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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 29, 1999. All rights reserved.
Beauty and Melody in 20th Century Music
In this moment of millennial everything, imagine the
plight of the modern music director. We all know that the curtain
comes down irrevocably on the 20th century this concert season, yet
music written after 1900 still provokes shudders from many subscribers.
Mark Laycock, opening his 14th season as music director of the Princeton
Chamber Symphony, is out to celebrate the 20th century while bravely
looking forward to the 21st.
"There has always been a great emphasis on melody and beauty —
particularly beauty — in modern, that is 20th century music,"
says Laycock with feeling. He has selected a program to transport
listeners to "musical moments in this century which affirm the
positive in life."
Opening its 20th anniversary season this week, the Chamber Symphony
has titled its five-concert series, "Music of Our Time: Masters
of the 20th Century." And Laycock is confident that in the panoply
of works he has selected, melody and beauty will be there for his
audience in abundance.
The musical journey begins with "The Extraordinary Leonard Bernstein,"
presented at Richardson Auditorium on Sunday, October 3, at 4 p.m.
The Chamber Symphony celebrates the prodigious American composer,
an icon of what is arguably an "American Century," with four
very different works.
"Bernstein is the consummate musician of the 20th century,"
says Laycock, "widely influential as a musician, conductor, composer,
and as a composer for Broadway." Born in 1918, Leonard Bernstein
was conductor and musical director of the New York Philharmonic from
1958 to 1969 and made over 100 recordings. The program will illustrate
Bernstein’s varied output, featuring four works in a variety of genres
dating from 1943 to 1980.
"We have three Bernstein pieces on the program that are not very
well known but they are all fantastic," says Laycock, with unconcealed
enthusiasm. The "Divertimento," which he describes as "extremely
charming," is comprised of eight short scenes on a single motif.
"Facsimile," he describes as "a ballet masterpiece —
virtually unknown — that is beautiful, enchanting, and quite fun
to listen to." The third lesser-know work is Bernstein’s "Jeremiah
Symphony," a serious work in three movements, written in 1943,
when the composer was only 24 years of age. The final movement features
Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer, who collaborated with
Bernstein in several of his works, as guest soloist. The text is taken
The "Symphonic Dances" from the Broadway show "West Side
Story" of 1957 will be familiar to all. Bernstein was almost unique
in balancing his writing for Broadway, beginning with "On The
Town" in 1944, with a career as a conductor and composer for the
Although when Bernstein died in 1990 he was an acknowledged
cultural hero, Laycock notes that, at the end of his life, he failed
to recapture the popular fame of his "West Side Story" days.
"Where he failed at the end of his life as a composer was in 1975
with another very disappointing Broadway attempt," says Laycock.
"Had he lived longer he would have found another upswing."
The show in question, "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," written
in collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, was a satirical survey of American
heads of state, through the decades, featuring a succession of white
presidents and their black butlers. It was a complete flop. Yet Bernstein’s
"Candide," considered by many his greatest Broadway score,
composed in 1956, is currently enjoying a hit production at London’s
Also celebrated this season are American composers Aaron Copland,
Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, Milton Babbitt, and George Gershwin.
"American composers defined a new sound that is readily identifiable
as American," says Laycock, "and I think Aaron Copland had
a lion’s share in defining that sound. You can even hear his influence
in Bernstein. And Gershwin’s influence in Russia in the ’20s was significant."
Copland’s "Appalachian Spring," a well-loved aspect of that
"American sound," will be featured on the symphony’s March
program. Commissioned by Martha Graham for a modern dance about forces
that helped shape American culture, the music is a colorful soundscape
that pits an itinerant evangelist preaching hellfire and damnation
against a young frontier couple whose bond of love gives them the
courage to look to the future with optimism.
It’s an optimism that Laycock shares. And this American vision is
extended to the season’s grand finale, George Gershwin’s "Suite
from Porgy and Bess" and "Rhapsody in Blue" performed
by noted pianist Robert DeGeatano.
"To mark our 20th anniversary and the end of our 20th century,
we wanted to pay tribute to the musical icons of the century —
those composers who are best known for putting their stamp on 20th-century
music," says Laycock.
