MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Creating Contexts: Reimagining the Art of the Recital

Here’s my new story for Stanford Live magazine on three remarkable singers who will each be appearing over the next two months: Gerald Finley,  Davóne Tines, and Jakub Józef Orliński:

The voice is not only the oldest of all musical instruments—some evolutionary models even hold that singing predates the development of spoken language. Yet the contexts in which this ancient form of communication is presented can change dramatically, reflecting the ever-shifting priorities and realities of the present moment….


Filed under: programming innovation, singers, Stanford Live

The Bang on a Can Marathon Comes to Seattle

Bang on a Can All-Stars

Bang on a Can All-Stars: image (c) Peter Serling

Here’s a performance/happening you’re not going to be able to file away into one of the familiar musical categories. Is it classical (because, you know, strings and other traditional instruments, complicated scores being interpreted)? Experimental, maybe avant-garde? “Crossover” (whatever that‘s supposed to mean nowadays)? Let’s just call it a one-of-a-kind event: the first-ever Seattle edition of the annual Bang on a Can marathon. It takes over the Moore Theatre this Sunday, February 15, for six hours of blissful music-making.

You know how the phrase “classical music concert” used to imply a mostly predictable format? That’s no longer a safe assumption, thanks to the innovative thinking of orchestras like the Seattle Symphony and music director, Ludovic Morlot — thinking that involves not just the content of a concert but the venue where it’s performed.

By the same token, there once was a time when the prospect of a “new music” (aka “modern music”) program signaled a ritualistic exercise in high-toned concentration. Back in 1987, a trio of like-minded young composers — Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang — put together a 12-hour marathon of adventurous music in a SoHo art gallery (when NYC’s SoHo was still SoHo). That one-off event was intended to attract curious ears to the energy and excitement and variety of music being composed in our time outside the commercial formulas of the pop industry — and outside the confines of the concert hall.

The inaugural marathon turned out to be the birth of a performing arts organization that’s now a major international force in the realm of contemporary classical music (another unsatisfactory term for a whole world of music that can’t be readily defined). More than a quarter century on, Bang on a Can remains “dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it.” It commissions and records new works, develops programs to foster a new generation of audiences and musicians, and presents numerous events, including the annual Bang on a Can Marathon.

The appeal of the marathon format, according to co-founder and composer (and Dan Savage look-alike) Michael Gordon, is that it encourages people to “let down their guard. The event is aimed at people who are interested in broad listening, who come to listen with open hears. Many people know what they like and might come to the Marathon to hear that type of music. The next thing on the line-up will be completely different, something they would have never come across otherwise. Everything moves quickly and the sets are pretty short. So they start listening to things that they wouldn’t normally encounter. That’s basically the whole point: to broaden your listening and to have a good time with it.”

The venue is important for that context. Seattle’s Bang on a Can Marathon is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre. Gordon refers to Bang on a Can’s MO of performing in “neutral spaces, audience-friendly spaces” that shed any of those lingering fears (however unjustified) of the concert hall as a place where only the musically initiated can feel comfortable. He points out that museums and public spaces like the Winter Garden in New York have served this purpose well.

Gordon also has praise for the Seattle Symphony’s recent initiatives under Ludovic Morlot: “They’re doing a lot of progressive work — not only reaching out into other communities but also by doing a lot of interesting commissioning. Orchestras have to change their attitudes. The SSO is on the forefront of finding a way to be relevant today.”

Bang on a Can’s Marathon will mix in work from adventurous Seattle-based or -associated composers and musicians with pieces by each of the organization’s co-founders. The whole event will be framed by new-music “classics” that have had a profound — and not always acknowledged — impact on the music world at large: Brian Eno’s ambient masterpiece, Music for Airports, and Music for 18 Musicians, one of Minimalist Steve Reich’s signature works.

“The Marathon is all about finding people who are pushing the boundaries of their kind of music and letting that be the thread that goes through each of the acts,” says Jherek Bischoff, who was asked to curate the Seattle festival. “Pushing boundaries is one thread.” Another is serendipity: “Someone might come for the hip-hop segment [featuring Shabazz Palaces] and then they’ll happen to hear some modern classical right next to it.”

