Program Notes: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

June 8, 2022

Tumblebird Contrails (2014) 

Gabriella Smith
Born December 26, 1991, Berkeley, CA

Gabriella Smith is a composer and environmentalist. Her music comes from a combination of a love of play, exploring new sounds on instruments, building compelling musical arcs, and connecting listeners with the natural world. Her music is described as “high-voltage and wildly imaginative” (Philadelphia Inquirer), and “the coolest, most exciting, most inventive new voice I’ve heard in ages” (Musical America). 

Her music has been performed throughout the U.S. and internationally by eighth blackbird, Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, PRISM Quartet, Aizuri Quartet, and yMusic, among others. Recent highlights include the premiere of her organ concerto, Breathing Forests, written for James McVinnie and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; the release of her first full-length album, Lost Coast, with cellist Gabriel Cabezas, named one of NPR Music’s “26 Favorite Albums Of 2021” and a “Classical Album to Hear Right Now” by The New York Times; and performances of Tumblebird Contrails by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in January 2019, conducted by John Adams.

Currently Smith is working on a version of Lost Coast for cello and orchestra to be premiered by Gabriel Cabezas and Los Angeles Philharmonic in May 2023, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

She has written a note for Tumblebird Contrails:

Tumblebird Contrails is inspired by a single moment I experienced while backpacking in Point Reyes, sitting in the sand at the edge of the ocean, listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the Pacific (the keening gulls, pounding surf, rush of approaching waves, sizzle of sand and sea foam in receding tides), the constant ebb and flow of pitch to pitchless, tune to texture, grooving to free-flowing, watching a pair of ravens playing in the wind, rolling, swooping, diving, soaring — imagining the ecstasy of wind in the wings—jet trails painting never-ending streaks across the sky. The title, Tumblebird Contrails, is a Kerouac-inspired, nonsense phrase I invented to evoke the sound and feeling of the piece.

Tumblebird Contrails is scored for three flutes, three oboes, three clarinets (third = bass clarinet), three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (drum set, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, assorted metal objects, tam-tam), and strings.


Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2019)

John Adams
Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA 

The contemporary American composer, John Adams, spent his formative years in his native New England, where the performers and composers at the artistic and intellectual institutions there had a significant influence on him. 

In the music of his early maturity, Adams showed his discovery of a freer kind of advanced musical thought than he had previously learned, taking up many of the techniques and much of the aesthetics of the “minimalist” composers.  It was not long, however, before he admitted himself to be “a minimalist who is bored with minimalism” and developed the balanced mixture of sustained repetition with either subtle or bold variation that still often distinguishes his work.

Adams’s works include several of the most performed contemporary classical pieces today: Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, Chamber Symphony, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and his Violin Concerto. His most often performed stage works, include Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic.  

Adams has long favored catchy titles. “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” is Adams’ third piano concerto, after Eros Piano (1989) and Century Rolls (1996). He explains that the title “came from an article about Dorothy Day in a very old copy of The New Yorker. In the same way that I first encountered the name ‘Hallelujah Junction’ and knew that I had to write a piece with that title, when I saw the phrase ‘Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?’ I thought to myself, ‘that’s a good title just waiting for a piece.’ The phrase suggested a ‘Totentanz,’ only not of the Lisztian manner, but more of a funk-invested American-style.”

Written for pianist Yuja Wang, the single-movement work combines “devilish,” (in more than one sense of the term) solos with toe-tapping melodies. It is a percussive, highly-rhythmic, and technically fearsome piano part in an excitable, satisfying, boisterous piece. While the concerto is written in one continuous movement, it is made up of three seamlessly connected sections that follow the traditional concerto structure of fast-slow-fast alternation. The piano, again much like in a traditional concerto, is highlighted throughout the sections. 

The work, suffused with driving syncopations and a plethora of orchestral color, opens with a repeated piano bass motive. Written in 9/8 meter, it has the feeling of an unbalanced stagger that the orchestra adopts as it also ascends and speeds. The piano continues as both soloist and extension of the larger body of instruments.  The theme is marked “twitchy, bot-like”; it has been said to echo and distort Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” as the piano is joined by a detuned honky-tonk piano.  

