Gathering Together: Briggs, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky
Celebrate Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s 92nd season opening night with guest artist and world-renown pianist, Michael Brown! Our triumphant return to the stage features Leonard Bernstein’s famous homage to 1940’s New York City, Roger Briggs' evocative Gathering Together, and one of the most popular concertos ever, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
On the Town: Three Dance Episodes
Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town”
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Style: Contemporary American
Duration: Eleven minutes
Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure in American music. As musicologist Jeremy Rudkin puts it, “Bernstein was enormously versatile, and he had the energy of three men. He used to sleep only two or three hours a night. He could have been a great pianist, a great conductor, or a great composer. Instead, he was all three.”
In 1944, while acting as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodzinski, Bernstein collaborated with friends Arthur Green and Betty Comden to convert Fancy Free, a ballet that Bernstein wrote for Jerome Robbins, into a Broadway musical titled On the Town. Green needed to have his tonsils out at the same time Bernstein needed surgery for a deviated septum. They arranged to have the procedures done at the same hospital and share a room so that they could continue working on the musical. The biographer Joan Peyser described the chaos that ensued: “It was quite a scene in that hospital room—rather like a Marx Brothers movie. Radios blared. Arguments accelerated over card games. Pieces of On the Town were sung full voice. But they did a lot of work.” “He may be God's gift to music,” a nurse remarked, “but I'd hate to tell you where he gives me a pain."
George Abbott, one of the leading theater directors in New York, directed the production. He mercilessly trimmed the show, much to the chagrin of Bernstein:
What I was very much afraid of was cutting a lot of the so-called symphonic music—which was quite long and complicated and would entail a lot of extra rehearsal time and a slightly larger and more expensive orchestra. . . . Mr. Abbott used to make sort of friendly fun of some of my music by calling it "that Prokofiev stuff," and I was afraid all "that Prokofiev stuff" would go, but it didn't—not a bar of it. This man George Abbott is such an extraordinary creature, such an absolutely practical man of the theater, that I was amazed to find how deeply esthetic his instincts were.
Abbott had his own frustrations:
I was the father figure there and the only problem I can recall with Bernstein was that he would seem to overcommit himself. When we were trying out in Boston, he would have to rush back to New York one day. The next day he would have to make a speech for a cause. Twice he left for a distant city to conduct orchestras. Since, at that time, he did his work perfectly—wrote a new song and ballet music—none of us objected to this.
The play is about three sailors in New York City on a 24-hour leave. One of them falls in love with the woman on the subway poster, Miss Turnstiles. His friends take him all over the city trying to find her. When they do, she isn’t quite what was advertised. In 1981, Bernstein reflected on the show:
The subject matter was light, but the show was serious. . . . We were very much influenced by our masters . . . who were trying to goad us into doing more serious things . . . what we accomplished was a happy and moving show about wartime, in the lightest possible vein but with a most serious esthetic means.
Getting back to the roots of the musical, Bernstein extracted three short dance movements from On the Town, perfectly encapsulating the gist of the whole production.
© 2021 John P. Varineau
Roger Briggs (1952–)
Written: 1985, revised 1995-96
Style: Contemporary American
Duration: Sixteen minutes
In Patricia Goedicke’s (1931–2006) poem The People Gathering Together, she writes of humanity coming together “from all over the earth.” Using the image of the ocean, she writes of vast distances separating us, and the trials of confronting “heaving waves.” Yet despite it all, “we keep coming together” and keep giving each other “these heartbreakingly beautiful parties.” What a wonderful metaphor of concert audiences re-assembling after eighteen months of a pandemic-caused isolation!
In 1985, Roger Briggs wrote Gathering Together, a musical response to the poem. Originally for chamber orchestra, Briggs rescored it ten years later for larger orchestra. It is a single movement divided into four connected sections. The first section begins with spacious punctuated chords. Soon, “driving metrically diversified rhythmic strata” get added to the mix. The second section “superimposes a long lyrical theme over variations in the original rhythmic strata,” reminiscent of Goedicke’s “islands of floating flowers.” The rhythmic pulsing eventually dies away to dark, stratified chords. The piece slowly builds in intensity. Once again there is a long, lyrical theme floating over pulsating rhythms. Eventually the piece winds down, ending in a joyous calm.