Bischoff, who comes from a family of musicians, was raised on a sailboat and on Bainbridge Island. He began his career as a multi-instrumentalist: “I started with the saxophone, moved on to tuba and then to bass — and then things stated getting crazy with way too many instruments…” Not surprisingly, Bischoff channels his talents into myriad musical activities, from performing and composing to producing — and, now, curating.

“People I wanted to include sprang to mind right away,” Bischoff explains. “For me, it’s exciting to give them the opportunity to play at the Moore. One of those people is Morgan Henderson. He’s the perfect example of what Bang on a Can is doing, which is to take someone who totally goes under the radar and put them in the spotlight. Morgan is one of the most talented musicians I know. He plays bass in the hardcore band The Blood Brothers but then he also plays flute in the Fleet Foxes band — the exact opposite type of music and instrument.”

Jherek Bischoff

Jherek Bischoff

Another figure Bischoff was eager to add to the line-up is Seattle pianist Gust Burns. “He’s one of the most insanely technically proficient pianists I’ve heard, and at the same time he’s also a wonderful improviser. When you see him perform, you can’t believe that there’s just one person making all that sound with the piano.”

Bischoff, who moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, will also bring along his own recent efforts as a composer: “It’s ambient orchestral music that was inspired by my time out at the cistern in Fort Worden State Park [in Port Townsend], where I did a residency. The cistern is a two-million-gallon water tank underground that has a 45-second reverb. I improvised there for days and recorded the whole thing and ended up turning some of those improvisations into full-blown orchestral pieces.” The results will be performed by the Scrape Ensemble (strings) with Bischoff on bass and “a bunch of reverb piped in to give you a bit of a sense of that alternate space.”

Along with those mentioned above and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, other artists on the roster include the duo Jesssika Kenney & Eyvind Kang, Jim Knapp, Greg Campbell, and California-based red fish blue fish.

But isn’t four hours of musical discovery a bit overwhelming? Bischoff points out that it’s perfectly fine for the audience to weave in and out and take breaks — much as became the custom during performances of a mammoth work like Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. “You can step out to get a drink. The Bang on a Can marathon I attended in New York took place in a big atrium and there was even a food court where you could go to eat and watch as the music played on.”

If you go: The Bang on a Can Marathon’s Seattle edition is being co-presented by Seattle Theatre Group and On The Boards at the Moore Theatre, Sunday, February 15, from 4 to 10 p.m. Tickets here.

(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: new music, preview, programming innovation

Shaking Booty with the Seattle Symphony?

I like big risks and I cannot lie….

So the Seattle Symphony gave a special one-off concert last weekend, part of its Sonic Evolution series. The series — just one of the many ideas music director Ludovic Morlot inaugurated in his first season three years ago — is basically about connecting the orchestra with other musical genres spawned in the Seattle region.

For this latest edition of the series, a trio of young (or youngish) composers was commissioned to write original orchestral pieces responding in some way, with no strings, so to speak, to musical figures linked culturally or biographically with Seattle. There was the Portuguese Luís Tinoco; Du Yun, a Chinese-born composer based in New York; and Gabriel Prokofiev, who is, yes, the grandson of Sergey, who is based in London. (He’s the only one of seven Prokofiev grandchildren with a career in music.)

Composer Du Yun

Composer Du Yun

Their new compositions drew loosely on source inspirations, respectively, from Bill Frisell (who lives in the region), Ray Charles (who made his first recording in Seattle, the town “where I got my start,” as Charles once said), and the hip-hop legend Sir Mix-A-Lot. The latter’s onstage performance, backed by the Seattle Symphony, is of course what grabbed the headlines.

A final segment of the program was given over to a local band called Pickwick; they performed three of their soul-infused songs to the accompaniment of the SSO, in arrangements by David Campbell (a Seattle native who’s done lots of work for film soundtracks).

Sure, the loaded concept of “crossover” has been responsible for many a dubious or at best misguided project. The standard critique runs something like this: if you present an orchestra playing versions of “pop music,” it dilutes the original into a sappy, watered-down product while making a mockery of the players’ musicianship. Neither constituency (the classical or pop audience) is likely to find the result appealing, so what you get is music that exists in a kitschy limbo, a no-man’s-land of pointless vulgarity.

All too often that actually is the case, as we all know from any number of dreadful PBS pledge promos. But — a big but — that kind of simplistic, pandering crossover doesn’t fairly describe what the Sonic Evolution project is after. And certainly not what actually happened on Friday night’s concert.

