So far this season the Fort Wayne Philharmonic has performed large-scale (translation: long) pieces that are sometimes difficult for the new listener to grasp. How many of us are able, the first time we hear an orchestral piece, to listen to the forth movement and recognize a melody introduced by the composer twenty minutes ago in the first movement? “Not I,” said the fly (hey, I've got a two-year-old at home... this is how we talk)! This Saturday the philharmonic will be performing music that is easier to understand (translation: shorter) as they pay tribute to American composers. "What?!?" you, the collective readership gasp! "Names we recognize AND are able to pronounce?" I know, you are shocked, but it is true. One aside to Mr. Tchivzhel: “What?!? No Ives??!?!” Okay. I’m finished.

The evening will begin with the Overture to "Candide" by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). A few of you are probably thinking that you've heard that Bernstein name before, while the rest of you are seriously considering turning the page and finding out where Senator Dillwilly plays next (plug). Bernstein was the guy who composed, among many other things, West Side Story! And no, he was not related to the Bernstein Bears (again, the influence of my son). An "Overture" is a fairly short piece that is played at the beginning of a play or an opera or a ballet and sets the tone for the rest of the piece. The tone of the Overture to "Candide" is energetic, light, fast-paced, and comedic. This is fortunate for Bernstein because the operetta Candide is classified as a comic opera. Based on the story by the same name by a fellow named Voltaire, the story of Candide was written in the early 1700's and involves a eunuch, a one-buttocked lady, and a whole host of other colorful characters. If you read the story with a nice, thick "olde englishe" dictionary or a private tutor, you might find it enjoyable. However, no translator is necessary to enjoy this fun, light-hearted piece. More on Bernstein here!

Next on the hit list is a ditty I'm certain you will recognize: Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. What? Not ringing any bells? The music for the final dance was used by the Beef Counsel in recent commercials. "Beef: It's what's for dinner!" I'm sure Aaron Copland didn't have the Beef Counsel in mind when he composed this piece, but he did have thoughts of the wild west! Copland was born in 1900 to Russian-Jewish immigrants (who were, incidentally, his parents). He attended New York City public schools and decided at the age of 15 to be a composer. Following the trend, who wrote harsh, modern music. When faced with the Great Depression of the 30's, he and other composers began to write music for the general public instead of creating dense, tangled music that only a few could appreciate. At this time he drew upon American folklore, jazz, revival hymns, cowboy songs, and folk tunes to create a distinctly American sound. His open, expansive melodies evoked the great outdoors and the wild west. It is music you can imagine a cowboy listening to, without apology, as he rounds up the cattle or puts on his chaps.

The next two composers on the bill are Gould and J.P. Johnson, whose composition Harlem Symphony will be performed for the first time in Fort Wayne. However, I couldn't find anything about either of these composers and you'll have to be content to read the liner notes of the philharmonic program. Based on the rest of the music selected for the evening, though, I would recommend you hold on to your seat!

But not for the next piece. Adagio for Strings, written in 1938 by Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981) is, to me, possibly the saddest piece of music ever composed. Some have called it "The Official Music of Mourning". As far as I know, it is one of the few things in America that is not an official "something" of the 98 Olympics. It has been used in such movies as Platoon and The Elephant Man and has been played on such solemn occasions as the death of presidents. What makes it so sad? It's difficult to put into words so I'll hum a few bars instead... perhaps not. The Adagio is a short piece (about eight minutes or 480,000,000,000 nanoseconds, for those extremely anal-retentive readers) played completely by the string section. It begins softly, darkly, with the instruments playing a still landscape of low notes. Over the course of the piece, a simple but eloquent melody emerges as the instruments slowly climb out of the darkness, slowly getting louder, the pitch raising, until at the pinnacle of the piece a single violin sings out, only to have the rest of the string drag it back down into the dark sadness. Only Pollyanna (and perhaps a sadistic Calculus professor I once knew) could listen to this piece and not feel the least bit moved.

Now that we're all sufficiently bummed out, let's move on. The last piece to be played is New Era Dance by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1935) and was written in 1992. My guess is that A.J. is still alive somewhere so I wouldn't recommend making fun of this piece. Not that this is necessary because after the Barber Adagio, the philharmonic needs just such an up-beat end to the evening. Wanting to create a "larger than life" work, Kernis drew upon the pulsing, rhythmic music of the Washington Heights section of New York City where he lived. Thus, this piece is a thick, layered work that incorporates latin salsa (mmmm... salsa), gypsy dance rhythms (mmmm... gypsy dance rhythms), one tablespoon each of folk and rap, a big scoop of 50s jazz, and a tiny pinch of disco. He also throws in an electric bass (a man after my own heart) and sound effects including police sirens and whistles. The result is an invigorating, sometimes chaotic, but always exciting adventure in music. It is really something that has to be heard to understand how all these elements, like the streets of New York, are combined into a single, enjoyable piece.

Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman

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