Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Glass: String Quartet No. 2 ("Company")

One of the most influential American composers of the twentieth century, if not the most “popular,” is Philip Glass (b. 1937), a descendant of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe (as were Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein).

At age 78, Glass has been a prolific composer since about 1960, and has created works in a tremendous variety of forms and styles. Often summed up as “minimalist” composer, he prefers to describe his style as “music with repetitive structures,” and even that does not apply sufficiently to his entire catalog of work which is still growing after 55 years.

Glass has often collaborated with artists of every non-musical genre, as well as with musicians working along the edges of popular music like Brian Eno, David Bowie and David Byrne. His first string quartet was written in 1966 after he worked on an experimental film score with the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. Exposure to the “additive rhythms” of Indian music would become the most powerful and definitive influence on his music for the next three decades.

The four movements of the String Quartet No. 2 were written for the theatrical production of Company (1983) by Samuel Beckett. At first, Glass considered it incidental music (“like salt and pepper ... just something for the table”), but published it in 1986 as a string quartet and an arrangement for string orchestra.

Just as his minimalist phase gave way to his characteristic non-narrative rhythmic style, his art continued to evolve to encompass choral works, opera, and symphonies. In later years, Glass found renewed interest in historical forms, lyricism, and conventional melody. In his 2015 memoir Words Without Music, Glass says his favorite composer was Franz Schubert, with whom he shares the same birthday.

Williams: Star Wars Suite

Few people alive today will not recognize the music from the 1977 blockbuster movie Star Wars, which along with 1975’s Jaws turned the names John Williams (b. 1932), George Lucas and Steven Spielberg into household words ­— and Hollywood gold.

What fans of his movie scores may not know is that he started out as a talented recording musician whose playing is heard on scores by Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard Bernstein) and Henry Mancini. The famous opening riff of Peter Gunn was actually played by John Williams.

His composing career first gained traction with well known television themes from the 1960’s for shows like Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space. The first of his 49 Academy Awards nominations came in 1967 for his score adaptation for Valley of the Dolls and he is now the second most recognized artist by the Academy, behind Walt Disney.

In addition to his famous original scores for Superman, the Harry Potter and Indiana Jones series, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (among many others), he has written concertos for some of the world’s finest soloists, a symphony, and numerous works for official occasions. His accomplishments include many awards from around the world, honorary degrees and Hall of Fame inductions. In 2005, the American Film Institute designated Star Wars as the greatest American film score of all time.

All this success is owed to his gift for creating musical imagery of grand scale and force in the manner of Richard Strauss, and his connecting succinct musical ideas to characters and themes in the fashion of great programmatic composers like Richard Wagner.

Besides composing, Williams has been a distinguished guest conductor with many of the world’s greatest orchestras, and succeeded Arthur Fiedler as the Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a post he held from 1980-1993. As Laureate Conductor, he continues working with the Boston Pops, and frequently performs at the site of Leonard Bernstein’s final concert: the Tanglewood Estate.

The next installment of the famous series — Star Wars: The Force Awakes — is scheduled for release in December 2015, with music written and conducted by — who else? — John Williams.

Gershwin: An American in Paris

Jazz is considered America’s unique contribution to world music, and George Gershwin (1898-1937) was an important pioneer in its development, by combining the blue notes of American roots music with European-style harmonies.

The French fell in love with jazz in the 1920’s, perhaps because its colorful chords sounded like natural extensions of Debussy, Satie and Ravel. Gershwin made multiple trips to Paris during this period, seeking tutelage from Ravel or Nadia Boulanger (both of whom turned him down), and it was these visits which inspired this symphonic poem.

Gershwin had demonstrated an ability to capture musical impressions of haphazard New York City life in his earlier Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which was criticized by classical purists for its lack of discernible form. In applying this gift of urban portraiture to Paris, he offered no apology, writing “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” To achieve some of these effects, the score calls for instruments not normally found in a classical orchestra: saxophones, taxi horns and a wide array of percussion.

Gershwin also described his original concept for the piece as a “rhapsodic ballet” because of its free development of scene, mood and gesture. Ironically, his use of rubato (fluid, discretionary changes in tempo) was generally intended to make the point that jazz need not be strictly metrical for dancing purposes.

And An American in Paris indeed became a ballet in the climactic scene of the 1951 film of the same name, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The sixteen-minute sequence cost half a million dollars to produce. The film was recently reborn as a Broadway musical, which opened at the Palace Theatre in April 2015, and runs through June 2016.

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story"

Standing tall in the middle of a career marked by numerous “firsts” is Leonard Bernstein’s music for the now legendary musical West Side Story. Conceived as a modernized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — set in the culture of New York City ethnic street gangs — it was perfectly timed to appeal to late fifties audiences.

Nearly ten years in on-and-off development, the musical was completed concurrently with Bernstein’s other best-known work, the operetta Candide (1956), and individual songs were actually exchanged between the two.