Sonic Evolution

It’s been amusing to see how many commentators who weren’t actually there consider themselves entitled to pontificate. (And yes, there really is an “aura” aspect to these concerts that you can’t absorb via youtube osmosis.)

I’m referring mostly to the naysayers who conclude that such efforts spell the doom of civilization, but just as much to the hipster pundits who think everything else the Symphony does is irrelevant or that the pairing of Sir Mix-A-Lot and Morlot represents a rare moment of cultural credibility that you don’t get with business as usual.

Many seem to assume that the whole concert was about having the SSO play Sir Mix-A-Lot “covers” in a madcap attempt to fill the house and stir up media attention. Do they really think an entire season has been planned around busily orchestrated versions of pop music icons? That there’s going to be no more Brahms or Bach or Beethoven — or Dutilleux and Ravel, to mention the splendid program that also took place last week, one which happens to serve as a perfect example of the level of artistic excellence at which the SSO is playing these days?

In fact, Prokofiev crafted two orchestrations of hits by Sir Mix-A-Lot (“Posse on Broadway” and “Baby Got Back”), but his main event was a completely new composition titled Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot. In my opinion this was the most interesting music of the program, brimming with invention and a one-of-a-kind orchestral imagination. Among the challenges Prokofiev set himself was to deploy the full orchestra on its own terms, without resorting to boring cookie-cutter gestures and predictable sectional blocks. (Prokofiev discusses the process of working on this piece on his blog.)

Gabriel Prokofiev

Gabriel Prokofiev

Besides, you’ve got to admire a piece that prompts this in the program note (written by my friend Aaron Grad, also a composer): “A recurring four-note motive, for instance, traces the rhythm of the opening phrase from ‘Baby Got Back’: ‘I like big butts.'”

I also very much enjoyed Tinoco’s kaleidoscopically orchestrated ruminations in FrisLand, which he describes as “an imaginary voyage through an (also imaginary) sound-world inspired by Frisell’s music.” It was interesting to learn about the juxtaposition of Ray Charles with a bit of Buddhist folklore in Du Yun’s Hundred Heads, though I admit that the musical argument of her piece left me puzzled; here the fusion didn’t persuade me.

Luís Tinoco

Luís Tinoco

What I did find cringeworthy about the concert, though I haven’t seen anyone else mention it, was the final set spotlighting Pickwick. I’m sure they’re eminently enjoyable on their own terms, in their usual setting. But this was the part that for me reeked of cheesy crossover. Why? The three songs were two much of a kind, but most of all because of the dreary paint-by-numbers arrangements that wasted the resource of the SSO, making it into a predictable jukebox of fizzing tremolo strings, etc. etc. No imagination.

So why have some people gotten so riled up over the orchestra sharing the stage with Sir Mix-A-Lot and a bevvy of eagerly dancing women? This was one part of the program, and the spirit overall seemed genuinely joyful; certainly the musicians appeared to be having fun with the playfulness of it.

No one can seriously believe this is the Trojan horse that will suddenly yield a concert hall full of converts to Bruckner. That’s not the intention anyway, and Bruckner will still be waiting there for those fortunate enough to discover what he has to offer. But it was exciting to realize that a significant portion of the audience had never once been inside the Benaroya Hall auditorium before. And they stayed and heard some “serious” concert music by worthwhile composers at work today; they also had a blast encountering very familiar music in an unusual context.

I admire the Seattle Symphony and Morlot’s willingness to take these kinds of risks. It’s not just about trying out gimmicks. They honestly are walking the talk, putting into action the themes that had just been discussed at this year’s League of American Orchestras Conference, which had wrapped up earlier that day in Seattle: the need to rethink how our orchestras can connect with their local audiences and how the concert experience itself can be innovated, can become an event that leaves a mark. That means being willing to stumble, to get parts wrong, even to have people question your sanity.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: new music, programming innovation, Seattle Symphony

New Moves with the NSO

Thomas Wilkins

Thomas Wilkins

This weekend brings the next installment in the National Symphony Orchestra’s current NEW MOVES: symphony + dance festival. I enjoyed researching this material to write the program essays for all three programs, which are being conducted by the Omaha Symphony’s Thomas Wilkins. Each program pairs classic American rep with music by living composers.

