Release (99/10/31)

ProtestSunday, October 31, 1999 at 3pm

ProtestLauren Flanigan

Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
Lauren Flanigan, soprano

LOUIS BALLARD: Incident at Wounded Knee (N.Y. Premiere)
ROBERT BEASER: The Heavenly Feast (N.Y. Premiere)
Commissioned by ACO and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
ALVIN SINGLETON: 56 Blows (N.Y. Premiere)
CURTIS-SMITH: GAS! – The Great American Symphony

20th Century Snapshots - A Millennium CelebrationTickets are $46, $33 & $16. Call CarnegieCharge: 212-247-7800

A pre-concert discussion with the composers takes place on the Carnegie Hall stage at 1:45 and is free to ticket-holders.

Composers with “Eyes Wide Open” featured in Protest by ACO

Works of social commentary and action are featured in “PROTEST,” the American Composers Orchestra’s opening concert of the season, Sunday, October 31, 1999 at 3 pm at Carnegie Hall, under the baton of Music Director Dennis Russell Davies. The program includes works by four contemporary composers working in divergent and highly personal musical styles: Robert Beaser, Louis Ballard, Alvin Singleton, and Curtis Curtis-Smith. Their music has as its source subjects ranging from the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee to the beating of Rodney King. Mr. Beaser’s work, The Heavenly Feast, a response to World War II Nazi aggression, receives its New York premiere with soprano soloist Lauren Flanigan. The concert is part of ACO’s “20th Century Snapshots” celebration, examining themes, moments, and trends of the 20th century.

Beaser’s The Heavenly Feast, with texts drawn from Gjertrud Schnackenberg, is inspired by the martyrdom of the Jewish-born nun, Simone Weil, who died while on a hunger strike in protest of the holocaust and the Nazi occupation in France. The work was jointly commissioned by ACO and the Baltimore Symphony. The soloist, Ms. Flanigan is a risk-taking and unpredictable artist who has made important contributions in a number of new works, including another work of social conscience by Beaser–his one act opera, The Food of Love, with libretto by Terence McNally, which premiered at Glimmerglass and comes to New York City Opera this fall. In that work, Ms. Flanigan’s singing was noted for its “intensity and passion,” according to The New York Times.

Native-American composer Louis Ballard’s Incident at Wounded Knee will also be given its New York premiere. This composer draws on his Quapaw-Cherokee roots to commemorate the notorious massacre and evoke the traditions and moods of Native American people. The four-movement work is not only inspired by the “incident”, but by the systematic massacre of Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century. The orchestral work was commissioned by Maestro Davies for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where it received a premiere in May of 1974.

Composer Alvin Singleton looks at the 1991 Rodney King beating by Los Angeles policemen and the national turmoil that followed in its wake in the New York premiere of his 56 Blows. Singleton’s work was inspired by a dramatic speech on the Senate floor, in which then New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley struck the podium with his fist 56 times to emphasize the brutality of a beating in which King was struck 56 times in 81 seconds. The character of the work, a reflection on the larger issue of abuse of power rather than a programmatic statement, is suggested by its Latin subtitle: Quis Custodiet Custodies? (Who guards the guardians?) The 12-minute piece was commissioned and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1994 and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Singleton feels strongly about being a composer who is both involved with and reflective of the world around him. For example, his Extension of a Dream (1977) is a memorial to Stephen Biko, who died in a South African prison. After Fallen Crumbs (1987) addressed the crisis of world hunger. Educated at New York University and Yale, Singleton won a Fulbright to Europe where he lived for 13 years before he moved to Atlanta, to become the composer-in-residence at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The musical statement of Curtis Curtis-Smith, whose GAS! – The Great American Symphony closes the program, develops another form of social commentary. Written in 1982, it is more in the tradition of Dr. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” than a typical political tract. In the words of the composer, “The audacious title is as mischievous as it is ridiculous, and as American as a slick Madison Avenue advertising slogan. There are allusions to sundry aspects of Americana, from New Orleans jazz to acid rock; from gospel harmonies to boisterous marches to quaint southern folk hymns and Broadway show tunes. On one level, the piece may be heard as fund-and-games, while it may be heard as an ironic and satirical commentary on the very tunes and styles it purports to trifle with.”

Tickets for “PROTEST” are $46, $33, and $16 and are available through CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800. The concert begins at 3 pm and is preceded by a 1:45 pm. discussion with the composers that is free to ticket holders.

