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Nicolas Slonimsky: Maverick Conductor

A Conducting Career never To Be


Sunday, January 21, 2001
3pm, Carnegie Hall

20th Century Snapshots - A Millennium CelebrationBerlin 1931

ADOLPH WEISS: American Life
CHARLES IVES: Three Places in New England
CARL RUGGLES: Men and Mountains
AMADEO ROLDÁN: Suite de "La Rebambaramba"


Tickets are $46, $33 & $16. Call CarnegieCharge: 212-247-7800

The concert is preceded by a discussion, moderated by noted music historian Carol Oja, free to ticket-holders, at 1:45pm.

American Composers Orchestra Program for Slonimsky's Paris 1931 concerts.    Courtesy of the Nicolas Slonimsky Collection, Music Division, Library of Congresspresents a tribute to Nicolas Slonimsky's historic concerts that introduced Europe to the American musical revolution; Dennis Russell Davies conducts music by Adolph Weiss, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell and Amadeo Roldán.

In trying to determine the essential ideas of American music, I was especially struck by the fact that Nicolas Slonimsky conducted concerts of American music in Europe in 1931 and 1932. Nicolas was so central to the promotion of American music that I knew I wanted to honor him.

  -Dennis Russell Davies

The American Composers Orchestra continues its multi-year "20th-Century Snapshots" Millennium celebration at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, January 21, 2001 at 3pm with "Berlin 1931", a concert that pays tribute to the landmark concert series that the prodigiously talented and adventurous musicologist and conductor Nicolas Slonimsky presented in Berlin and throughout Europe in 1931 and 1932.

Homespun American music has never had an easy time in the world of Western Classical tradition. The tensions between the great European music and the inborn American tendencies toward adventurous individualism put immense pressures on a fledgling, indigenous art form. The early American-born composers of the 19th century took very tentative steps to straddle this line between the European tradition and a new "American" music. But it was not until the 20th century that American composers found a voice that would eventually prove to hold its own in the European theater.

Nicolas Slonimsky was one of the first to recognize the vitality and validity of this new generation of American composers and pioneered their debut in Europe in a series of concerts that began in Paris and ended in Berlin.

My concerts in Berlin left lasting memories among those who heard them. For years afterwards I met people who recalled in detail the scenes that took place on those memorable occasions. My Berlin agency, impressed by the praise lavished on me in the press, made plans for me toconduct all over Germany&ldots; Alas, the agency, largely Jewish in its membership, was swept away by the fateful wave of Hitlerism a few months later.

-Nicolas Slonimsky

Slonimsky worked very closely with composer and fellow trailblazer Henry Cowell to create the Pan American Association of ComposersMarch 6, 1932 Boston Herald Review of Slonimsky's Berlin concert (PAAC), which served to bring the new music of the Western hemisphere to the world. Realizing the importance of making their mark in the birthplace of the Western musical tradition-and seizing on the favorable dollar value at the time-Slonimsky and Cowell approached their mentor Charles Ives to ask for financial assistance to hire European orchestras for a series of concerts. Ives agreed to do so, secretly.

"Berlin 1931" is a tribute to the programs that Slonimsky brought first to Paris and later to Berlin. The concert begins with Adolph Weiss's American Life. A close colleague of Slonimsky and Cowell (and secretary of the PAAC), Adolph Weiss is remembered largely for being the first American student of Arnold Schoenberg, and the first to propagate Schoenberg's 12-tone serial technique in America. American Life is one of the great examples of Weiss' orchestral work, with its atonal, jazzy, dodecaphonic description of life in the early part of the century.

Slonimsky considered Charles Ives to be the reigning genius of the American music scene. He describes his first acquaintance with Ives's Three Places in New England as an epiphany:

As I looked at the score, I experienced a strange but unmistakable feeling that I was looking at a work of genius. I cannot tell precisely why this music produced such an impression on me. The score possessed elements that seemed mutually incompatible and even incongruous: a freely flowing melody derived from American folk-songs, set in harmonies that were dense and highly dissonant, but soon resolving into clearances of serene, cerulean beauty in triadic formations that created a spiritual catharsis.

In Carl Ruggles' tone poem Men and Mountains, Ruggles' name itself seems to suggest the rugged individualism that characterized the man and his music. The title of this severe and beautiful tonal and atonal poem comes from William Blake: "Great things happen when men and mountains meet." A contemporary of Charles Ives, Ruggles' music was championed by Henry Cowell, who described Ruggles as "irascible, lovable, honest, sturdy, original, slow-thinking, deeply emotional, self-assured, and intelligent."

Along with Charles Ives, Henry Cowell was one of the greatest innovators of American music in the early part of the 20th century. Whether through his groundbreaking compositional ideas or through his efforts to get new music played and heard, Henry Cowell was without doubt one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. His Synchrony for full orchestra-which was conceived in collaboration with Martha Graham-was featured at the Berlin concerts.

Amadeo Roldán's La Rebambaramba completes the program. Slonimsky and his "tropical fruit market."   Photo courtesy Electra Slonimsky YourkeSlonimsky and Cowell's artistic ties with Cuba were very tight, and the Parisian-born Cuban composer Roldán was considered one of Cuba's guiding lights. Described at the time by a critic for the French Excelsior:

La Rebambaramba [is] a multicolored musicorama by the fiery Cuban mulatto composer Amadeo Roldán, depicting an Afro-Cuban fiesta in a gorgeous display of Caribbean melorhythms, with the participation of a multifarious fauna of native percussion effects, including a polydental glissando on the jawbone of an ass.

The Berlin concerts were a great opening effort for the new wave of American music: an effort that would be eclipsed by the Nazi rise to power, but one that sowed the seeds for the eventual flowering of modern American music in Europe. Slonimsky said of the Berlin concerts:

Never in my brief career as a conductor did I enjoy such marvelous cooperation. The virtuosity of the individual players of the Berlin Philharmonic was beyond praise&ldots;I could not have imagined that within a year, some of these great players would be forced to wear degrading swastikas and stand up to hail Hitler.


Major support of the American Composers Orchestra is from Alliance Capital Management L.P., Americans for the Arts, Mr. Thomas Buckner, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Booth Ferris Foundation, Citigroup Foundation, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust, Jean and Louis Dreyfus Foundation, Fidelity Foundation, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Greenwall Foundation, Christian Humann Foundation, Meet The Composer, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, J.P. Morgan & Co., New York Foundation for the Arts, New York Times Co. Foundation, Virgil Thomson Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. ACO programs are also made possible with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The residency of composer P.Q. Phan is made possible through Music Alive, a program of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer. This national program is designed to provide orchestras with resources and tools to support their presentation of new music to the public and build support for new music within their institutions. Funding for Music Alive is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The Aaron Copland Fund for Music. ACO's "Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds/Immigrant Voices" project is supported by the Animating Democracy Initiative, a program of Americans for the Arts funded by the Ford Foundation.

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