This second of the three programs features the Timpani Concerto No. 1 (“The Olympian”) by James Oliverio. Here’s a bit of my intro to his work:

The composer, educator, and new media producer James Oliverio (now based in Florida) has been redefining what it means to be a creative artist in the 21st century. “As composer there are two main ‘instruments’ that I work with: the symphony orchestra and the digital media studio,” he says, envisioning a music of the future that bridges the gap between traditional acoustic instruments and our rapidly evolving digital world. “Ultimately I want to unite them — to remove the distinction between my digital and orchestral endeavors,” adds Oliverio, an acclaimed pioneer of globally synchronized performing arts collaborations. (The rest can be found here.)


More on the amazing Jauvon Gilliam, principal timpanist of the NSO, from Andrew Lindemann Malone’s blog post. Writes Malone:

Not everyone who attends orchestral concerts knows that the timpani is not a fixed-pitch instrument; drummers tune them through the use of a foot pedal. So to play the right notes, you have to have both your hands and your feet in the right spot. With the typical orchestral complement of four timpani, this is challenging enough; as Gilliam says, “it’s like a choreographed dance. You can overshoot it, you can undershoot it, it’s just like if you do a pirouette.” To really master the instrument, “you almost have to have four different brains or have your brain in four different compartments.”

It’s an unusual role for an instrument that normally sits in the back and makes everything sound fuller and more forceful, but Gilliam doesn’t mind the change. “My job is to support people. I really enjoy that, that’s what I love about my job,” he says, but performing a solo is a “different way of doing things, and it allows me to expand my talent. It allows me to be a better musician.”

The concerto is also, he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever played” — a challenge worthy of the title “The Olympian,” and a summit only scalable for a man who’s sure on his feet.

Here’s Jauvon Gilliam’s own blog post on “The Olympian.”

And here’s a radio interview WETA’s Nicole LaCroix conducted with Wilkins (beginning), Gilliam (6:15), and Oliverio (at 9:15).

Filed under: American music, new music, programming innovation

A Concerto Première Takes Wing in Seattle

Tomoko Mukaiyama; photo by Takashi Kawashima

Tomoko Mukaiyama; photo by Takashi Kawashima

My latest concert review is now live on Bachtrack:

The music of Alexander Raskatov remains relatively little known in the United States. Smart concert programmers, though, should take note of the effectiveness of his new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, “Night Butterflies”, as demonstrated in this performance by Tomoko Mukaiyama and the Seattle Symphony. With these concerts, Ludovic Morlot gave the work a persuasive American premiere, fully alert to the score’s psychological fascination. The SSO co-commissioned Night Butterflies with Het Residentie Orkest Den Haag, which presented the world première in the Netherlands last May.

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Filed under: new music, programming innovation, Seattle Symphony

Atlantic Crossing

New Century Chamber Orchestra with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

New Century Chamber Orchestra with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Here’s my new piece for Stanford Live’s remarkable performance series: this one involving the first-ever collaboration between Chanticleer and New Century Chamber Orchestra. I’ll post the entire original text here, since space limits prevented including all of it in the magazine. This special program embarks from Stanford tomorrow night.

A Provocative Entertainment: Setting Sail with Chanticleer and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

On 10 September, 1935, Kurt Weill disembarked from the SS Majestic and began exploring New York City. It had taken the ocean liner a mere six days to ferry Weill and his artistic partner Lotte Lenya – his ex-wife at the time, though the couple would remarry – across the Atlantic from Cherbourg. The towering skyline had already become a visual meme thanks to the century’s new mass medium of film: Lenya later recalled that its familiarity made it seem “really like coming home.” But what they encountered represented a new world in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.

Inside of a month, Weill found himself attending rehearsals for a pioneering work of musical theater titled Porgy and Bess, which prompted him to observe: “It’s a great country where music like that can be written – and played.” The German-born Weill may not have realized it at first, but he was already in the beginning stages of a reboot of his own identity as an artist. Instead of a European abroad, Weill would come to understand himself as an American writing for American audiences.

It’s the recurrent pattern of Old and New Worlds converging. But overlaid on this is a unique ambience deriving from the fact that it happened right in the dead center of what the poet W.H. Auden unforgettably called “a low dishonest decade.” That contact between Europeans and Americans in a period of ominous uncertainty, and the creative ferment it generated, could stand as an emblem for the programmatic concept Chanticleer and the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) have developed for their first-ever collaboration, “Atlantic Crossing.”

