Three Musical Portraits of Cuba

An art deco travel brochure from the 1920s.
An art deco travel brochure from the 1920s.

 

Cuba is home to one of the world’s richest musical melting pots…the vibrant convergence of west African and European (especially Spanish) musical traditions over 500 years of history. From rumba and son cubano to Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, this Latin musical stew often features dizzying rhythmic complexity while retaining a suave sense of “cool.” Clave rhythm, the source of this “cool” complexity, gives Latin music its unique sense of swing. It’s a rhythmic groove that remains elegantly breezy while keeping us constantly off balance.

Last week the United States and Cuba formally restored diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, reopening long-shuttered embassies. As we mark this historic event, let’s listen to three musical portraits of Cuba. We’ll start with the music of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland: the sounds of Cuba from the perspective of an American visitor. Then, finally, we’ll plunge into the delirious world of Mario Bauzá’s Afro-Cuban jazz.

Gershwin in Havana

Cuban Overture grew out George Gershwin’s holiday in Havana during July and August of 1932, (according to Gershwin, “two hysterical weeks…where no sleep was had”). Originally titled Rumba, and first performed at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium for a crowd of 18,000, Cuban Overture explodes with a larger-than-life, fun-loving vitality. It also embodies an endearing spirit of innocence and optimism, twentieth century American qualities we hear in much of Gershwin’s music.

Spicy Cuban rhythm fills the piece. The percussion section is augmented with claves, maracas, guiro, and bongos. In the score, Gershwin requests that these instruments be placed in front of the conductor’s stand. The overture’s main theme was influenced by Ignacio Piñeiro’s Échale Salsita (listen here). Other influences include the Spanish folk song, La Paloma

As carefree as Cuban Overture sounds, it was actually a step towards greater compositional sophistication and maturity for Gershwin, who would die five years later at the age of 38. In 1932, in an effort to hone his technical skills as a composer, Gershwin began studying with Joseph Schillinger, a sought after, Russian-trained music and mathematics teacher. Cuban Overture was the first piece Gershwin wrote after working with Schillinger. It’s interesting that, with pieces like An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue already under his belt, Gershwin felt compelled to seek out Schillinger. No art is produced with inspiration alone. Technique and craftsmanship are essential elements. But, amazingly, with or without Schillinger’s influence, we still hear the essential spirit and genius of Gershwin shining through in the music.

Here is a 1962 recording with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson. Listen to the repeated, swinging bass line which occurs throughout the piece and the layers of interlocking rhythm. In the slow middle section, I love the lush warmth and occasional “old school” portamenti in the strings on this recording:

Danzón Cubano

Written in 1942, Danzón Cubano is Aaron Copland’s musical postcard from Cuba. Again, these are the sounds of Cuba from the perspective of a visitor. As Copland explained,

I did not attempt to reproduce an authentic Cuban sound but felt free to add my own touches of displaced accents and unexpected silent beats.

You may be familiar with the orchestral version of this piece. Copland originally scored it for two pianos. Here is that version, performed by Copland and Leo Smit:

Mario Bauzá and Afro-Cuban Jazz

Mario Bauzá (1911-1993) helped to bring Afro-Cuban sounds to New York jazz. He performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and others. Here is his band’s take on El Manisero  (“The Peanut Vendor”), a hit song by Moisés Simons, first recorded by Rita Montaner in 1928.

Notice the off-balance sophistication of the clave rhythm. In the opening, the bass establishes a fairly square and straight-forward rhythmic pattern. But listen to what happens around this rhythm as other instruments enter. The saxophones enter on a different beat than we might expect, shifting the emphasis and suddenly changing the way we perceive the underlying bass groove.

Additional Listening

Howard Hanson and the Sounds of the Wide Open Prairie

The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.
The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.

More than any other composer, Aaron Copland is credited with establishing the virtual soundtrack of the American West. Listening to Copland ballet scores such as Rodeo and Billy the Kidor his music for the film The Red Pony, instantly evokes images of wide open prairie spaces and the rough and tumble adventure of a mythical frontier. These associations have been re-enforced by countless film scores which generously borrowed Copland’s sound (the opening of Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven is one small example). In reality, Copland grew up in Brooklyn and never saw the West. But his music still embodies something big, bold, and uniquely American.