Major support of the American Composers Orchestra is from Alliance Capital Management L.P., Mr. Thomas Buckner, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Booth Ferris Foundation, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Geraldine C. and Emory M. Ford Foundation, Mr. Francis Goelet, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, J.P. Morgan & Co., the 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.


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The Heavenly FeastRobert Beaser

Born 1954, in Boston. Now living in New York City.

Shortly after graduating from Yale University in 1976—where he studied composition with Jacob Druckman and conducting with Arthur Weisberg and William Steinberg—Robert Beaser became the youngest American ever to win the Prix de Rome. After studying in that city with Goffredo Petrassi, he became co-music director and conductor of Musical Elements, a new music ensemble based in New York. From 1988 to 1993, Beaser was composer-in-residence with the American Composers Orchestra, and today serves as the orchestra’s artistic advisor. His Mountain Songs was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1986 as “Best New Classical Composition.” Other Beaser works that have attracted wide attention include The Seven Deadly Sins for baritone and orchestra,Notes on a Southern Sky, and the piano concerto. Recently Mr. Beaser received accolades for his one-act opera Food of Love, commissioned by New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera, with librettist Terence McNally. Mr. Beaser is presently Professor and Chairman of the Department of Composition at the Julliard School.

The Heavenly Feast, a composition in one movement for soprano and orchestra, was co-commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and first performed in 1994 by the latter orchestra with David Zinman conducting and Dawn Upshaw as soloist. Mr. Beaser has supplied the following description of the work’s background:

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French/American theosophist, writer, and teacher. While born Jewish, she identified with the writings of various political religious and radicals of her era including Marx and Gandhi, studied the Bible and Hinduism, and later converted to Roman Catholicism. In August 1943, during the height of World War II, stricken with tuberculosis and confined to a sanitarium in Kent, England, she refused to eat, and literally starved herself to death. The reason given for this final, willful renunciation of food was the desire to offer the nourishment that did not enter her mouth to her compatriots who were suffering and starving under the brutalities of Nazi-occupied France.

Several years after her death, an epitaph in Italian was placed anonymously on her grave. It translates: “My solitude has held in its grasp the grief of others until my death.”

The poem “The Heavenly Feast” by Gjertrud Schnackenberg addresses itself to this final act. It is a contemplation of a self-sacrifice as mystically inspiring as it is logically incomprehensible. The musical work, eponymous in title with the poem, takes place at Weil’s graveside. It is in the form of an interior monologue, where the soprano/protagonist reflects upon the final days and quixotic path of this elusive martyr.

Ms.Schackenberg’s long poem is linked together and carried forward with subtle rhythmic shifts and a rhyme scheme that spills over from quatrain to quatrain: all of these features are reflected in Mr. Beaser’s fluent setting. Speech rhythms and a kind of natural American declamation of the text predominate; high notes are not programmed in for vocal effect, but occur at moments of stress in the text, which is both meditative in its contemplation of the human condition and dramatic in the life-and-death situation it depicts. Mr. Beaser’s predilection for hymn-like American melody and harmony has often prompted comparisons to Copland, Schuman, Barber, and other American composers of the “fervent years” during the 1940s; in this work, he probes the spiritual roots of that idiom.

A substantial prelude, beginning with a wide-ranging monologue for clarinet, generates considerable drama and suspense before the singer’s entrance. As in the introduction, animando and più mosso are typical indications, as the music pulls back several times to contemplate nature and human suffering, only to press ahead again with a saint’s urgency and insistence on action. The work’s fortissimo climax occurs at the saint’s shocking defiance of God Himself in her refusal of the heavenly feast, “Though God in pity take/your hands and lift them toward/His table for our sake.” The music then dissolves into rising string glissandi followed by a long silence. The answer to the saint’s gesture is a glorious maestoso passage for the orchestra that leaves no doubt as to God’s response to this act. In response, the singer intones the epilogue, mostly piano and pianissimo, with recollection of the opening clarinet solo, melting into a gentle tintinnabulation of harp, piano, and percussion.