"For the composers we’ve chosen, their music looks forward, not
backward, and takes us into the next century," he says. From the
delicate bird calls of Bartok’s final Piano Concerto to the raucously
entertaining music of Kurt Weill’s "Threepenny Opera," the
season includes Schoenberg’s haunting love story for string orchestra,
"Verklarte Nacht," regarded as one of the early masterpieces
of the 20th century. The most recent work on the program is the Estonian
composer Aarvo Part’s, "Symphony No. 2" of 1966. Part’s spiritual
vision is part of a contemporary movement to insert harmonic beauty
into new music. "We don’t have works of great dissonance and confusion
on the program," notes Laycock.
Among the famous 20th-century names that are absent from the program
are Mahler, Elgar, Vaughan William, and Sibelius, all composers who
share Laycock’s interest in melody yet whose work he traces back to
the 19th-century Romantic tradition. Also absent are some of the best
known names of the latter half of the century — John Cage, Steve
Reich, and Philip Glass, among them — the longevity of whose compositions
Laycock questions. "I wanted to represent composers who I believe
will live on to the future," he says.
But why, we ask, do we so readily associate "dissonance and confusion"
with 20th century music? The fault, says Laycock, lies with music
directors around the globe.
"Stravinsky’s `Rite of Spring’ contains beautiful music, but there
was actually a riot when it was first performed," says Laycock.
This near-riot that attended the ballet’s 1913 Paris premiere, was
attributed to the music’s shocking and disturbing polytonality and
its irregular, constantly changing meters. These, we are led to believe,
were enough to drive its listeners mad. Yet these same qualities made
the work wildly influential for decades to come.
Stravinsky is included on Chamber Symphony season. But rather than
"Rite of Spring," Laycock has chosen his "Suite No. 2
for Small Orchestra" of 1921.
"Music is an expression of the human spirit, and that involves
communication," says Laycock. "If you don’t understand the
language of the person who is talking to you, you can’t grasp the
meaning. To be confronted by a bizarre person speaking a language
you can’t understand can be a shocking experience."
Laycock believes music directors "around the globe"
are to be faulted for helping to create the communication gap with
their audience. "There has been a lack of understanding from the
podium. In my opinion you can’t walk out and play a piece like this
without offering any preparation and expect the audience to appreciate
"There are people who believe there should be no speech from the
podium, but whenever I present a piece that I think requires preparation,
I do speak," says the voluble director. "We also pride ourselves
on the superb program notes that are written for us by Laurence Taylor.
These are all things we do to attempt to bridge that gap of understanding."
Laycock says his the only sadness of the job is that, with only five
concerts a year, "we are constantly presenting works for the first
time — works that audience would love to hear again. But we’re
always looking forward."
"The Chamber Symphony has a tradition of blending the familiar
with the unfamiliar," says Laycock. "Even when we play the
best known composers, it’s pieces that may have become obscure or
unjustly neglected." Last season, for example, when the symphony
performed Beethoven, it was with two rarely performed works. "Even
when our audience sees a familiar name on the program, they trust
us to be introduced to music that they may not have necessarily heard
before and will probably enjoy."
"A concert should be both stimulating, and also a refuge. An audience
should be edified and enhanced by the afternoon, not bewildered,"
saus Laycock. "Our point is that there is music of great value
and great beauty in the 20th century. But we don’t abandon Bach, Vivaldi,
— Nicole Plett
Symphony , Richardson Auditorium, 609-497-0020. With guest soloist
Lucille Beer. Sunday, October 3, 4 p.m.
in Bartok’s "Piano Concerto No. 3," with works by Hindemith,
Barber, and Shostakovich. Sunday, November 7, 4 p.m.
is featured in the Castlenuovo-Tedesco "Concerto No. 1 for Guitar
and Orchestra," with works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Weill.
Sunday, January 23, 4 p.m.
Burashko is featured in Ravel’s "Piano Concerto in G Major,"
with works by Prokofiev, Ives, Babbitt, and Copland. Sunday, March
19, 4 p.m.
features piano soloist Robert DeGeatano in Gershwin’s "Suite from
Porgy and Bess" and "Rhapsody in Blue," with Britten’s
"Peter Grimes" and Aarvo Part’s "Symphony No. 2."
Sunday, May 7, 4 p.m.
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