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Immigration and the American Compositional Dream

Coming to America —As a Composer

The Land of Dreams?

Profile: Fellowship Composer Jin Hi Kim



Sunday, March 18, 2001 at 3pm
"Ellis Island to JFK"

Ellis Island to JFK presents a range of music by composers who together span several generations and waves of immigration. The concert is the culmination of ACO's Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds/Immigrant Voices program, a season-long exploration of the continual evolution of American music through the work of immigrant composers. Coming to America links the music of several composers with questions central to immigration and cultural absorption in American society. Defining, redefining and self-defining who is American has been a continuous process for as long as we have been a nation. From racial conflict to ethnic blending, immigration is changing the face of America. How composers who are new Americans play a role in this drama, how they contribute to and are affected by changing American culture, and larger questions of identity and access, are central issues of Coming to America. An essential goal of Coming to America is to involved audiences in discussion about immigration issues. To that end, we invite your participation in a post-concert dialogue immediately following today's performance.

Tania León
Born May 14, 1943 in Havana, Cuba
Now living in Nyack, NY

Desde is a Spanish word with multiple meanings, a strict definition only discerned in a particular situation or context. According to the Webster's New World Spanish Dictionary, desde means, "From now on, since, always, from, of course, ever since." The word is simultaneously forward and backward looking, both an adverb and a preposition.

To the composer, Desde&ldots; is "finding a language that elicits a personal meaning." In that sense, aspects of León's Cuban heritage "from" are commingled with aspects of her American identity "since," and with other influences and experiences. Yet, León feels the audience member and performers' perspective, interpretation, and understanding is equally important.

León writes that the work, "is constantly transforming and evolving&ldots; something vanishes, slips out of one's hands or memory." Like the music itself, each listener's interpretation of the music is transformed and colored by his or her experiences.

León continues "The piece is infused by a constant drone, ever-present, used as a sonic modal element that propels the manipulation of note sets. Within this context I intend to share a common environment, aspiring to harmonize the multiplicity of external and internal environments that reside within me. The rhythmical impetus in this piece pulses internally, without consciously seeking itself. The drone, not merely sonic, permeates the rhythmical impetus of the work as well."

Desde&ldots; which receives its world premiere on today's program, was commissioned by American Composers Orchestra and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Inc. This is the second work of Tania León's that ACO has commissioned.

Born in Havana, Cuba, León came to the U.S. in 1967. At the invitation of Arthur Mitchell, she became a founding member and the first musical director of the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969, and founded the Dance Theatre's music department, music school, and orchestra. She instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978. Starting in 1993, she held a four-year position as New Music Advisor to the New York Philharmonic. Currently, she serves as Latin American Music Advisor to the American Composers Orchestra, where she co-founded the award-winning Sonidos de las Américas festival. León has held masterclasses at the Hamburg Musikschule in Germany, and has been Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University and Visiting Professor of Composition at Yale University. León is a Professor at Brooklyn College, where she has taught since 1985.

León has received awards for her compositions from the American Academy of Arts and letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, NYSCA, ASCAP, and Meet The Composer, among others. She has also received an honorary doctorate from Colgate University, and was awarded the New York Governor's Lifetime Achievement award. She has held the Fromm Residency at the American Academy in Rome; and has had residencies at Yaddo and the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy.

--Simon Z. Michaels


Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Lukas Foss
Born August 15, 1922, in Berlin, Germany
Now living in New York City.

A true Renaissance man, Lukas Foss is a rare breed of musician, equally renowned as composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and spokesman for his art. As a composer, Mr. Foss eagerly embraces the musical languages of his time, having produced a body over one hundred works, that Aaron Copland called "among the most original and stimulating compositions in American music." As Music Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony, Foss has been an effective champion of living composers and has brought new life to the standard repertoire. His performances as piano soloist, in repertory ranging from Bach's D Minor Concerto to Bernstein's Age of Anxiety, have earned him a place among the elite keyboard artists of out time.

Mr. Foss's compositions of the last twenty-five years prove that a love for the past can be reconciled with all sorts of innovations. Whether the music language is serial, aleatoric, neoclassic or minimalist, the "real" Lukas Foss is always present. The essential feature in his music is the tension, so typical of the 20th Century, between tradition and new modes of music expression.

Mr. Foss has taught composition at Tanglewood, and has been composer-in-residence at Harvard, the Manhattan School of Music, Carnegie Mellon University, Yale University, and presently, Boston University. In 1983, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, of which he is now a Vice Chancellor. The holder of eight honorary doctorates, he is in constant demand as a lecturer, and delivered the prestigious Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

About the work, the composer writes:

The challenge for the composer of a concerto is to present the soloist with a challenge. The solo instrument has to be used for maximum effect. This task becomes even more challenging when one is restricted to the use of the notes that can be reached by just one hand; but then, the creative mind is always stimulated by restrictions: tonality, modes, variations are all basically restrictions, limitations. As Goethe wrote: "In der Beschräankung zeigt sich der Meister" [In limitation the master reveals himself"].

The concerto is in three movements. The first, Recitative/Toccata presents two opposites: a recitative is fragmentary and introductory; a toccata is mostly perpetual motion. Moments of recitative give a respite from the relentlessness of the toccata's sixteenth notes; chords broken up, repeated but, in this case, repeated with changing meter, so that the same notes find themselves shifted to different parts of the bar. This is like walking in a regular even step, but the floor under you keeps moving, shifting. No wonder siren sounds (horns and trumpet) as from an ambulance are heard at the end.