By David Wright ©1999

Incident at Wounded Knee

Born July 8, 1931, Devil’s Promenade, Quapaw Indian Reservation, Oklahoma. Now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Louis Ballard’s family line includes a Principal Chief of the Cherokee Notion of Oklahoma and a Medicine Chief of The Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma, with Scottish, French and English antecedents. Ballard studied music theory at Oklahoma University and Tulsa University. He earned his Doctorate from the College of Santa Fe. By invitation of conductor Dennis Russell Davies, Ballard was honored as the first American composer to present a concert of his music in the new Beethoven-House Chamber Music Hall adjoining Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, Germany. In 1997, First Americans in the Arts presented Louis Ballard a Lifetime Musical Achievement Award. About Incident at Wounded Knee, the composer writes:

In 1973, I was in Minneapolis for a concert of my chamber music at the Walker Art Center with Dennis Russell Davies, (then) Conductor and Music Director of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Soon thereafter, Dennis commissioned me to write a new work for the entire orchestra. The result was Incident at Wounded Knee which received a partial premiere with the SPCO in May 1974, and the world premiere in its entirety under the direction of Maestro Davies during the orchestra’s tour of Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1974.

The title came to me as I composed the music and daily newspaper reports appeared about progress of court proceedings in St. Paul. There in a Federal Court Building, a group of Native American activists were on trial for events surrounding an altercation on the Sioux Reservation at Pine Ridge. Wounded Knee, a tiny hamlet in South Dakota, is the site of the December 1890 massacre by the U. S. Cavalry of 300 Indians&ldots;old men, women and children. This band of the Oglala Sioux tribe had participated in the Ghost Dance Ceremonies, a ritual that promised release from oppression for this suffering people. The U. S. Government looked upon this activity as being subversive. When 3,000 armed troops forced the surrender of the small band of Indians and were “escorting” them to winter quarters at the Pine Ridge Reservation a shooting occurred, precipitating the massacre of the entire group of tribal people. Today a simple stone marker commemorates that tragedy and the place is now honored as sacred ground. Seeds of discontent sown by that event motivated the young militants when they demanded redress of their grievances for treaty violation and racism.

Incident At Wounded Knee is in four movements, is not a literal or programmatic work, but rather an evocation of the traditions and moods of the Native American people. The movements represent various aspects of this generalized view: I. Procession; II. Prayer; III. Blood and War; IV Ritual.

Scored in asymmetrical 7/8 meter, [2+3+2], Procession is a departure from European concepts of March-like meters; the music depicts an emotion-laden procession toward a traumatic “incident” of undetermined proportions. In the second movement, Prayer, the questioning voices of souls in torment are heard in cello-oboe passages of lyrical intensity developed by the orchestra. Echoes of Gregorian Chant may be heard in this section. In Blood and War, stylized dodecaphonic elements are ingrained with serialized rhythms drawn from the essence of Native American music culture and figure prominently. The final movement, Ritual, is a summation of the anthropomorphic spirituality of the Native American in dance forms and the “Rock” upon which the Foundation of the Culture rests.

The music is though-composed. Strongly contrapuntal passages are often distinguished by disjunct fragments of counter-rhythms, cross-rhythms and unexpected shifts of meter in order to heighten dramatic intensity or suggest what is my perception of chant movement from tension to culmination to release. Layer upon layer of serialized motifs proceed in orderly fashion from exposition to development to sequential episode, sometimes germinating into further development. Compositional devices are employed when a particular tonal propensity for color and contrast is required.

Music history is replete with examples of composers who championed the cause of oppressed people. Composers and their music sustained the spirit of their people at a time of foreign cultural attack and domination. Dvorak, in 1893, predicted that America should have a form of nationalistic music built upon Indian music and Black slave songs. So I felt that I was in good company when I took up my pen to express the sufferings of my people, their regeneration and hopes for a better future life, inspired by, not only the recent ‘Incident’ at Wounded Knee, but the infamous and even more tragic 19th century massacre. It is my hope that this work will be indelibly associated with the Indian movement and ideals, but also, that the worth of the work itself shall rise above all political emotions of this epoch.

By Louis W. Ballard/Ruth Doré ©1999

56 Blows (Quis Custodiet Custodies?) 1993Alvin Singleton

Born December 28, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York. Now living in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1992, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey gave a speech on the floor of the Senate chamber that questioned initial “not guilty” verdicts for the Los Angeles policemen accused of brutally beating Rodney King. Emphatically and rhythmically saying “pow!” fifty-six times (the number of times King was seen being struck in eighty-one seconds of videotape), Bradley dramatically illustrated the viciousness of the beating.

Composer Alvin Singleton was impressed by the powerful image of Bradley enunciating each “pow” to the Senate. That image haunted him for a month before taking shape as the orchestral work 56 Blows (Quis Custodiet Custodies?).

The work’s Latin subtitle (“Who guards the guardians?”) is taken from the Satires of first-century Roman poet Juvenal. Roman husbands are cautioned to put their wives under guard when not at home in order to ensure the wives’ fidelity. But, the question is begged, who will guard the guardians?

