Blues, Bluegrass and Something Blue
Maestro Aram Demirjian returns to the podium this Thursday and Friday at 7:30 at the Tennessee Theatre for an an all-American program that draws on Appalachian themes for much of its content. Charles Ives' saucy Variations on “America” will open the program, followed by William Grant Still's African-American Symphony. After intermission, a gem of a concerto for mandolin and orchestra, From the Blue Ridge will be played, with composer Jeff Midkiff performing the solo mandolin part. The concert will conclude with Copland's beloved Appalachian Spring.
In 1891, Charles Ives was 17. That a man so young could come up with such a concise and fresh debut as his Variations on “America” for organ proves that there was some seriously precocious talent at work here. 1891 is the year before Dvorak came to America, and while all of musical Europe was entrenched in mature romanticism, (Brahms had written all of his symphonies by 1885) Ives was dabbling with polytonality, or simultaneous use of unrelated keys. The work lay fallow more than a half a century as an organ work before organist E. Power Biggs “discovered” it, and in 1962 American composer William Schuman orchestrated the work to its current form. The theme that is the basis of the work is sometimes known as My Country 'Tis of Thee, but it is also the tune that served at one time or another in the 19th century as an anthem for Norway, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Russia, and of course England, where it is known as God Save the Queen.
William Grant Still is known as “the dean of African-American composers,” and his music possesses a truly “Southern” palette. The African-American Symphony, from 1930, was at one time the most widely performed symphony by any American composer. The first movement is particularly infused with the blues, and all four short movements utilize the pentatonic scale, which conforms to the shape and sound of only the black keys on the piano and their various incarnations. The third movement, subtitled Humor, quotes Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. Whether Still copped this from the Gershwin song, or the tune was actually arrived at unawares by both composers, is up for debate. Passages in this movement also hint at George M. Cohan's You're a Grand Old Flag from 1904.
Next up will be From the Blue Ridge, one of the only works in existence that showcases the mandolin, outside of works by Vivaldi and (Prairie Home Companion host) Chris Thile. Composer Jeff Midkiff is a Roanoke, VA native who participated in bluegrass escapades with such groups as The McPeak Brothers, the Lonesome River Band and Chicago's Bluegrass Express. Amazingly enough, though, he has also had a career as a classical clarinetist, performing as a member of the Roanoke Symphony and the Naples (FL) Philharmonic. Such an eclectic background could only lead to a desire to compose classical music, and this work shows some mad skills. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy Mark O'Connor's Concerto for Fiddle, you are going to adore this work.
What can be said about Copland's Appalachian Spring? It is one of the most oft-performed American orchestral works, and although the story behind the ballet is set in Pennsylvania, the subject could easily be the matrimonial proceedings of any young, rural couple in any of the states through which the Appalachian range passes, from Maine to Georgia. Maestro Demirjian is very passionate about the work, and the passion shows as his ideas and interpretation diverge in a refreshing way from the boilerplate conception to which everyone is accustomed.