The second movement is entitled Lullaby/Scherzo. A scherzo in the middle of a slow movement has been common practice since the nineteenth century. The contrast of slow and fast makes sense, and so does the return to the slow Lullaby. In this Lullaby the left hand accommodates simultaneously the melody as well as the accompaniment.

There follows a Transition/Cadenza, the material being a continuation of figures from all three movements, which leads to a Sonata/Fugue. Classical composers often used fugal techniques in a finale, usually in the development section. Here the movement begins and ends with a fugue theme I composed ten years ago for a piece called Embros, which I have since withdrawn. This Sonata/Fugue is not a new version of Embro, but a different piece altogether. Instead of a single theme, there are four themes. The fugue turns sonata, and one with a new twist: the traditional repeat of the exposition had to be written out because the repeat starts in another key and because theme 3 is replaced by a fourth one. In the recapitulation all four themes are played. In other words, the structure is ABC-ABD-development-ABCD. There follows another cadenza, this time shadowed by percussion, and then a brief coda, a final version of the fugue theme. There is a footnote to these final bats: "for premiere performances, orchestra, shout into the quarter rests the following words: "Here's to L.F. from L.F." undoubtedly the first time a T-shirt has been set to music. This is a homage by the composer to a great pianist and a great friend.

--Simon Z. Michaels


Eternal Rock
Jin Hi Kim
Born February 6, 1957 in Inchon, Korea
Now living in Bridgeport, CT

For biography of Jin Hi Kim, please see listing under soloists later in this publication.

About the work, the composer writes:

Eternal Rock was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra as part of ACO's Composer Fellowship program.

--Simon Z. Michaels


Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31
Arnold Schoenberg
Born September 13, 1874, in Vienna
Died July 13, 1951, in Los Angeles

In January 1926, Arnold Schoenberg moved from Vienna to Berlin to take over the master class in composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts, a post previously held by Busoni. Not only was the appointment a great honor for Schoenberg, but it gave him more financial security and autonomy than he had ever enjoyed before. His contract called for him to teach only six months a year, thus freeing up much time for composition. Schoenberg took advantage of this time to advance and consolidate his twelve-tone style of composition, which was bringing him both praise and brickbats as a "revolutionary" composer. Curiously, he did this by revisiting the traditional forms of classical music: sonata, rondo, symphony, variations.

Maybe it wasn't so curious after all. In his famous lecture "Brahms the Progressive," published in his book Style and Idea, Schoenberg made the case for thinking of Johannes Brahms not as a reactionary classicist in the Romantic era, but as an advanced musical thinker. He particularly emphasized Brahms's technique of "developing variation" as a way of generating large, forward-looking musical structures from simple motifs. (It was another influential composer, Richard Wagner, who heard Brahms's "Handel Variations" for piano and marveled at "what can still be done with the old forms by someone who knows how to handle them.") In a kind of mirror image of his subject, Schoenberg's essay implied that Schoenberg himself was not a "revolutionary" but a progressive artist advancing a distinguished tradition.

Variation form, of course, is a nearly universal principle in music, but in approaching it Schoenberg surely had the great variations of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms uppermost in his mind. By their nature, variations test the composer's imagination by making him or her do a lot with a little. Furthermore, a set of variations must overcome a tendency to sound like "one darned thing after another," by means of an overall structure that gives it dramatic pace and emotional flow. In these respects, Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, composed in May 1926, are a model of classical clarity.

Their harmonic language is something else, and was so especially to listeners in that era, who found themselves unable or unwilling to follow the work's intricate play of melodic and rhythmic motifs. In his Lexicon of Musical Invective, Nicolas Slonimsky quotes a critic of the Allgemeine Musikzeitung, writing at the time of the Variations' Berlin premiere, in December 1928:

During the final rehearsal of Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, a strong demonstration took place. Audiences are beginning to protect themselves against such violations of their better nature. Such occurrences are to be regretted, but they are understandable considering the torture inflicted on the nervous system. ...How long will the untenable situation continue whereby a man, lost to the world and to art as completely as Arnold Schoenberg, is allowed to be in charge of a master class for composition at a State Academy, causing unforeseeable harm to innocent and trusting youth?

Of course, it is Schoenberg's lasting and distinguished influence on "innocent and trusting youth" that helps to account for the presence of his music on this program. In any case, that critic got his wish five years later, when Hitler's anti-Semitic crusade resulted in Schoenberg's dismissal from the Academy. Schoenberg was obliged to exert his influence in the United States, briefly in Boston, then in Los Angeles, where he was professor of composition at UCLA for a decade, until a heart attack forced him to retire in 1946.

The theme of Schoenberg's Variations contains a good deal of contrast itself, from the hazy bars of introduction to the cellos' lyrical surge to the scary outburst of the brass and shrieking violins. As the theme winds down, a trombone gravely intones the B-A-C-H motif (German notation for B flat, A, C, B), which will be heard elsewhere in the work, an explicit tribute to Schoenberg's great predecessor. Following classical practice, Schoenberg continues with nine well-defined variations and a finale, or extended variation. The moods are extraordinarily diverse-just in the first three variations one hears red-blooded lyricism, sarcasm, and a languid waltz-and so are the orchestral sounds, from impressionistic to hard-edged, and from chamber-music texture to the most robust orchestral tutti. The lengthy and fierce finale makes much of B-A-C-H, then pauses to reflect before closing with one last furious outburst.

  -- David Wright


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