In place of the well-worn metaphor of a musical composition as a journey toward a predetermined destination, their idea is to draw attention to the cross-connections that happen en route. Travel itself becomes a metaphor for artistic evolution, as the thrill or nervous energy or bittersweet nostalgia involved in leaving one’s comfort zone and setting out on new ventures recharges the creative self. The categories of interchange making up the spine of “Atlantic Crossing” are the meet-ups between “high culture” and entertainment, modernity and timeless tradition, and, naturally, vocal and instrumental music making.

In practical terms, the junction of singing and playing instruments actually posed a significant challenge, since Chanticleer and the NCCO define themselves by their respective focuses on the former and the latter – a program simple-mindedly alternating between the two ensembles would be a program that ignores the entire point of collaboration.

Both Bay Area ensembles are acclaimed for their adventurous spirit, but their audiences tend not to overlap, so the prospect of joining together for the first time was intriguing when it began to percolate a few years ago. But however appealing such a partnership seemed in the abstract, “there was no existing repertoire that fit the bill for what we wanted to do to collaborate with orchestral forces,” explains Christine Bullin, Chanticleer’s president and general director.

The violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who also serves as music director of NCCO, adds that there’s a relatively restricted repertoire as it is for string orchestra on the one hand and for male chorus on the other. “So when you think about collaboration, you have to go the arrangement route. But we didn’t just want to come up with pieces that needed to be arranged. We wanted to develop a thematic evening as well.” According to Bullin, the creative challenge began to take shape as a search for an integrative theme that could “incorporate some of the things that each group already does and then allow for things we could do together.”

Why the theme of transatlantic crossings between Europe and America – and why in the 1930s? “The period between the two world wars is so fertile and so full of creativity,” says Bullin. While the worsening political situation in Nazi Germany forced Weill and many of the other artists featured on the program to flee Europe, these voyages were happening in both directions. American artists like George Gershwin encountered a heady atmosphere of experimentalism in Paris that fueled new ambitions, even as their European counterparts enthused over the energy and directness they found in the latest American music. The Atlantic crossing becomes fraught with ambivalence: it’s a vital means of escape but also offers the promise of a new beginning. Transatlantic journeys trace the age-old story of migration to more-favorable circumstances, but they at the same time they are the paradigm of a pilgrimage of discovery.

Naturally the focus on destinations has only been intensified by our modern patterns of travel: get there fast, by the most direct route, no frills along the way. In the 1930s the revolution in air travel already on the horizon was foreshadowed by the brief heyday of Germany’s Zeppelin company and its promotion of the dirigible alternative.

But the state-of-the-art ocean liners like the SS Normandie and the SS Isle de France, while speeding up the trip across the Atlantic, offered those in the top classes the leisurely pleasures of stylish travel, including much in the way of musical entertainment. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most potent recurring images in the modern mythology of the doomed Titanic involves the heroic last stand of its eight-piece orchestra.

The special aura attaching to this mode of travel, combined with its historical reality as the route by means of which thousands of musicians fled Hitler’s Germany, led to the decision to anchor “Atlantic Crossing” in a literal context. In planning the program, Chanticleer and NCCO decided they wanted to encourage the audience to imagine an actual ocean liner passage: the kind of voyage during which these musicians would have encountered one another or even participated in musical events.

“If you were on this ship, what you would have heard? It might have been the European music from that time, with the best of the European artists coming to America,” says Salerno-Sonnenberg. Some of these, like Béla Bartók, never had time to adjust to their surroundings in America; others, particularly Weill and Paul Hindemith, went on to create a significant body of work in their newly adopted homeland, taking pleasure in and emphasizing its cultural context.

Weill also serves as the focal midpoint of the program, in which the two ensembles join together for the first time for an all-stops-out arrangement of his iconic Three Penny Opera number, “Mack the Knife.” Weill is a powerful symbolic choice as well, since he represents the convergence of traditional European classical training and populist, vernacular directness – a reminder of the creative synergy that got shut off by the damaging dichotomy between “serious” music and entertainment that’s arguably a relic of the postwar era. As Weill unforgettably put it, “I have never acknowledged the difference between ‘serious’ and ‘light’ music. There is only good music and bad music.”

