earlier –

The second is the commissioner and intended soloist, Benny Goodman. You'll remember Goodman played clarinet in the original pit orchestra for Gershwin's Girl Crazy, and by the 1940s he was one of the leading clarinettists and bandleaders in the United States. Having been immersed in the swing scene, Goodman was introduced to bebop in the mid 40s, where he saw Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and co pushing the boundaries of the art form, perhaps jazz's equivalent of Schoenberg and Stravinsky's modernism three decades earlier. Although Goodman didn't go down the bebop path, he was interested in expanding and developing jazz, and sought out many of the leading classical composers for commissions. Along with Copland, Goodman commissioned new pieces by Bartok, Poulenc, Hindemith, Arnold, and re-learned to play the clarinet with a classical embouchure.

Benny Goodman said of the Copland commission, “I made no demands on what Copland should write. He had completely free rein.”

A third connection between the first two composers on the programme is the reception they received from the American public. While Gershwin tapped into a vein of popular support with his orchestral colorations of Tin Pan Alley, Copland was chastised for trying to jazz up his music. Invoking Richard Taruskin, Zach Wallmark describes the phenomenon: “Critics placed Copland and Gershwin on different points in the racially-tinged spectrum of high vs low art. Where Copland was seen to sully the good name of concert music by contaminating it with the lowly “animalistic” sounds of jazz, Gershwin – in his elegant treatments of Tin Pan Alley forms that never strayed too far from their original – was perceived as the great redeemer of jazz by elevating it to the level of concert music. The messy sociostylistic problems of Jewish composers appropriating African-American forms for the consumption of predominantly WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) audiences was, indeed, a delicate dance that required extreme finesse to really “sell”. In this respect, Copland seemed to have had two left feet.”

Although there's certainly a disparity between how the two composers were perceived in relation to jazz, and perhaps also a disparity in their commercial nous, Gershwin and Copland did have something in common. Both were able to adapt the various folk musics of their age into their own unique musical style, styles which were both enormously influential on American music-making in the 20th century.

Copland's clarinet concerto itself is a masterclass in balance and pacing – two entirely contrasting movements linked by a dazzling cadenza. The first movement with its aching, arching lines, expressive yet never sentimental, is the perfect foil to the offbeat squareness of the second, which has an infectious groove even though it perhaps wisely never really tries to swing. Imagine Benny Goodman stepping up to the podium for what seemed like a delicately beautiful yet undeniably fairly straight elegiac piece, before pivoting on that cadenza into a bristling display of musical fireworks. You can hear in the sparkplug cadenza and the finale that grows from it the seeds of Bernstein's musical language: Latin rhythms, clean, sharp syncopations, almost to the point of caricature, and a flair for the theatrical.

Copland concerto 2nd mvmt opening

Benny Goodman was not the only bandleader reaching out to classical composers for new work. Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman and his First Herd in 1945. Writing for a big band of trumpets, trombones and saxophones, a rhythm section, and a couple of bizarre extras at his own request, Stravinsky claimed to be “unnerved by [his own] lack of familiarity with this sort of thing.” Herman's own first reaction to the work when it arrived was that he found it “grotesque” and awkward to play, but perhaps it is this grotesque awkwardness, this resistance to fusion, that has made the Ebony Concerto an enduring, if indiosyncratic, work of art. Herman recalled later, “after the very first rehearsal, at which we were all so embarrassed we were nearly crying because nobody could read, Stravinsky walked over and put his arm around me and said, 'Ah, what a beautiful family you have.'"

I mention the Ebony Concerto not just because it's a fascinating work, but because it's an interesting example of the difficulties and fragilities of collaboration and “fusion”, and because Herman also commissioned Leonard Bernstein a few years later.

Writing for standard big band line-up, Bernstein's work Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, written in 1949 – the same year as Copland's Clarinet Concerto - presents a more straightforwardly jazz idiom, calling to mind Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Gershwin among others. Bernstein was the Thomas Ades of his time – conductor, pianist, composer and musical magpie. Bernstein famously said of the diversity of jazz as a genre, “it is all jazz, and I love it all.”

