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Big Band and Beethoven: New Year’s Celebration


Big Band and Beethoven: New Year’s Celebration


Sunday, December 30, 2018, 7:30 PM
Monday, December 31, 2018, 7:30 PM
Arlene Schnitzer Hall

1037 SW Broadway
Portland OR 97205

Big Band and Beethoven: New Year’s Celebration

What finer way to ring in the New Year than with Duke Ellington’s delightfully cheeky twist on Tchaikovsky’s classic, followed by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its glorious Ode to Joy? A little bit smart, a little bit sassy, thoroughly exhilarating. Special Concert

 Jenny Schuler, soprano
 Siena Licht Miller, mezzo-soprano
• Andrew Haji, tenor
• Richard Zeller, 
 Singers from PSU, Oregon Repertory Singers, and Pacific Youth Choir

Ellington/Strayhorn: Selections from The Nutcracker Suite
James P. Johnson: Drums: A Symphonic Poem
James P. Johnson: Victory Stride
• Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, “Choral”

Program Notes

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky/Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn

The Nutcracker Suite 

Composed: 1960
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: November 11, 2011; Gregory Vajda, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 alto saxophones (1 doubling clarinet and bamboo flute), 2 tenor saxophones (both doubling clarinet), baritone saxophone (doubling bass clarinet), 4 trumpets (1 doubling tambourine), 3 trombones, drum set, piano, and double bass
Estimated duration: 30 minutes

By 1960, Duke Ellington had nothing left to prove. He was America’s foremost big band composer, a formidable pianist, and the creator of an elegant style of jazz and swing that became an indelible part of the American sound. He had crisscrossed the country with his band dozens of times since the 1930s, and had stretched the boundaries of jazz harmony and structures with compositions like “Mood Indigo” and Black, Brown, and Beige.

When Ellington teamed up with composer, lyricist, and arranger Billy Strayhorn in 1939, the two men formed a unique partnership that lasted until Strayhorn’s untimely death in 1967. Strayhorn wrote his share of jazz hits – he is best known for “Take the A Train” and “Lush Life” – but he also brought a deep knowledge of classical music to his work with Ellington. It is significant that the first time Strayhorn’s name appeared alongside Ellington’s on a record is their 1960 Columbia album of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which Strayhorn arranged.

Strayhorn and Ellington transformed more than the music; the familiar movement titles also underwent what Ellington called “reorchestration.” Dance of the Reed-Pipes morphed into Toot Toot Tootie Toot, and Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy changes its character entirely, shifting from a delicate interlude featuring celeste to a down-and-dirty striptease known as Sugar Rum Cherry. The Waltz of the Flowers, here repurposed as Waltz of the Floreadores, trades its waltz tempo for a toe-tapping swing number, while the Arabesque Cookie features the unusual combination of bamboo whistle, bass clarinet, and tambourine.

In adapting The Nutcracker for big band, Strayhorn wrote for particular members of Ellington’s orchestra. The gorgeous trumpet solo in the Overture was made for Ray Nance, while no one but “Booty” Wood could make his trombone with plunger mute growl in quite the same way.

Ellington’s biographer John Edward Hasse suggests that in creating this adaptation, Ellington and, to a lesser extent, Strayhorn were “putting one over” on the public. Hasse asks, rhetorically, “Why did Ellington and Strayhorn adapt the Tchaikovsky and Grieg suites? [The duo also made jazz versions of Grieg’s suites from Peer Gynt] As part of the time-honored traditions of ragging or jazzing the classics, to make Tchaikovsky and Grieg hip, to make them swing? … Was it at least partly to put people on?” Perhaps. Ellington, caught in an unguarded moment on tape, once described himself as “not a bank robber, but a sneak-thief.” Whatever their motivations, Ellington and Strayhorn’s version of The Nutcracker lends this beloved music a wholly unique sensibility – in the words of one reviewer, “transformed into jazz with affection, skill, and humour.”

James Price Johnson

Victory Stride 

Work composed: 1920s; 1944
First Oregon Symphony Performance
 solo alto saxophone, solo trumpet, flute, oboe, 3 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, piano, harp, strings
Estimated duration: 5 minutes

James Price Johnson stands alongside Duke Ellington as a significant figure in the creation and evolution of early jazz. Like Ellington, Johnson excelled on the piano, and was known as the “Father of Stride,” a reference to the stride piano style of jazz popular in the 1920s and 30s. Stride players combined a strong rhythmic bass line with dazzling improvisations and large octave leaps. Johnson, along with Willie “The Lion” Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and others, held “cutting contests,” in which stride pianists competed to show off their skills.

Johnson was equally famous as a composer; he wrote the most popular dance tune of the 1920s, “The Charleston,” which was featured in his 1923 hit musical, Runnin’ Wild. After 1930, Johnson turned his attention to symphonic music; his best-known work of this period is his 1932 Harlem Symphony, which combines jazz instruments with a symphony orchestra in a successful hybrid of jazz and orchestral music.