Copland wasn’t the only American composer to draw upon inspiration from the prairie. Occasionally, cinematic sonic landscapes can also be heard in the music of Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Born in Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrant parents, Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music for forty years. In my earlier post we heard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 and music from the opera, Merry Mount. 

Hanson’s music has more than a few layers of Scandinavian influence, but underneath all of that, I hear the majestic sound of the Great Plains. Listen to the second movement (Andante tranquillo) of Hanson’s Third Symphony and see if you agree.

This is Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony:

The long, sustained chords in the trombones and tuba under the sweeping string lines create a feeling of endless, expansive vistas and suggest the noble, eternal beauty of the land. John Barry used the same sound for the film score of Dances With Wolves (listen here, here and here for comparison).

Merry Mount at Carnegie

Carnegie HallLast Wednesday the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presented an outstanding concert performance of Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount at Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring For Music festival. In a previous post I provided some background on Hanson and the opera, which had not been heard in New York since its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1934.

If you missed the performance and the live radio broadcast, you can listen to it here. Read reviews of the performance here and here. The New York Times review referred to Merry Mount as a “period piece”, but its topic of religious fundamentalism and repression could not be more relevant today.

A Carnegie Hall performance not only showcases the visiting orchestra on an international stage; it also generates community pride at home, as this local news clip shows. With the RPO currently in the middle of a search for a new music director, this seems like an excellent time for the community to take stock of its hometown team. The recording above demonstrates the ensemble’s extraordinary polish and musicianship.

The following notes, which appeared in the program, discuss Merry Mount and Howard Hanson’s connection to Rochester:

“Be as a lion, dread Jehovah, and tear the flesh of unbelievers.”

So begins Merry Mount, the only opera that the American composer Howard Hanson wrote. Full of Puritanical hell-fire and brimstone, the quintessentially American story centers on the conflict between religious fanatics and hedonistic, free-thinking cavaliers, exploring age-old dichotomies between piety and desire, restraint and excess, spiritual and sensual—and exposing the dire consequences of repression.

No other composer would have been as fitting a choice as Howard Hanson for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Spring for Music program, for no other figure has shaped the city’s musical climate so profoundly. The Nebraska native came to Rochester in 1924 to be the director at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. During his 40-year reign, Hanson molded the school into one of the most highly-rated conservatories in the world, a legacy that continues to this day. At a time when established European works dominated the classical music scene, Hanson strove to give American music a place in the concert hall, initiating a series of American composers concerts at Eastman, and later, an annual festival devoted to American music. Hanson was instrumental in elevating Eastman’s international profile throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, simultaneously turning Rochester into a center for new American music.

A celebrated composer, Hanson continued writing throughout his tenure at Eastman, and it was during this time that he created Merry Mount. Although he composed throughout the rise of the 12-tone movement, his style remained steadfastly lush, Romantic, and approachable. His gift for melody shines through in tonight’s program. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Merry Mount had its stage premiere there in 1934, and met with an enthusiastic response (it still holds the Met record for curtain calls, a whopping 50). But despite the initial buzz, modern revivals and concert performances are rare.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is thrilled to bring Howard Hanson’s masterpiece back to the New York City stage, 80 years after its premiere and 50 years after Hanson’s retirement from Eastman. Today, Rochester remains a thriving musical hub steeped in world-class talent. The RPO and the Eastman School of Music enjoy the same synergistic relationship that was fostered during Hanson’s tenure, each contributing to a rich musical landscape that belies the city’s size.

Enriching this landscape has been a priority of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra since its founding. Committed to the importance of lifelong musical engagement, the RPO inspires audiences of all ages with a variety of offerings each season, bringing the thrill of live music to Rochester and the Finger Lakes region. Currently in the midst of an international search for its next music director, the RPO is well positioned to build upon its proud musical legacy for the next generation of concertgoers.

This concert production of Merry Mount embodies the spirit of everything that Howard Hanson helped to create and showcases everything that makes Rochester’s musical scene so special, joining young and old, current Eastman students, recent Eastman graduates, talented local singers, and the musicians of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for a celebration of Rochester—past, present, and future.

-Kathryn Judd

Howard Hanson, America’s Neglected Romantic

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY
The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

This Wednesday, May 7, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie will be performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the final Spring For Music festival. Since 2011, Spring For Music has showcased North American orchestras and innovative programming. After this year the festival will end due to lack of funding.