“It raises the issue of ‘people who are sworn to protect us are sometimes the enemy,'” says Singleton of the intent of 56 Blows. “It’s not really about Rodney King—Rodney King was the incident that inspired it, but it could’ve been about anybody.” Singleton cites more recent New York City cases of the stationhouse torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and the shooting of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo by police. “I would hate for [the broader significance of the piece] to be missed with a concentration on the individual.”

Rather than programmatic, 56 Blows is philosophic. In response to astute but literal-minded players and listeners who may count only fifty blows in the piece, Singleton responds, “This is a work of art. It’s representative of something, an event, by title only. People define things so narrowly that they miss broader meanings.”

56 Blows may have had genesis in the events of the Rodney King incident—the shocking videotape of the beating, the Simi Valley verdict, the riots in Los Angeles that followed, the subsequent civil rights trial—but it is music after all and cannot be fit into a neat categorical box. It is more a point of origin for reflection.

“I see myself, as [author] James Baldwin put it, as ‘a witness for the times in which I live,'” says Singleton. “How can you not reflect what you live? Everything I experience is part of what I put on paper. It’s not a conscious thing; I don’t set out to write like this, write like that. But my consciousness of injustice within society rages now and then. And depending what I’m working on at the moment, it may turn up in a title or it may not.”

Singleton’s provocative titles call attention to the abstract art form they identify. While “Symphony No. 1” or “Piano Concerto in Bb Major” offers no physical setting to imagine or mental mind-set to slip into before hearing the actual notes, titles like Singleton’s memorial to South African political activist Stephen Biko Extension of a Dream or his world hunger-addressing After Fallen Crumbs point a listener down a conceptual path.

A composer with a lifelong love of jazz whose works are played by orchestras and ensembles internationally, Singleton’s chosen career as a CPA was (thankfully) derailed when he heard Mahler’s Second Symphony as a teenager. He went on to study music instead at New York University and Yale, and as a Fulbright Scholar with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. He remained in Europe for a decade, returning to the United States to serve as composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (1985–88), resident composer at Spelman College in Atlanta (1988–91), and Unisys composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1996–1997).

Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, 56 Blows was premiered in 1994 with David Loebel conducting. A lean twelve-minute work, 56 Blows opens with sporadic eighth notes sounded by the brass over a quiet tension of sustained strings. Like the slow, scattered build of raindrops at the beginning of a storm, the brass becomes increasingly agitated before dropping out to shift focus back on the strings, which now seem to have an ominous presence. Violins begin a see-saw ostinado reminiscent of a childhood taunt; the sustained strings are replaced by flute and harp as an unease builds.

Not overt, the tension has an insidious horror-movie quality: something familiar is about to turn creepy. The texture thickens, the side-to-side rocking continues; the listener is lulled by the waves rocking the boat, unaware of a shark circling underneath.

Sudden abrupt hits of the snare drum rip open the scene with a military tattoo. The brass turns harsh and dissonant. When the drumming stops, the eighths return, more disjointed this time, as does the unremitting string sustain. The strings now seem sadly beautiful, the aftermath of a brutal incident.

A jarring return of percussion in an aggressive tom tom, timbale and snare drum episode punctuated by brass eighths pierces the peace. Once the outburst subsides, the orchestra builds toward a cinematic conclusion that moves beyond sadness to a knowing awareness.

by Mic Holwin ©1999

The Great American Symphony (GAS!) 1981

Curtis Curtis-SmithBorn 1941, in Walla Walla, Washington. Now living in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Curtis Otto Bismark Curtis-Smith studied at Whitman College with David Burge, at Northwestern University with Alan Stout, at the University of Illinois with Ken Gaburo, and at Tanglewood with Bruno Maderna and Peter Maxwell Davies (where he was the recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Composition Fellowship). Currently, he is Professor of Music at Western Michigan University, where, in 1979, at age 38, he became the youngest faculty member ever to be awarded the Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award, the university’s highest academic honor. He has received over 100 grants, awards, and commissions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, and the Medaglia d’Oro from the Concorso Internazionale di Musica e Danza G. B. Viotti. About GAS!, the composer provides this note:

GAS! was commissioned and premiered by Yoshimi Takeda and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in 1982, supported by a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts. The New York premiere was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the American Composers Orchestra on the “Great Performers Series” in Avery Fisher Hall, November 6, 1983. Since then, Davies has championed the piece with performances in Stuttgart, Germany, the Cabrillio Music Festival, The Indianapolis Symphony, and the West German Radio Orchestra in Cologne, where it was recorded for a soon-to-be-released CD on Albany Records.