After a series of questioning chords that are exchanged in dialogue between piano and orchestra, the second section emerges with suspended strings over the delicately ornamented piano solo. Its serenity is deep but short-lived, with the restless piano part exploring a leaping melody. 

In the meditative central section, the piano solo is delicately embellished, but its peace passes quickly as the piano explores a more angular, vaulting theme. The third and final part of this work, again fast, with the piano having some touches of jazz, is marked “Obsession, swing.”  As Sarah Cahill, writing for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s debut performance of this work put it, “The virtuosity and playfulness here are familiar from other Adams finales, with the interplay between rollicking syncopation, chirping wood-winds, off-beat accents of brass, loping stride bass, a battery of percussion, and a brilliantly energetic piano part ranging across the entire keyboard which, after three mysterious, brief interruptions of a held octave D in the orchestra, propels the concerto to a boisterous close.” The catchy melody in the last section makes it evident that the Devil does not have all the good tunes!

The concerto is scored for piccolo, two flutes (second = piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets (second = clarinet in A), bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, percussion (Almglocken, bass drum, snare drum), honky-tonk piano (detuned upright), bass guitar, strings, and solo piano.


Symphony No. 6 (2019)

Christopher Rouse
Born February 15, 1949, in Baltimore, MD; died there September 21, 2019

Christopher Rouse was a prominent composer of orchestral music whose works won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. Rouse created a body of work that has been hailed for its emotional intensity and depth and its colorful orchestration. The New York Times called it “some of the most anguished, most memorable music around.”

Rouse was a member of the composition faculty at The Juilliard School, and from 2012 to 2015, he was the Marie-Josée Composer-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic.  He also had residencies at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Symphony, Helsinki Biennale, Pacific Music Festival, Tanglewood Music Festival, and Aspen Music Festival.

Rouse’s music was performed by major orchestras in the U.S. and internationally. His final work, Symphony No. 6, notable for its dark, expressive sound world, received its posthumous world premiere with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Louis Langrée on October 18, 2019, shortly after his death. The symphony was commissioned for the Cincinnati Symphony’s 125th anniversary season. 

Rouse treated this symphony as his final musical statement, writing this program note, typing from his bed in hospice care:

In my earlier years I found the task of writing a program note for a new work a comparatively easy, even pleasant, one. More than a few of my pieces had some sort of quasi-programmatic basis, and I found that I could often say much about the sources of inspiration in hopes that my observations might help the listener better understand my intent. In more recent years, however, I find that my new pieces fall into one of two categories: (a) scores that, while always placing emotional expression at the forefront of my intent, had no particular story or triggering event that led to the work’s composition, or (b) works that were so deeply personal that I found myself reluctant to share intimately private sources of motivation. In both cases, though, it seemed that there wasn’t much I could say.

My Sixth Symphony inhabiting the second of these two groups, I hope listeners will not be disappointed if I limit myself to more “objective” observations about the music. Commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, this twenty-five-minute symphony was completed at my home in Baltimore on June 6, 2019. The first challenge I face when planning a new piece is to settle upon a beginning and an ending and to decide the number and order of movements; in this case, I (rather unusually for me) chose a more-or-less standard four-movement structure with the outer movements being slow in tempo and elegiac in mood. The two middle movements are faster and the third, in particular, is meant to be highly dramatic. As is usual in my music, each movement connects to its successor without a break. In each of my symphonies I’ve also chosen to use an instrument or instrumental combination that might be seen as somewhat unusual in a symphonic context. My First Symphony, for example, requires a quartet of Wagner tubas. Here I have chosen to make use of the fluegelhorn, a larger and more mellow member of the trumpet family, and it is the fluegelhorn that presents the symphony’s opening melodic material; it returns later in the first movement and again near the end of the entire work as a way of bringing the music “full circle.” The scoring comprises two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (second doubling of bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets (first doubling on fluegelhorn), three trombones, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion (two players), and strings. As is also my wont, the harmonic language traverses areas of substantive dissonance as well as sections much more consonant (especially near the end of the symphony).

I know the “meaning” of this work in my own mind but wish to leave it to each listener to decide for him or herself what this could be. My main hope is that it will communicate something sincere in meaning to those who hear it.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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