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Between the cracks: Pacific Symphony's 13th American Composers festival explores two modern masters of music who defy definition - Duke Ellington and Daniel Schnyder

April 23, 2013

Led by Music Director Carl St.Clair, the festival spotlights the legendary Duke Ellington Orchestra for a concert featuring music by hybrid composers— May 16-18, 8 p.m., in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall

Classical Connections: “Duke Ellington Revealed” further examines the legend and his music with Pacific Symphony and the Duke Ellington Orchestra—May 19 at 3 p.m. in the concert hall

Film event: “Faust,” with soundtrack composed by Schnyder performed live on Sunday, May 19, 7 p.m., in the Samueli Theater

In an ongoing quest to make new musical discoveries through its acclaimed American Composers Festival (ACF), Pacific Symphony, led by Music Director Carl St.Clair, this year celebrates the music of two seemingly disparate figures—representing past and present: the iconic Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) and living saxophonist-composer Daniel Schnyder, neither of whom fit neatly into a single musical category. ACF, an annual celebration of American composers, seems somehow incomplete without the inclusion of Ellington, whose works have inspired countless composers and musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries—including Schnyder. This year, the Symphony doesn’t just refer to Ellington, but presents the ensemble that carries his name and has been playing together in one form or another for more than eight decades; the other half of the equation is this year’s ACF composer-in-residence Schnyder—both of whom defy definition.

For tickets or more information on ACF 2013, call (714) 755-5799 or www.PacificSymphony.org/ACF.

“A couple of summers ago when I performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, I fell in love with it—the musicians, their love and enthusiasm for music,” says Maestro St.Clair, giving light to the festival. “I immediately began searching for an opportunity to work with them again. Our American Composers Festival is the perfect opportunity. .

“And I worked with Daniel on tour in Germany. It was my first meeting with him and I felt an immediate closeness to him and his musical spirit,” he continues. “His presence is inspiring and will complement the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s wonderful world of jazz. Both Duke Ellington and Daniel Schnyder are what I would term as ‘eclectic borrowers.’ They each take musical ideas, themes and various multicultural musical idioms, and through their individual genius, create their own unique musical identity.”

“Today’s musical landscape, which some have called ‘post-classical,’ is wide, varied and level,” says the Symphony’s ACF advisor, Joseph Horowitz. “It does not rank one form of musical experience over another. In the concert hall, a lot of the most significant activity now occurs when different types of music interact. Our American Composers Festival has celebrated hybrids of this kind through such master composers as Lou Harrison (who absorbed Javanese gamelan), Zhou Long (who combines Western and Chinese musical practices) and John Adams (on whom the swing era exerted a lasting influence).” 

Both Ellington and Schnyder are prime examples of post-classical. Ellington, throughout his career, was commonly described as “beyond category” and Swiss-American Schnyder—primarily a composer of jazz/classical crossover works, with related music styles that include Africa, Cuba and the Middle East—is a hybrid of his own making. Perhaps because of his European upbringing, Schnyder (born in Switzerland in 1961 but now a resident of Harlem, New York) approached Ellington’s music without the preconceived notions often afflicting American classical musicians. While Schnyder’s formal training in flute and composition in Zurich were rigorously “classical,” he was equally influenced by jazz.

“I live around the corner from where Duke used to live in Harlem,” says Schnyder, pointing out the more obvious connection first. “I ‘Take the A Train’ to get home from mid-Manhattan. Ellington’s greatness is of course multi-dimensional. He worked with great individual players and formed his sound from their individual voices—rather than getting performers to give up a part of their individuality in order to form the sound of a great orchestra.” .

“Between-the-cracks” composers like Ellington and Schnyder—or say, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, both of whom composed for the concert hall and the opera house, Broadway and Hollywood—used to be viewed skeptically in American classical music circles. Even Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was initially not taken seriously. Similarly, Ellington was denied the Pulitzer Prize because his music lacked a “classical” pedigree, but it’s important to note that he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer in 1999.

“Daniel Schnyder is a composer who, though steeped in classical traditions, has created musical language that crosses many musical boundaries and genres,” says St.Clair. “This is also evident in the repertoire selected for the first half [all composed or arranged by Schnyder], which encompasses reflections of the great Duke Ellington, tributes to the immortal Jimi Hendrix and to the instrument, the bass trombone. And all of this really only covers a portion of the breadth of Schnyder’s musical language—all of which he feels at home within… Like Duke Ellington, Daniel is a virtuoso performer—and as performers both composers gained distinct insight into writing for ensembles.