The RPO’s decision to present a concert performance of twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount, is significant. Hanson (1896-1981) was the long-time director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He is widely credited with building the school into one of the world’s finest music conservatories. Industrialist George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, established the Eastman School in 1921 and founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.

As a composer, Howard Hanson’s conservatism made him a rebel. At a time when dissonant, atonal music was in style with the establishment, Hanson wrote music rooted in melody and harmony. His Romanticism blended the Nordic sounds of Grieg and Sibelius with the wide open spaces of America’s Great Plains (Hanson was born in Nebraska). As a result, Merry Mount, based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Puritan oppression, was enthusiastically received by the Metropolitan Opera audience in 1934 (a Met record of 50 curtain calls), but was panned by most critics. Listen to a suite from the opera here and listen to a rare excerpt from the February 10, 1934 Met production here. Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony recorded the complete opera for Naxos.

With Hanson’s Merry Mount, the Rochester Philharmonic revives a neglected score and honors its rich history, which includes such notable conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman and Sir Mark Elder.

The facade of the Eastman Theatre bears the inscription:

For the Enrichment of Community Life

The words are a reminder that orchestras and music education belong to everyone. The joy of hearing a full orchestra never goes out of style. In each community, our challenge is to create, preserve and build on legacies such as George Eastman established in Rochester.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”

Here is the first movement of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, performed by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Pay attention to the way Hanson mixes the instruments of the orchestra to create unique colors (the expectation-building opening is a good example). Throughout the piece, you’ll hear conversations between voices (the horn, flute and clarinet 1:57-2:14 in the last movement).

Hanson’s music seems to have influenced Hollywood film composers (John Williams drew upon the last movement for E.T.), but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “movie music.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear music which deserves to be taken seriously:

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Here are the second and third movements from Leonard Slatkin’s equally excellent recording with the Saint Louis Symphony. Common motives and themes are developed throughout all three movements. For example, you’ll recognize the motive from the first movement at 1:40 in the second movement. In the climax of the final movement, themes from the entire symphony are blended together.

Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 can be described as a celebration of harmony and orchestral color in all of its subtle beauty. Out of style in the mid-twentieth century, Hanson’s music may come to be appreciated more with time.

Five Great CDs for Your Holiday Gift Bag

Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift or you want to expand your CD collection for the new year, here are five recordings which I highly recommend:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offering Alexandra Adkins, violin

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Alexandra Adkins is a member of the Houston Symphony violin section.  Last December she released this CD which includes sonatas by Handel, Leclair, Corelli and two movements from Bach’s Partita in d minor.  For the Handel and Corelli she is accompanied by guitar, providing a unique twist.  Also included are three contemporary tracks featuring hymn tunes and a song written by Adkins. Listen to this interview to learn more about Offering.  This is a fun and diverse CD that celebrates the idea that great music transcends categories.

 

 

 

 

Brahms: The Violin Sonatas Oleh Krysa, violin and Tatiana Tchekina, piano

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This is my former teacher’s rare and inspiring recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas.  While there are many recordings of this music, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mahler Symphony No. 1 Eugene Ormandy, conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra

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If you’re not familiar with the dramatic and deeply psychological music of the late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, this recording will be a great introduction.  If you’re already a Mahler fan you will enjoy hearing the original second movement Blumine (flower piece) which Mahler later cut from the Symphony.

This recording was first released in 1969.  You will notice the legendary, lush and perfectly blended string sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for at that time.  One of the most striking examples of this occurs in the dreamy middle section of the Fourth Movement where the strings emerge with a velvety, veiled sound.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are included on the disk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boheme The Metropolitan Opera with Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, Jose Carreras, Richard Stilwell, Allan Monk, James Morris, James Levine, conductor, Franco Zeffirelli, producer

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If you’re new to opera this DVD is a great place to start.  Puccini’s La Boheme has a great story and features one beautiful melody after another.  English subtitles are provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”, Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto Elmar Oliveira, violin Leonard Slatkin, conductor with the Saint Louis Symphony

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This 1990 Grammy nominated CD features music by two twentieth century American composers.  There have been many recordings of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto since this came out, but Elmar Oliveira’s interpretation still endures.  Some violinists overly schmalz this already Romantic music.  Oliveira goes for something deeper and more profound and captures the true essence of the piece.

Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 might remind you of a lush movie score and the wide open plains.  There is another good recording of this piece by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony.  I prefer the slightly slower and more thoughtful tempos that Slatkin takes in this recording, especially in the Second Movement.