The original score for West Side Story was orchestrated primarily by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, with later edits by Bernstein, perhaps because of his extremely busy conducting, recording and broadcasting schedule. Despite the great appeal of his music among audiences, Bernstein was often criticized for borrowing and adapting musical ideas rather than developing an original voice of his own, and he attributed this to not spending enough time concentrating on the art. He also was fond of saying his only real composition teacher was Aaron Copland, with whom he never actually studied.

The stunning success of the 1961 soundtrack album for West Side Story was not the only impetus for Bernstein’s arrangement of nine movements of its music that year: he was also celebrating a renewed contract as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. The Symphonic Dances are ordered for purely musical reasons and do not follow the original plot sequence.

In addition to his countless recordings, media appearances, books, lectures, teaching and conducting positions, Bernstein composed an impressive catalog of works in all of the major forms: operas, symphonies, ballets, musicals, film scores, chamber music, song cycles, and more. This sum total of work places him among the most important American musicians of any century, and his unique gift for incorporating popular musical language into classical forms and instrumentation has made him the second most often played U.S. composer in American concert halls.

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man

Soon after the start of the Second World War, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was one of eighteen American composers invited by conductor Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) to write patriotic fanfares to begin the concerts in the Cincinnati Orchestra’s '42-'43 season. Goossens wanted to produce "stirring and significant contributions to the war effort" as he had done so effectively with the help of British composers during World War I.

Copland's piece was titled as a reference to a famous 1942 speech given by Vice President Henry Wallace, who proclaimed the arrival of the "century of the common man." With Copland's vigorous approval, Goossens scheduled the premiere for March 13, 1943 as a tribute to the common man at income tax time.

Goossens left Cincinnati for Australia in 1946, and Copland was one of nine composers who co-wrote the farewell piece, Variations on a Theme by Eugene Goossens. In Sydney, Goossens would later be influential in the development of the Sydney Opera House, but a scandalous love affair clouded the rest of his career.

Copland fared better, despite the suspicions later placed upon him by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare. Ironically, he had by that time completed the most prolific period of his career, including such definitively American works as Rodeo (1942), A Lincoln Portrait (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944).

So stately and momentous are the chords, crashes and timpani strokes of the Fanfare that it has been quoted many times in popular music, television, film and official occasions throughout the western world. Copland himself borrowed it as material for his Third Symphony, in which it appears prominently in the final movement.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Janus Theatre's "King of Shadows"

When you see Janus Theatre Company's Chicago-area premiere of "King of Shadows" at the Elgin Art Showcase this month, you don't have to answer whether you believe in a place of darkness whose forces are trying to break through to our world, but you will be asked that question — asked by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's tightly wound script and an excellent cast. The two-act, two-hour play is a perfect pick for this company named after the god of transitions.

The story revolves around Nihar, a runaway whose back story combines graphic accounts of abuse and vivid descriptions of a shadowy netherworld, ruled by a king and queen determined to snatch him back. When he seeks help from Jessica, a graduate student in social work, her world soon becomes darkened by stormy relationships and the fog of doubt.

Christopher Sylvie, Melody Jefferies, Jaime Patriarca and Joe Cattoggio in
Janus Theatre Company's production of "King of Shadows."

Jaime Patriarca (as Jessica) layers her character with veneers of scholar, girlfriend, and big sister but these do not conceal Jessica's tendency to see the people around her as objects for study and documentation rather than personal connections. Patriarca's overthinking social worker who is reluctant to actually touch people creates a delicious contradiction.

Joe Cattoggio plays Eric, Jessica's live-in boyfriend who confesses he became a cop in order to conquer his own inner darkness. Cattoggio shows us Eric's mixed feelings about the job during scenes of bravado foiled by faraway looks of uncertainty, the body language of compromise, and putting his uniform on and taking it off.

Little sister Sarah, brought to life by Melody Jefferies, is a restless, sexually ambivalent teen who is constantly out of place — the wrong city, the wrong street, the wrong room, or the wrong time. Sarah's preoccupation with a tragic past, alternative realities, dreams and the spirit world is brilliantly captured in the breath control of Jefferies' colorful delivery.

Christopher Sylvie is the mysterious teen Nihar, who trades sex in the San Francisco streets by day and hides in buildings at night. Despite all the damage done in his short life, Nihar is the most sure of himself, and Sylvie's forceful and unblinking portrayal persuade us that "facts" cannot always be trusted, and the truth is whatever you're willing to believe.

Like a conflict of worlds, or competition of darkness and light, scenes develop rapidly in "King of Shadows" as characters exchange positions of power through arguing, bargaining, accusing and acquiescing. Well directed movement gives shape to dialogue-heavy scenes that are sometimes too quick to escalate, and poetic monologues and excellent lighting effects provide welcome relief from the constant dramatic tension. 

Don't see "King of Shadows" if you expect to troll social media between laughs and leave with a happy ending. But if you want an intimate theater experience, with superb production and great acting, see if this play doesn't convince you that we are all orphans, trying to escape the fears and self-doubt that rule over us.

Weekend performances of "King of Shadows" directed by Sean Hargadon run November 6-22 at the Elgin Art Showcase.  For more information and tickets, go to www.janusplays.com