“Ellington resisted the stigmatization of his music as jazz, or more correctly, as merely jazz,” wrote composer-conductor-scholar Gunther Schuller, who in 1957 invented the term “Third Stream” to promote a new terrain joining classical music and jazz. “Similarly, he resisted…the constant pressures to commercialize his art, to level off to some pre-ordained mold of easy marketability, to identify himself with the expected stereotypes.”

“The understanding of ‘classical music’ is impossibly snobbish today,” says Horowitz. “It penalizes non-Western music. And it penalizes the signature creative achievement of American music of the mid-20th century: jazz.”

American Composers Festival 2013 Programming
ACF gets underway on Thursday-Saturday, May 16-18, at 8 p.m., in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, when Pacific Symphony is joined by the legendary Duke Ellington Orchestra playing Ellington jazz standards. The program also features Schnyder and music he has adapted from the compositions of Ellington and others. The concert includes image magnification of the musicians projected on the big screen to enhance the concert experience and allow for up-close and personal observation. While the first half of the concert focuses on Schnyder, saxophone, Dave Taylor, bass trombone, and Kenny Drew, Jr., piano, (from the trio “Words within Music),” the second half of the concert is devoted to the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The iconic Ellington orchestra first tackles “Take the 'A' Train,” a jazz standard by Billy Strayhorn that became the signature tune of the ensemble. The title refers to the then relatively new A subway service that ran through New York City, using an express track section that opened in 1932 in Manhattan. It is the most famous of the many compositions to emerge from the collaboration between Ellington and Strayhorn. Most bandleaders would not put a song that is not their own composition at the forefront this way, but the relationship between Strayhorn and Ellington was not typical.

Ellington wrote in his autobiography: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, and the eyes in the back of my head.”

The orchestra then plays “Caravan,” another jazz standard, composed by Juan Tizol, and first performed by Ellington in 1936. Schnyder observes that Ellington “was one of the first jazz composers to use Arab scales and rhythms for ‘Caravan,’” which paints an intriguing picture of a distant and exotic place. Its serpentine melody conjures images of Middle Eastern snake-charmers or a camel caravan crossing sand dunes. Yet at the same time, the piece’s rhythms reflect Tizol’s Latin American roots. The piece is one of the Ellington orchestra’s first conscious efforts to incorporate influences from other cultures into its music. There are more than 350 recordings of this piece by Ellington's orchestra. One of the most familiar pieces in Ellington’s legacy, “Satin Doll” was first recorded in 1953, well into Ellington’s career, yet just as he was beginning to gain widespread public acclaim as a national cultural asset. The tune—an exercise in implicity—was written in collaboration with saxophonist, arranger and composer Strayhorn to words by lyricist Johnny Mercer. Despite its eventual popularity and virtual canonization, “Satin Doll” was not initially a staple of Ellington’s orchestra. After hearing a performance of it by pianist Billy Taylor, Ellington decided to include it in his ensemble’s regular repertoire. With the widespread fame that Ellington and his group enjoyed during the subsequent years, “Satin Doll” became another jazz standard.

“Creole Love Call” is most associated with the Ellington band and Adelaide Hall. Ellington first recorded it in 1927 and was issued a copyright for it as composer the following year. However, the main melody appears earlier in the Joe “King” Oliver composition “Camp Meeting Blues,” which Oliver recorded with his Creole Jazz Band in 1923. Apparently Ellington reedman Rudy Jackson had presented the melody to Ellington claiming it was his own composition. After Ellington’s recording came out, Oliver attempted to sue for payment of royalties and composer credit. The lawsuit failed due to problems with Oliver’s original paperwork resulting in an invalid copyright. Ellington fired Jackson over the incident. .

Also on the program is “Martin Luther King” from “Three Black Kings,” which was Ellington’s last composition, one left unfinished at the time of his death in 1974. For the posthumous Lincoln Center premiere in 1976, Ellington’s son, Mercer Ellington, completed the score and Alvin Ailey created the choreography. The title refers to three important African American historical figures: King Balthazar, King Solomon and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, introduced Ailey’s “Three Black Kings” when it premiered at the Lincoln Center festival celebrating Ellington.

The program concludes with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” —a song that became famous, Ellington said, “as the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among jazz musicians at the time.” Probably the first song to use the phrase “swing” in the title, it introduced the term into everyday language and presaged the swing era by three years. It’s a tune familiar to the vast majority—even all these years later.

The concert opens with the spotlight on Schnyder. “No less than Ellington, Schnyder is a gifted performer and improviser (on the saxophone),” says Horowitz. “Like Ellington, he espouses multiple musical worlds. He is an omnivorous creator, drawing on Renaissance polyphony, Schubert and Mahler, Ellington and Gershwin, Arabia and Africa.”

