Tonight’s program by the JSO, “Let’s Dance,” is all about rhythm. Much wonderful music has been written for ballet and the dance, but tonight’s music goes beyond that to celebrate rhythm itself, the energizing force that makes music move and makes us respond with movement of our own!
Rhythm is vital in the music of all cultures throughout history. In many societies a task like threshing grain may become an intricate rhythmic dance. Children sing rhythmic tunes as they play, not realizing they are learning to synchronize their movements. Music with energetic rhythms makes our workouts fun.
It is difficult to imagine music without rhythm’s motivating force. Tonight’s program revels in it!
The Chairman Dances
John Adams (born in 1947) is one of the most exciting composers on the American scene today. He has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for his deeply moving work On the Transmigration of Souls, a tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks. Adams and other minimalist composers use repetitive figures, brilliant orchestral colors and vivid imagery to write works that audiences have embraced with enthusiasm.
The Chairman Dances was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Milwaukee Symphony and first performed under the direction of Lukas Foss on January 31, 1986 and in Jackson October of 1988. Adams describes the piece as an “out-take” from his celebrated opera Nixon in China: “…a kind of warmup for embarking on the creation of the full opera.”
“The Chairman Dances,” he wrote, “began as a "foxtrot" for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled "Madame Mao," firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress. In the surreal final scene of the opera, she interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, to "come down, old man, and dance." The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives.”
Danses Sacrée et Profane
In 1904, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) received an unusual commission. Gustave Lyon of the Pleyel Company in Paris had come up with a new style of harp, and the firm asked Debussy to write a composition to show off the capabilities of the new instrument.
Lyon’s harp had two sets of strings that crossed in the middle and allowed any chromatic note to be played without retuning. Pleyel hoped Lyon’s new design would replace the standard pedal harp, which was developed by piano maker Sébastien Érard in Paris in 1810. Érard’s design, with its glorious sound, is the style in common use today, but it does require the player to adjust tuning pedals to create chromatic changes (for example, changing C to C-sharp).
Debussy responded to the request with these two lovely dances, now known as his “Sacred and Profane Dances,” which were first performed in Paris on November 6, 1904.
The word “profane” in the title doesn’t mean that Debussy chose to write something vulgar! It simply means “secular,” rather than sacred, and both dances are full of beauty, transparent textures and rich harmony.
Danzón No. 2
The second of the eight Danzóns by Arturo Marquez is so popular in his native Mexico that it is sometimes considered the country’s second national anthem. (Its rival for that honor is Huapango by José Pablo Moncayo, which the JSO performed in November of 2009.)
Marquez was born in 1950 in Álamos in the Mexican State of Sonora. He pursued his interest in music when his family moved to La Puente, a suburb of Los Angeles. Marquez studied at the Concervatorio Nacional (National Conservatory) in Mexico before winning a scholarship from the French government to study in Paris. He later won a Fulbright scholarship to complete his studies at the California Institute of the Arts.
The danzón is popular in Mexico and Puerto Rico and is the official dance of Cuba. The Latin form of this dance for couples evolved from the 18th-century European contradance.
Marquez conceived of the idea for his Danzón No. 2 when he traveled to the state of Malinalco in southern Mexico with painter Andrés Fonseca and dancer Irene Martínez, “both of whom are experts in salon dances with a special passion for the danzón.”
“From these experiences onward,” he wrote, “I started to learn the danzón’s rhythms, its form, its melodic outline, and to listen to the old recordings ... I was fascinated and I started to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness, a genre which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape towards their own emotional world ...”
The music is dedicated to the composer’s daughter Lily!
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Beethoven’s deafness had been advancing for at least fifteen years in 1811, when he failed miserably in an attempt to perform his own fifth concerto, “The Emperor,” and ended his playing career forever. It had been three years since the creation of his landmark fifth and sixth symphonies, but his ability to hear music in his head was still razor sharp, and he started work on his seventh symphony in the spa resort of Teplitz, near Prague, where he was taking the cure.
He finished his work in April of 1812, and dedicated his new symphony to his friend and patron Count Moritz von Fried. The 7th symphony was premiered on December 8, 1813, at a benefit concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. The piece was an immediate hit, and it was performed three more times in the following ten weeks.
Beethoven, hardly known for his modesty, may have been ironic when he said his seventh symphony was "one of the happiest products of my poor talents." Wagner praised Beethoven’s seventh as “... the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone."
The poignant second movement was immediately recognized as something special, and it has remained one of Beethoven’s most recognizable and enduring creations.
If you saw The King’s Speech, which won the Academy Award for the Best Film of 2010 and three other Oscars, you will recognize this dramatic music, which was woven through the film’s climactic scene in a very powerful way.