Program Notes

The Intersection of Americana, Pop and Classical

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
John Henry: A Railroad Ballad for Orchestra
Duration: ca. 4 minutes

With his 1944 ballet score, Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland became the most respected serious composer in America. After experimenting with avant-garde styles, he had found his voice, one that comforted a public growing tired of academic formulas. He knew the rigorous music of the new generation of American composers would alienate audiences and further push composers from mainstream culture.

“I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer,” he once wrote. “It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. Moreover, an entirely new public had grown up around radio and the phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them …”

Copland acted on his promise, producing a string of works that embraced public sentiment: El Salon Mexico, A Lincoln Portrait, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Quiet City, Fanfare for the Common Man, and a short, seldom-heard gem called John Henry: A Railroad Ballad for Orchestra.

Written in 1940 and revised for a larger student orchestra in 1952, this four-minute descriptive fantasy depicts the 19th-century legend of its title, a freed African-American slave known for his endurance in laying railroad track. To prove his strength, he entered a contest against a steam pile driver during construction of the Great Bend Tunnel in West Virginia.

As the story goes, Henry won this “man against machine’’ matchup through power and tenacity, and the orchestra mimics the harsh pounding into rock as well as the pulse of an approaching locomotive. Henry paid a price for his fame: Exhausted after such a ruthless contest, he collapsed and died – with a hammer in his hand.

Kevin Puts (1972- )
Contact: Triple Concerto for Two Amplified Violins, Amplified Bass and Orchestra
Duration: ca. 28 minutes

Kevin Puts likes to pose the question of life on other planets, of creatures like ourselves looking at the night sky and wondering, “who else is out there?’’

Such a thought inspired his new work Contact: Triple Concerto for Two Amplified Violins, Amplified Bass and Orchestra, which was co-commission by TFO, the San Francisco Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Sun Valley Music Festival. The pandemic delayed the original premiere in 2020, so its entrance into the world will be during two performances in St. Petersburg. The wait is worth it, said Music Director Michael Francis.

“Kevin is a brilliant American composer and we wanted to be part of this commission,’’ he said. “The work is a great example of Kevin’s highly American style, and together with the Frank and Bernstein, I think this will be a hugely popular concert.’’

Since winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music for his debut opera, Silent Night, Puts has been in demand, with no shortage of commissions. He wrote Contact specifically for Time for Three – who perform it with TFO – a trio made up of violinists Nick Kendall and Charles Yang, and bassist Ranaan Meyer. They had called Puts about writing a concerto, and after hearing them play in New York, Puts felt elated by the “infectious energy and joy they exude as performers.’’

The concerto unfolds in four movements, titled The Call, Codes, Contact and Convivium, respectively. In the opening section, the trio sings a cappella, with their simple harmonies answered by sections of the orchestra. “This idea, first heard in a reflective manner, grows considerably until the brass deliver a most emphatic version of it,’’ Puts said.

Codes is unrelenting in its thrust and the trio piques the music with syncopated rhythms and quicksilver arpeggios, underscored in contrasting keys. Then in Contact, the music turns cold, and Puts likens it to “an abandoned vessel floating inert in the recesses of space.’’ The soloists add a gently rolling meditation, joined by an oboe and then a clarinet in counterpoint before the piece tapers into silence.

The work ends with Convivium, based on a traditional Bulgarian melody called the Ganka’s dance. “I was reminded of Bartok’s haunting Romanian Folk Dances and the composer’s fusion of his own musical sensibilities with age-old folk melodies. And so I set about composing a sort of fantasy on this tune, its asymmetric rhythmic qualities a fitting counterbalance to the previous three movements.”

Does this music come with a message, or is it purely abstract? In working with Time for Three, Puts realized he was telling a story, with patterns that could travel through space, and maybe one day be heard by another civilization. The idea of reaching out to others, even in another galaxy, struck him as a bright spot in the pandemic.

“The word ‘contact’ has gained new resonance during these years of isolation,’’ he said. “It’s my hope that this concerto might be heard as an expression of yearning for this fundamental human need.’’