“A lot of the music I compose adapts the compositions of great artists of the past, trying to find ways to express myself through their music,” says Schnyder. “This is nothing new. Schoenberg did it, Busoni did it, lots of important composers did it. But for many decades, this practice of adaptation and transcription was put down. When Stokowski transcribed Bach, it was denounced almost as a crime. Now, however, transcriptions are coming back.”

The first piece on the program is Schnyder’s “Shourouk (the Arabic word for “sunrise”): Arabian Overture” —a piece that marries Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms to Western orchestral sonorities—and is followed by an arrangement by Schnyder of the Ellington jazz composition that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 1930s: “In a Sentimental Mood.” Both pieces incorporate improvisation by Schnyder, Taylor and Drew.

“For my Shourouk, I was taught Arabian rhythms by Arabian musicians in New York,” says Schynder. “The piece is composed for Western instruments in combination with oud, the ney and the rik—a kind of tambourine, the main percussion instrument of Arabian music. It also uses scales that are different from our scales, and the malfuf rhythm, which is also found in Latin jazz and Western African music—all these worlds connected through history.”

“In a Sentimental Mood,” in contrast, has a lot of long notes—which facilitates adding counterpoint and orchestral lines, so that the orchestra can be fully utilized. “In adapting a jazz staple for symphony orchestra, you don’t want to simply give the musicians whole notes with the soloists on top,” says Schnyder. “That’s boring for the players and also for the listeners. It’s a Ferrari driving at 20 miles an hour.”

The Symphony then performs an arrangement by Schnyder of Jimi Hendrix’ (1942-1970) Variations on “Purple Haze”—a piece that has, frankly, become known as one of the archetypical psychedelic drug songs of the ’60s. Hendrix claimed the piece was inspired by a dream where he was walking under the sea where a purple haze surrounded him, engulfed him and made him feel lost and traumatized. Hendrix claimed it had nothing to do with drugs, but of course few deny that Hendrix was indeed using plenty of drugs at the time.

While “In a Sentimental Mood” has sophisticated chord changes, in Schnyder’s hands “’Purple Haze’ doesn’t really have any chord changes. “It’s just a rhythm and the idea of blues…” he says. “And with the brutality of this music—(it’s about) how to write for orchestra and retain raw expression. My arrangement has fugues and canons. You can do all these things because the piece is so raw, so bare, that it’s an open playing field.”

Next, Schnyder’s subZERO, Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra, is a piece that was commissioned by and composed for Taylor. The three-movement work is a dramatically virtuosic piece that pushes the envelope of what is traditionally considered to be within the bass trombonist’s capabilities. The first movement, subZERO, is a tour-de-force for the soloist, with huge leaps dropping down the deepest regions of the instrument’s range. The next movement, entitled Sama'i Thaqil, is based on an ancient Turkish drum pattern and features a haunting violin solo over the top of the bass trombone. The final movement, ZOOM OUT, goes from musical idea to musical idea, displaying a vast array of textures from the bass trombone and the piano. .

Taylor says: “Schnyder’s concerto is the best vehicle I’ve ever had with orchestra. I reference all kinds of jazz and popular styles; Schnyder has a gift for picking up the essence of a style. At the same time, he’s a deeply schooled composer; everything he composes is organic; he never panders.”

Media sponsors for this concert include KUSC, KPCC and PBS SoCal with additional support provided by: (Thursday) Susie and Don Hecht; (Friday) Jane and Richard Taylor; and (Saturday) The Westin South Coast Plaza.

Classical Connections: “Duke Ellington Revealed”
ACF 2013 continues on Sunday, May 19, at 3 p.m., with a jazzy Classical Connections. The ensemble founded by the Duke himself shines for this matinee performance, as it joins St.Clair and the Symphony to further explore why Ellington proved to be so inspirational, influencing so many other composers over the course of the century or more. St.Clair serves as host, for this journey beneath the surface of the composer and his irreplaceable music to uncover a whole world of fascinating history, intrigue and discovery. This concert also includes image magnification of the musicians projected on the big screen, enhancing the concert experience and allowing for up-close and personal observation.

Interplay: Faust
On Sunday, May 19, at 7 p.m., the festival continues in the Samueli Theater with a screening of Friedrich Murnau’s silent movie classic (1926) “Faust,” featuring a soundtrack written and performed by Schnyder (soprano and tenor saxophone), accompanied by Taylor, bass trombone, and Drew, piano. Faust is the protagonist of a German legend; a highly successful scholar but one dissatisfied with his life who makes a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.