Consisting of just eight measures – some basic chords backing its eminently whistleable tune – “Mack the Knife” is a kind of blank slate that gets written over and layered into a ten-minute fantasy in the arrangement by Clarice Assad, a frequent collaborator with NCCO. Here and on her other arrangements for “Atlantic Crossing,” Assad hints at the ongoing role played by cross-connections among musical innovators in our own time.

Salerno-Sonnenberg calls Assad “probably the greatest arranger alive today. She’s the only one I can think of who could write these kinds of arrangements. Older composers would not have had the experiences available to her generation, and her background growing up in Brazil has given her a vast scope of knowledge of musical styles; all this variety of music lives inside of her.”

The art of arrangement as practiced by the Comedian Harmonists reveals another fascinating example of stylistic fusion from the 1930s. Launched by the young actor Harry Frommermann in the face of the profoundly depressed economy of Weimar-era Berlin, the original Comedian Harmonists numbered five singers along with the pianist Erwin Bootz. In another instance of how “Atlantic crossing” goes in both directions, they modeled themselves on the Revelers, an American group of close-harmony male vocalists. (A film biopic of the Comedian Harmonists was made in 1997 by the German director Joseph Vilsmaier, while Barry Manilow has written music for Harmony, a new musical about the group.)

The Comedian Harmonists anticipated the Beatles not only in the level of international popularity they achieved, but in the “feel-good” ethos of their deceptively effortless, extraordinarily sophisticated music making. In historical retrospect, their irresistible charm only underscores the insanity of what lay around the corner.

Because three of the sextet’s members were Jewish, the recently mandated race laws in Nazi Germany forced the Comedian Harmonists to break up at the height of their popularity, after they returned from their first and only American tour in 1934 (sailing on the symbolically appropriate SS Europa). Soon the Jewish members fled back across the Atlantic, but an attempt to form an American Comedian Harmonists met with only short-term success. (The baritone Roman Cycowski ended up serving for a period as cantor at Beth Israel Temple in San Francisco and was the last surviving member of the Comedian Harmonists.)

Reviewing Chanticleer’s program of material from the German sextet’s repertoire back in 2002, Octavio Roca aptly remarked that, however improbable the Comedian Harmonists seemed as a phenomenon, “there they were, just before German culture cut its own throat and visited unspeakable horror on the world, making sounds of joy for millions.”

But the story “Atlantic Crossing” seeks to recount involves the period before the madness, when European and American artists were listening to one another from new perspectives. Bullin points out that looking back at the accomplishments of the Comedian Harmonists helped define the overall “affect” for “Atlantic Crossing,” which aims to create a “provocative entertainment” as it prompts the audience to think about these varied kinds of cross-connections. The two ensembles might even be seen as themselves a kind of metaphor. Notes Salerno-Sonnenberg: “We wanted to imagine what happens when the two groups, which begin their journey on this ship as their own entities, finally meet up and start to jam together.”

On board ships like the Normandie traveled avant-garde pioneers and savvy, well-polished entertainers. Composers such as the Hungarian Míklós Rózsa brought their formidable classical training with them and ended up in Hollywood, where their soundtracks became part of the cultural landscape for millions of Americans. The ship itself provides an imaginary zone where, according to Salerno-Sonnenberg, “the entertainment sphere could meet up with the cutting-edge or avant-garde, where side says to the other: ‘This is what we do, now let’s do it together.’”

And waiting for them at the docks was the music being brewed by Americans themselves, from Gershwin’s jazz-symphonic-operatic fusions to the “loose, festive ensemble sound” of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, as Terry Teachout describes it in his marvelous new biography. Ellington, a “restless traveler,” himself had started leading his band on tours of Europe in 1933, and he was beginning to think of a very different Atlantic crossing that he wanted to evoke in a multi-movement suite – a composition expressing “the cruel journey across the sea and the despair of the landing, and then the days of slavery…” (Ellington).

Within a few years the luxuriously appointed ocean liners would be converted into war vessels. “We all know how the story ends,” says Bullin, but the horror to come is beyond the intended scope for “Atlantic Crossing.” Instead, “we’re going to get everyone to New York. Along the way we will create an intimate and entertaining atmosphere in which we hope the public will engage. We’re all in this lounge together.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: essay, programming innovation, vocal music

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