Gabriela Lena Frank (1972- )
Three Latin-American Dances
Duration: ca. 17 minutes

A thoroughly modern American orchestra isn’t just a keeper of historical records; it must play music of today, giving living composers a voice. To hear a fresh work by a contemporary artist is always a thrill, but to hear that composer twice in a season is, well, a double thrill.

That’s what TFO chose to do with two works by a Gabriela Lena Frank. We heard her Apu: Tone Poem for Orchestra in January, and this weekend conductor Daniel Black leads the group in Three Latin-American Dances.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., Frank is composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Washington Post recently named her one of the 35-most significant women composers in history. Her diverse heritage and physical impairment inspire her artistry and those familiar with her talent.

“I firmly believe that only in the United States could a Peruvian-Chinese-Jewish-Lithuanian girl born with significant hearing loss in a hippie town successfully create a life writing string quartets and symphonies,’’ she has said. “If you look at me, I don’t look like most composers in classical music. I’m not white. I’m a woman. And, I’m alive.’’

She also devotes time to those in need in prisons and hospitals, and believes in teaching young musicians the importance of community engagement. She works with deaf African-American students who rap in sign language.

TFO first performed her Dances in May of 2004 under the baton of associate conductor Susan Haig, with the composer briefly discussing the work on stage at the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater performances. The 17-minute triptych combines classical forms with South American mythology and folk idioms that reflect Frank’s background.

The first dance, Jungle Jaunt, is a rousing tribute to the Bernstein on this program, music that the composer clearly admires. Highland Harawi follows, a melancholy blend of bold instrumental textures reminiscent of Rachmaninoff and Andes folk tunes. The closing Mestizo Waltz – a lighthearted twist on Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz – serves as contrast, a folksy dance bursting with brass accents.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Duration: ca. 22 minutes

No one did more to popularize classical music in America than Leonard Bernstein, and few were as efficacious in sharing it with audiences. He taught, he motivated, he dazzled, he converted skeptics. He turned a lecture on the arcane tritone interval into a bon mot. His appetite for all things musical was, simply put, voracious.

Lenny, as he was affectionately called, was the first American-born musician to lead a major orchestra in the United States, and during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic he recorded more than 400 pieces, garnered 10 Emmys and a half-dozen Grammy awards. He championed young composers, and fanned the Mahler revival in the 1960s.

His personality was huge, his intellect immense, his curiosity insatiable. As a result, he dabbled in everything – from Broadway musicals to serious symphonies – often stretching himself thin: “I’m over-committed on all fronts,” he once said. Consequently, his music as a whole remains uneven, but the works that shine are part of our musical lexicon.

As you have guessed already, his most famous score is West Side Story, based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and set to lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The musical opened at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957 and ran for nearly 800 performances.

Fueled by Jerome Robbin’s stunning choreography, West Side Story was a smash, and followed with the acclaimed 1961 movie featuring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno. Interestingly, much of it was filmed in the dilapidated neighborhoods that would be torn down to make way for Bernstein’s new Philharmonic home: Lincoln Center.

From his musical, Bernstein extracted his Symphonic Dances, a shrewd way of moving melodies from theater stage to concert hall and exposing more people to his art. The nine sections of the original 17 that make up the suite artfully blend traditional symphonic ideas with Broadway song, Latin rhythms and Tin Pan Alley. It consists of the following toe tappers:

Prologue – The music captures the tensions between the two New York street gangs, the Sharks and Jets (modern day Montagues and Capulets)

Somewhere – This tender music, an adagio, depicts the possibility of peace between the two rivals

Scherzo – A short interlude in which the gangs dance freely in open space

Mambo – A celebration of the cultural differences between the two societies.

Cha-Cha (Maria) – The lovers Maria and Tony dance for the first time

Meeting Scene – Maria and Tony share their infatuation for one another

Cool – The Jets try to suppress their rage against the Sharks

Rumble – A gang fight, and Riff and Bernardo die

Finale – A farewell to Tony and lost love, ending with a quote from Somewhere, a song that borrows from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a St. Petersburg-based writer and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.