Supporting actors take center stage, and the influence of Charles Ives

This weekend’s PSO program is sure to bring out the classical music connoisseurs. The pianists and violinists can go off to some tiny hall somewhere and play sonatas—this week’s program gives center stage to the supporting cast, those great character actors—the winds, the brass, the lower strings. And, Principal Guest Conductor Leonard Slatkin, a modern-day Leonard Bernstein in championing American composers—will introduce us to Cindy McTee and unearth a less-familiar master in Walter Piston.

In Françaix’s The Flower Clock, we’ll hear principal oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida and in the Piston Viola Concerto, we’ll hear principal violist Randolph Kelly. And of course, in Britten’s brilliant Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, we’ll see virtually every instrument of the orchestra singled out and put through its paces.

Britten is one of my favorite composers. His music is exceptionally well crafted and you can hear his reverence for past masters—the craft and intricate counterpoint of Bach with the massive fugue that closes the piece; the energy and athleticism of Haydn; the absolute clarity of texture of Mozart and Beethoven. Britten is all great composers in one and this piece is a tour de force of composition.

Though it was written for an educational film, this work is not academic or dry in the least. Britten’s piece is sort of the Green Eggs and Ham of classical music—if you do not like this theme in the strings, maybe you’ll like it in the winds. No? What about in the brass. No? How about the percussion? The piece’s variety and wit are sure to win over audiences from the novice to experienced.

Britten also showcases the many ways instruments can sound. For instance, you’ll hear the violins play pizzicato, sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge adding a rusty, hoarse sound), harmonics, and spiccato (bouncing the bow on the string giving a ricochet effect).

Kudos also to Slatkin for commissioning and premiering Cindy McTee’s Double Play in Detroit last year and, instead of performing a new work a few times then forgetting about it, taking it on the road to other orchestras. Not knowing McTee’s work, I set out to find some samples. McTee actually has a computer version of the entire work on her website. The PSO, which is normally fantastic about supplying clips, has none for this week’s pieces except the Britten. The first movement of her piece is titled Unquestioned Answer, a reference to Charles Ives’ seminal American work, The Unanswered Question, and uses many of Ives’ trademark techniques. Ives’ searching trumpet theme, on the level of intrigue of the slight smile playing on the woman’s lips in the Mona Lisa, has long been an idée fixe for American composers. When American composers find themselves writing an important composition, they have looked to Ives for inspiration and–putting it in a perhaps less flattering way—borrowed from Ives to supply profundity and gravity to their work. John Corigliano’s first symphony and John Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 9/11 commemoration On the Transmigration of Souls both either directly quote Ives’ theme or lean heavily on the master’s techniques. Signaling Adams’s own influence, the second movement of McTee’s sounds similar to some of Adams’s perpetual-motion pieces.


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