In fact it was not Woody Herman and his herd that gave the premiere of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs but Benny Goodman – to whom the work is now dedicated.

The version you are going to hear tonight is a transcription for orchestra by Lukas Foss, a very interesting composer in his own right and a good friend of Bernstein – Foss also conducted the premiere of Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. I have to say I'm not entirely convinced by the Foss arrangement – Bernstein's original movements are titled Prelude (for the Brass), Fugue (for the Saxes), and Riffs (for Everyone), and for me they lose a bit of their edge and  groove in the transition to the orchestral medium. You can make up your own mind – here is a snippet of the original first movement

Bernstein Prelude Fugue and Riffs 1st mvmt

Along with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, a third influential clarinettist-bandleader, Artie Shaw, had already been experimenting with fusing classical music and jazz in the 1930s. This is his Interlude in Bb, featuring solo clarinet with strings and rhythm section

Artie Shaw Interlude in Bb

This was an embryonic form of what later came to be know as the Third Stream; neither classical, nor jazz, but something in between. Gunther Schuller, who coined the term, described it thus - “It is not jazz with strings. It is not jazz played on 'classical' instruments. It is not classical music played by jazz players. It is not inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between be-bop changes—nor the reverse. It is not jazz in fugal form. It is not a fugue played by jazz players. It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians.”

While it's unlikely you could get away with calling Gershwin, Copland or Bernstein Third Stream composers, seeing as their works involve little or no improvisation and they're not attempting a conscious fusion of classical and jazz, one composer who might fall into that category is William Russo, whose Harmonica Concerto Street Music you will hear tonight.

Street Music: A Blues Concerto was released by Deutsche Grammaphon in 1979 alongside Gershwin's American in Paris and Russo's own Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra, which had been a big hit for the record label. Russo's compositions were championed by Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, who originally suggested to Corky Siegel and Russo the idea of combining blues and classical music. Siegel, whom you'll hear tonight with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, was the original soloist.

Russo's work is centred on the blues but flits between all sorts of musical styles, a kind of rough-hewn musicological document as well as a virtuosic entertainment. Compared to the suave Gershwin or the craftsmanly Copland, Russo's string writing is often awkward, even clunky, but the visceral charisma of the harmonica part holds it up as something unique. Siegel describes the fusion as more of a juxtaposition in a recent interview with William Dart: “"We didn't want a symphony orchestra backing a blues band, or a blues band playing classical music. The aim was to juxtapose our different music and maintain our individual character," he explains. "As I said to Seiji, let's start with Charles Ives' Music for Two Marching Bands and move on from there."

Although each of these compositions may well appeal to different tastes and not all work all the time, it's interesting to look at them as documents of collaboration: Goodman and Copland, Siegel and Russo and Ozawa. Compare the respect and the awareness of the difficulty of true collaboration here with our current obsession with cross-over, and especially with attaching a faded pop superstar to a classical project in the hope of broadening audience appeal, or improving “accessibility”, whatever that means. Thus large arts institutions have got into a habit of ignoring the leading composers of the day and in their place commissioning Paul McCartney to write a ballet called Ocean's Kingdom or Rufus Wainwright to compose an opera that sounds like mediocre Puccini in French. Commercial imperatives leading to bad artistic decisions.

Another observation is that fusion performs a kind of musicological role, creating a dialogue between genres, and also documenting the trends and idiosyncracies of our times. In our highly targeted, niche market world, art that crosses genre and precipitate new interactions will I think continue to flourish.

So perhaps rather than trying to pigeonhole and categorise, jazz, classical, Third Stream, fusion, it's best primarily just to listen. Music critic Alex Ross recounts this story: “In Vienna, in 1928, Gershwin met his idol, Alban Berg, who had the Kolisch Quartet play him the “lyric suite”. Gershwin then sat down at the piano, but hesitated, wondering aloud whether he was worthy of the occasion. “Mr Gershwin,” Berg said sternly, “music is music.”

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