Victory Stride, as its name suggests, was probably first composed as a stride piano solo from the 1920s. Johnson recorded it in 1944 with a small jazz combo; that same year, Victory Stride was arranged for combo and full orchestra. In the middle section, the orchestra drops out while the combo takes turns passing the toe-tapping solos around.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral”

Work composed: 1817–18; 1822–24
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: December 31, 2016; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Amber Wagner, soprano; Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano; Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor; Dashon Burton, bass
Instrumentation: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists; four-part mixed chorus; piccolo; 2 flutes; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; contrabassoon; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani; bass drum; cymbals; triangle; and strings
Estimated duration: 70 minutes

The Ninth Symphony extends beyond the realm of the concert hall and has permeated our culture on a variety of levels, including the socio-political and commercial arenas. The music of the Ninth, particularly the “Ode to Joy” melody of the final movement, is so familiar to us that it has almost lost its unique character and taken on the quality of folk music; that is, it has lost its “composed” identity as a melody written by Ludwig van Beethoven and simply exists within the communal ear of our collective consciousness.

While some classical works are inextricably linked to the time in which they were written, Beethoven’s profound musical statements about freedom, equality and humanity resonate just as powerfully today as they did at the Ninth’s premiere. This was evident to the entire world when Leonard Bernstein conducted an international assembly of instrumentalists and singers in a historic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus (now Konzerthaus) on December 22, 1989, three days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To emphasize the historic event, Bernstein substituted the word “freedom” for “joy” in the famous lyrics by the poet Friedrich Schiller in the final movement. The performance aired on worldwide television, attracting more than 200 million viewers, and the CD became a global bestseller.

It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not the iconic work we know and revere; it took 50 years to enter the standard orchestral repertoire, thanks to Richard Wagner, who programmed it at the dedication of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1872. Only then did Beethoven’s Ninth became a part of the classical canon, and took its rightful place as, in the words of Philip Huscher, “a cultural symbol of unsurpassed importance.”

By 1822, Beethoven was completely deaf and emotionally isolated. Five years earlier, at the age of 47, Beethoven had written in his journal, “Before my departure for the Elysian fields I must leave behind me what the Eternal Spirit has infused into my soul and bids me complete.” Alone and embittered, Beethoven focused almost exclusively on his musical legacy.

The lofty salute to the human spirit expressed in Schiller’s poem An die Freude (To Joy) had resonated with Beethoven for many years; in 1790 he set a few lines in a cantata written to commemorate the death of Emperor Leopold II; he also included portions in his opera Fidelio in 1806. “The search for a way to express joy,” as Beethoven described it, was the subject of his final symphony. To that end, Beethoven edited and arranged Schiller’s lines to suit his musical and dramatic needs, using a melody from his Choral Fantasy, written 20 years earlier.

Despite his deafness, Beethoven insisted on conducting the May 7, 1824, premiere at the Kärntnerthor Theater in Vienna. His gesticulations were out of time with the orchestra and singers, although they had been told beforehand to ignore Beethoven’s movements and watch the concertmaster instead. One of the most poignant moments came at the Ninth’s conclusion. Unable to hear the audience’s applause, Beethoven continued to face the orchestra until the mezzo-soprano soloist tapped his shoulder and he turned around to see the cheering crowd.

The symphony begins quietly and ambiguously, with a series of hollow open fifths (neither major or minor) played by the strings. The fifths build into a massive statement featuring a weighty dotted rhythmic theme. The power and overall intensity of this movement foreshadows the finale.

As was his wont, Beethoven broke with symphonic convention by writing a second-movement scherzo. The music bursts forth with dramatic string octaves and pounding blows from the timpani. The main theme, a contrapuntal fugue, gives way to a demure melody for winds. Underneath its playful simplicity, the barely contained agitation of the scherzo pulses in the strings, like a racehorse pawing at the starting gate.

In a symphony synonymous with innovation, Beethoven’s most significant departure from convention is the inclusion, for the first time, of a chorus and vocal soloists in a symphony. The cellos and basses play an instrumental recitative, later sung by the baritone, which is followed by the unaccompanied “Joy” melody. Beethoven then presents several instrumental variations, including a triumphal brass fanfare. The baritone soloist introduces Schiller’s poem with words by Beethoven: “O friends, not these tones; instead, let us strike up more pleasing and joyful ones.” The chorus repeats the last four lines of each stanza as a refrain, followed by the vocal quartet. A famous interlude, the Turkish March, follows (this music was considered “Turkish” because of the inclusion of the triangle, cymbals and bass drum, exotic additions to the orchestra of Beethoven’s time). After a number of variations, the chorus returns with a monumental double fugue, to cap off one of the most superlative expressions of the human spirit.

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz

Earlier Event: December 28
Highland Stars
Later Event: January 4
Dial M for Murder