In many ways, this is not a film score in a traditional sense. Fascinated by the classic tale, Schnyder decided to create music linking this saga about seduction and destruction of the human soul to its traces in European musical history. Inspired by the audacity in Murnau’s dramatic language, and by Faust’s legacy to classical music of three centuries, the trio accompanies certain key scenes of the film with fully composed pieces and adaptions, while the protagonists’ actions and streams of consciousness are being interpreted by improvisations in the connecting film sequences.

“I wrote this score on commission for a Goethe birthday celebration,” explains Schnyder. “I had actually never before seen the film. What I attempt here is an interplay—between the Faust story, German music history, and the three of us as improvising performers. Even though a lot of the music I cite incorporates texts, I’m counting on its visceral effects—people don’t need to know the words.”

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
Ellington was an American composer, pianist and big-band leader who wrote more than 1,000 compositions. Bob Blumenthal of The Boston Globe said: “In the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington.” A major figure in the history of jazz, Ellington’s music stretched into various other genres, including blues, gospel, film scores, popular and classical. His career spanned more than 50 years and included leading the Duke Ellington Orchestra, composing an inexhaustible songbook, scoring for movies, composing stage musicals, and world tours. Several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became standards. Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and extraordinary charisma, he is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional genres of music. Ellington led his band from 1923 until his death in 1974. His reputation only increased after he was gone—and his orchestra is still playing today.

Composer-in-Residence Daniel Schynder
Schnyder’s vast catalogue of compositions includes commissions from New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna’s Tonkünster Orchestra, the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Berlin (for which he was composer-in-residence), Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (a Fourth Symphony, for David Zinman) and the Bern Opera (“The Tempest,” after Shakespeare). A saxophonist, he tours with a trio that includes trombonist Taylor and the pianist Drew; their repertoire includes Bach, Wagner, Gershwin and Ellington. Both Schndyer and his trio are better-known in Europe than in America.

David Taylor and Kenny Drew, Jr.
Taylor is himself edgy, flamboyant, reckless, experimental. Among his colleagues, he is both famous and notorious. While studying at Juilliard, he was a member of Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony, and occasionally played with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez. Shortly after, he jointed the Thad Jones Jazz band. He recorded with Duke Ellington and with the Rolling Stones. He has since been closely associated with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Gil Evans Big Band, and the Charles Mingus Big Band. He has performed chamber music with Winton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman. Alan Hohvanness, Charles Wuorinen, George Perle and Frederic Rzewski—important composers from all points of the compass—have all composed for him.

Winner of the 1990 Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Jacksonville, Drew has performed with a gamut of musicians, including Smokey Robinson, the Mingus Big Band, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Faddis/Hampton/Heath Sextet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. In the realm of classical music, his repertoire includes Bach concertos, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, and works by African-American composers. He has performed and recorded extensively with Daniel Schnyder and David Taylor. He played a solo piano tribute to Duke Ellington on Ellington’s 100th birthday the Tonhalle in Zurich. His “classical” performances include appearances with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Winterthur Orchestra in Switzerland.

American Composers Festival History
Each year, the Symphony explores a different facet of American music through the ACF. Since 2000, the festival has featured composers from Aaron Copland to Ana Lara to Michael Daugherty and artists from Yo-Yo Ma to Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble. By examining this diverse musical heritage, the Symphony points a microscope at who we are as a culture, where we’ve been, and where we are going—some of the most important questions that music can raise.

Pacific Symphony’s 2012 ACF celebrated the Iranian New Year festival of “Nowruz,” marking the arrival of spring and celebrated since ancient times. The festival explored the music of Persian-Americans through programs featuring authentic Persian music. Guest artists include the acclaimed Shams Ensemble, Grammy Award-winning soprano Hila Plitmann; Iran’s best-known conductor Farhad Mechkat and Pacific Chorale. Among the highlights was a world premiere by composer Richard Danielpour, whose own Persian ancestry served as inspiration for his oratorio, “Toward a Season of Peace,” commissioned by the Symphony.

The Symphony’s 2011 ACF focused on one of America’s most fascinating and pre-eminent living composers, Philip Glass, who went under the spotlight when Pacific Symphony partnered with Long Beach Opera (LBO) to present the first-ever Southern California Philip Glass Festival. ACF’s “The Passion of Philip Glass” and LBO’s production of the Glass opera “Akhnaten,” plus accompanying events (“Glass Plays Glass” piano recital, films, lectures, discussions) all probed deeply into the man and his music to gain new understanding and a deeper appreciation for one of today’s leading American composers.