The audacious title is as mischievous as it is ridiculous, and as American as a slick Madison Avenue advertising slogan (The Great American Spaghetti Factory, et al). There are allusions to sundry aspects of Americana, from New Orleans jazz to acid rock; from gospel harmonies to boisterous marches to quaint southern folk hymns and Broadway show tunes. On one level, the piece may be heard as fun-and-games entertainment, while on another level, it may be heard as an ironic and satirical commentary on the very tunes and styles it purports to trifle with.

American composer, Ross Lee Finney, called GAS! “a controversial piece,” while David Diamond said he did not “appreciate my sense of humor.” Another composer voiced the opinion that I should not be allowed to teach composition at the university after composing “that kind of piece.” Still another, in response to the treatment of the Star Spangled Banner in the last movement, said, “Please, I have to live in this country,” while still another said that the work was a “masterpiece.” (As Lukas Foss pointed out after the ACO’s performance in 1983, “You stopped your quotation of the National Anthem just in time; a few more seconds of quotation, and you might have been arrested.”)

I have never before, nor since, written such a brazen, outlandish, ill-behaved piece. In composing GAS!, I deliberately went against most of the aesthetic and technical positions of my previous compositions. Prior to GAS!, most of my works had been written in a rather dissonant, abstract style. In a way, this piece is a revolt against the very idea of serial order and logic; a means of exorcising all of those long-held strictures and proscriptions.

The first movement, Kazoo Blues, begins in the low register, in the middle of a phrase, unfolds to quasi-bluesy progressions and ends again in the dark low register, presaging the beginning of the fourth movement.

The second movement is a noisy and rambunctious March, with allusions to “barbershop” harmonies. In the trio, the pungent banjo (the voice of the pullet) twangs its way through the smooth, near-blues string chords. At the very end of the movement, in a three-note banjo solo, the chicken gives voice: “The Chicken Speaks!”

The third movement, Northern Harmony, was inspired by the Southern Harmony tradition. Southern Harmony is a collection of folk hymnody first published in 1835 and still in use today in a few rural southern communities. Called the Sacred Harp tradition, the singing style is very nasal and pungent with the melody in the tenor voice and frequent doubling of parts. The harmonic progressions are often unorthodox with parallel fifths and “wrong” inversions. In Northern Harmony, certain elements of this tradition are evoked and parodied. The pentatonic melody is scored for double reeds and muted trombone to simulate the nasal quality of the Sacred Harp style.

The fourth movement, Dido’s Dance, is a phantasmagoria of rock, parodies of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, a mock-rock monster waltz, the Dies Irae, and a quodlibet on five tunes including I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, The National Anthem, The Blue Danube, On Top of Old Smoky, and Glory, Glory Hallelujah. All five tunes share the characteristic ascending triad in their initial phrase.

Despite its playfulness, Dido’s Dance is psychologically complex. It is funny and fiendish at the same time. While there are musical “jokes,” these jokes conceal ironic motives behind the laughing mask: a clown who jests with a fake, rubber knife–which in the end turns out to be a real knife. (Behind the comic mask smirks the Requiem Mass for the Dead.) Still, in the end, no one is hurt.

In Dido’s Dance, I have wedded Purcell and rock. I have always been struck by the uncanny resemblance between Purcell’s chaconne bass lines and rock ostinati.

The musicologist Paul Nettle, in The Story of Dance Music, says that the Spanish chaconne, which Purcell and other Baroque composers adapted for their own purposes, actually originated in the West Indies. Coincidentally, the Caribbean also contributed some of the rhythms and dances which were to shape early jazz and eventually rock. In Dido’s Dance, the five-bar chaconne of Dido’s Lament is compressed into a frenzied 15/8 rock pattern. Purcell’s lamenting bass is taken into the higher registers and treated melodically.

In the “Great Monster Waltz,” the mocking E-flat clarinet, playing with its bell held high. twists and distorts Purcell’s divine melody into a sardonic miscreant. This clumsy waltz is scored for bizarre combinations of instruments with the celeste painting a glassy-eyed glaze over contra bassoon and tuba groans. The monster slowly dies–soothed by the bass clarinet–and from his ashes rises the American eagle (phoenix?) to sing out the National Anthem in combat with the last contorted writhings of the expiring monster.

By C. Curtis-Smith ©1999