Destinations: Virginia

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on May 5, 2019 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Virginia” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.

Virginia has something for every lover of beauty—and who doesn’t love beauty? Virginia has mountain-filled panoramas, sandy beaches with white-capped ocean waves, mighty rivers, lush forests, and even peaceful marshes and mysterious swamps. Virginia has big bustling cities, quaint small towns, and open farmland, and its residents represent every walk of life from farmer and crabber to tugboat skipper and jet fighter pilot.

Today’s concert, a musical salute to our beautiful state and its people and rich history, assembles music from faraway France, from not-so-faraway New York City, and from right here in our own state, composed over a period spanning more than a century.

George Mason (1725-1792) was one of our Founding Fathers. He was also one of the few delegates at the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 who refused to sign the finished Constitution, due to misgivings about its accommodations of slavery and (at the time) its lack of a bill of rights. Mason was the principle author of a document called the Fairfax Resolves (1774), detailing some of his issues with the Crown, and including a scathing critique of the slave trade. Composer Mark Camphouse (b. 1954), professor of music at George Mason University, said that the title of his composition, “Resolutions,” has a double meaning. The term “resolution” in music means resolving the tension caused by dissonance, and in politics means standing on fundamental principles, as George Mason did. “Resolutions” was commissioned by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in 2016 in celebration of the 275th Anniversary of Fairfax County, VA. Today’s performance is the regional premier of this exciting work.

With today’s ears, we wouldn’t think that the music of Paul Whiteman, “The King of Jazz,” sounds all that much like jazz, but jazz has changed quite a bit in the hundred years or so since the Paul Whiteman Orchestra came into being. Whiteman was an avuncular fellow, whose trademarks were his pudgy physique and pencil-thin mustache. He was an early pioneer in both jazz and music recording. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra was a force to be reckoned with in 1920s New York City; members of the band included legendary jazz musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and Joe Venuti. Whiteman had collaborated with a young pianist and composer by the name of George Gershwin (1898-1937) in a production called “The Scandals of 1922.” Then, after some cajoling by Whiteman, Gershwin took on the composition of a piano concerto for an “experimental” concert that was to take place in February, 1924. The experiment was whether jazz and classical music could co-exist on the same stage.

Gershwin composed the concerto in five weeks. The title, “Rhapsody in Blue,” came to him from the paintings of James McNeill Whistler, who used musical terms to describe his visual art. Gershwin was struck by this and thought it fair play to turn it around and use a visual term to describe his music. The premiere performance included such notables in the audience as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinksy, Leopold Stokowski, and John Philip Sousa. It was a great success; Whiteman sold a million recordings of it.

There have been several editions of Rhapsody in Blue, all of which were orchestrated by Paul Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé (best known for his own composition “The Grand Canyon Suite”). The original arrangement from 1924 was tailored for the eclectic instrumentation of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra—which was not a full-blown orchestra at all, but more of an augmented jazz band. It was re-scored in 1926, and then later in 1942 for a conventional full orchestra, plus saxophone, which is what you’ll be hearing today; we’ll also be adding the banjo, used in the original version. You don’t often hear a glissando from the clarinet—that’s more of a trombone thing—but you’ll hear one today. Paul Whiteman’s clarinetist, Ross Gorman, played the opening smear as a joke in rehearsal, but Gershwin liked it and insisted he perform it just that way in concert. There are many other jazz mannerisms that found their way into this music, including the wah-wah muted passages in the trumpet and trombone, and in the syncopation. We don’t think of Rhapsody in Blue as being at all avant garde today, but back in its day, it was. Today, we employ Rhapsody in Blue to pay homage to the beautiful vista just a few short hours west of us, the Blue Ridge Mountains—hey, if Gershwin and Whistler can stretch a metaphor, so can we.

Today’s concert concludes with a tribute to Virginia Beach’s lovely and dangerous neighbor to the east—namely, the Atlantic Ocean, bringer of gentle gulf currents, frigid “Nor’easters,” and tumultuous hurricanes. Spending his childhood summers at the seashore provided French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) with a lifetime of fond memories, which he claimed were “worth more than reality.” Debussy composed “La mer” (“The Sea”) between 1903 and 1905. Premiered in Paris in 1905, it was not particularly well received. One critic wrote, “The audience seemed rather disappointed: they expected the ocean, something big, something colossal, but they were served instead with some agitated water in a saucer.” Some of the blame might have belonged to the conductor. At the next performance in Paris, in 1908, Debussy himself conducted and this time the audience was much more appreciative. (Debussy, who hated conducting, became known as a very fine conductor; he was often compelled to accept conducting engagements to address his perennial money problems.)

Debussy famously derided musical formalism, and described “La mer” not as a symphony, but as a suite comprising three “symphonic sketches.” Rather than depending on a prominent theme to tie the movements together with their own components as well as the other movements, Debussy uses short motifs to weave a mental picture, and orchestral textures to suggest visual ones. Debussy often derided the label “Impressionism” that critics applied to his music. Debussy identified not so much with painters like Monet, but with poets like Mallarmé, an adherent of a different aesthetic philosophy, called Symbolism. There seems to be some overlap between Impressionism and Symbolism in that both philosophies eschew realism’s sharp and distinct edges. However, Impressionism is more about the visual, whereas Symbolism goes deeper, into the underlying meaning of things. Impressionism shows us different perspectives of the same thing, using shadow and light; Symbolism portrays the essence of something in a completely different medium. Both are less concerned with reality than with how the subjective mind perceives it.
Debussy’s protestations notwithstanding, his music seems like a reasonable analogy to Impressionism, but he paints a picture in sound and time, rather than color and space. But he stood firm: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.” If there was an ideology behind Debussy’s music, he would not admit to it; for him, music was just about making beautiful sounds.

The three movements, in English, are:

  1. “From dawn to noon on the sea” – very slow – animate little by little
  2. “Play of the Waves” allegro (with a very versatile rhythm) – animated
  3. “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” animated and tumultuous – ease up very slightly (C sharp minor)

Music historian Caroline Potter wrote that Debussy’s piece “avoids monotony by using a multitude of water figurations that could be classified as musical onomatopoeia [in that] they evoke the sensation of swaying movement of waves and suggest the pitter-patter of falling droplets of spray.” Onomatopoeia—something that sounds like what it is—is a term usually applied to words, but it seems to work well in this context. That was Debussy’s goal here: to write music that captured the sea’s essence, a musical seascape. You can hear the moving water, the splashing of foam and scattering of rivulets, even the majestic crashing of the waves. You can even hear the seagulls. The music is alternately as delicate as afog and as muscular as a storm.

We hope you enjoy today’s musical tribute to Virginia, its natural glory, and its people and history.