The 2010 ACF explored “The Greatest Generation” with a look back at a time largely defined by The Great Depression. The term “The Greatest Generation,” coined Tom Brokaw, refers to those who grew up in the United States during a time of extreme deprivation but went on to fight in World War II or contribute to the effort on the home front, eventually rebuilding America. The festival delved into this turbulent period and the music that could not have been composed without the somber impetus of The Great Depression. Highlights included a world premiere by composer Michael Daugherty: “Mount Rushmore”; and West Coast premieres of Weill’s “Song of the Inventory” and Walt Whitman Songs (orchestrated version). .

In 2009, “Hollywood’s Golden Age,” celebrated the art of film music, past and present by exploring the differences between composing for concerts and composing for film—and how the two styles have evolved into what we hear today. This festival revisited a unique period in our country when a number of refugee composers fled to the United States from a turbulent Europe and found Hollywood hungry for their work. The period was explored by focusing on a handful of composers, including Miklós Rozsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, who were contrasted against modern-day masters James Newton Howard and Paul Chihara.

In 2008, “The West: Music Inspired by the American Frontier,” examined “the idea of the West” in American music, sketched by Dvorak and clinched by Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris. In a later stage, the idea migrated to the West Coast in the music of such Californians as Lou Harrison, whose “Four Strict Songs” were a revelation—as was the Bowed Piano Ensemble of Stephen Scott. The festival’s commissioned composers were Scott and Curt Cacioppo; festival partners included Chapman University, which hosted a multi-media event.

In 2007, Los Sonidos de México journeyed south of the border to celebrate the remarkable range and variety of Mexico’s musical odyssey, much of which is rarely performed in Mexico or elsewhere. The festival included some two dozen compositions over the course of six concerts and included a commissioned new work by Daniel Catán—one of three participating Mexican composers (also Ana Lara and Enrique Diemecke). A three-hour multi-media Interplay tracked music and visual art from pre-Hispanic times to the present.

In 2006, “Uncharted Beauty: The Music of Lou Harrison” honored one of the great American composers of the 20th century, as well as a pioneer in the use of alternate tunings, world music influences and new instruments. It was the last in a three-year sequence exploring the influence of non-Western music on American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. The festival included a variety of intimate chamber programs plus a large-scale concert celebrating the music of Harrison. It also featured film footage from Eva Soltes’ documentary “Lou Harrison: A World of Music,” courtesy of the Lou Harrison Documentary Project. .

ACF 2005, “Illuminations in Sound,” featuring Colin McPhee, George Crumb and John Adams, was the second of the three-year festival sequence (ending with Lou Harrison) devoted to the influence of non-Western music on American composers. Richard Stoltzman played works by Adams and Steve Reich. Concentrating on the rapturous, the Symphony explored the influence of Indonesian gamelan, featuring little-known works by McPhee and Jose Evangelista. Two rarely heard transcriptions by Percy Grainger of piano works by Debussy and Ravel were performed alongside the original pieces.

“Tradewinds from China,” the first festival of the trilogy, premiered works in 2004 by Chen Yi, Zhou Long and Joan Huang in the course of sampling the historic contribution of present-day Chinese-American composers. Yo-Yo Ma performed a new cello concerto and Min Xiao-Fen played Theonious Monk on her pipa. A children’s chorus sang Chinese folk songs; the Orange County High School for the Arts Chorus performed Chinese revolutionary songs.

In 2003, prior to the trilogy, was “An American Odyssey” featuring the West Coast premiere of William Bolcom’s monumental setting of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” in the course of exploring the interface between concert and popular styles. Additional festival events included a recreation of Paul Whiteman’s 1924 “Experiment in Modern Music,” with its premiere of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a newly scored set of Leonard Bernstein songs, and an evening of Blake settings by Virgil Thomson, Arthur Farwell, Henry Cowell, Alan Ginsberg and other Americans.

ACF’s “Dvorák in America,” in 2002, applied a visual presentation of the “New World” Symphony, a Hiawatha Melodrama, and costumed Native American dancers to an examination of Dvorák’s American style in relation to such diverse turn-of-the-century Americans as Scott Joplin, Harry Burleigh, Victor Herbert, George Chadwick and Arthur Farwell. Mstislav Rostopovich performed the Dvorák Cello Concerto.

The first ACF took place in 2000 with Aaron Copland and the “Sound of the Americas,” featuring a unique screening of the classic 1939 documentary “The City” with live symphonic accompaniment—the first in a series of Copland film scores that supported his creation of a 20th-century American concert voice. Additional festival events included three films, chamber and keyboard music and special guest William Warfield.