Born in 1952 in Florence, Alabama, Roger Briggs began piano studies at age eight. By the time he was a teenager, he was “conducting, composing, and arranging for school, community productions, and for private performances.” He attended the University of Memphis where he earned Bachelor’s degrees in both piano and composition. He did his graduate work at the Eastman School of Music, earning both Master’s and Doctoral degrees in composition.
In his mid-twenties Briggs joined the faculty at Saint Mary's College in Indiana, teaching piano and composition. While there he founded the Michiana New Music Ensemble. In 1989 he moved to the Pacific Northwest to teach at Western Washington University. He founded the Contemporary Chamber Players and conducted the University Symphony and Opera Programs. He has been the Artistic Director of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra in Bellingham, WA since 1996.
©2021 John P. Varineau
Piano Concerto No. 1
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 23
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Duration: 32 minutes
“This extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultramodern Russian Concerto is the composition of Peter Tchaikovsky, a young professor at the Conservatory of Moscow. . . . We had the wild Cossack fire and impetus without stint, extremely brilliant and exciting, but could we ever learn to love such music?” That is from a review in a Boston paper following the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. The answer to the critic’s question is an unequivocal “YES,” because this concerto is one of the most loved and popular of any work. But why would this concerto, written in 1874 by a leading young Russian composer, get its premiere performance in what was then a cultural backwater: Boston, Massachusetts?
There were two “camps” of composers in Russia during Tchaikovsky’s time. One group emulated the European classical masters. The other, the Russian nationalists, felt that Russia deserved serious music based on Russian subjects and folk-song. Tchaikovsky successfully straddled both groups. He had been a student of Anton Rubinstein in St. Petersburg, and Anton’s brother, Nikolay, hired Tchaikovsky to teach at the Moscow Conservatory. Both Rubinsteins were part of the “European” camp. Yet by 1874, Tchaikovsky had already written two symphonies, each based on Russian folk-melodies. Now a well-established composer, he was ready to try his hand at a piano concerto.
Not quite sure of his piano writing skills, he took the concerto to his boss Nikolay Rubinstein. A letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, gives a picture of the painful consequences:
I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single comment! He was preparing his thunder. . . . I took patience and played the concerto to the end. Again silence. “Well?” I said. It was then that there began to flow from Rubinstein’s mouth a stream of words, quiet at first, but subsequently assuming more and more the tone of Zeus hurling thunderbolts. It appeared that my concerto was worthless, that it was unplayable, that passages were trite, awkward, and so clumsy that putting them right was impossible, that as a composition it was bad and tawdry, that I had filched this bit from here and that bit from there, that there were only two or three pages that could be retained, and that the rest would have to be scrapped or completely revised. “I won’t change a single note,” I replied, “and I’ll publish it just as it is now!” And so I did.
He sent the concerto to Hans von Bülow, the eminent German pianist and conductor. His response was a bit more encouraging: “The ideas are so original, so noble, so powerful, the details are so interesting. . . . I would weary you if I were to enumerate all the characteristics of your work, characteristics which compel me to congratulate equally the composer and those who are destined to enjoy it.” Tchaikovsky scratched out the dedication on the score to Nikolay Rubinstein and replaced it with one to Hans von Bülow.
The first audiences destined to hear the concerto were American, because Bülow took it with him on a tour of North America. The premiere was in Boston with an orchestra made up of players from Harvard (the Boston symphony hadn’t been formed yet). In spite of some harsh reviews in the papers, the concerto had a fantastic reception in this country. Even Rubinstein eventually admitted that he had made a mistake, learned the concerto, and made it a staple of his repertoire, as have all great pianists ever since.
©2021 John P. Varineau