Thursday, September 28, 2006

Notes on Divertimento

Here are notes on the Bernstein Divertimento by Symphony Pianist and co president Daniel Jones.
Also a picture of a guy in a turkey suit trotting.

Leonard Bernstein has long been closely associated with the city of New York, New York, where he made his celebrated debut with the New York Philharmonic, and later went on to serve as music director of that orchestra for twelve years. His music, too, reflects that association: the 1944 musical “On The Town” recounts the adventures of three sailors on shore leave in New York, and the city also provides the backdrop for his most famous musical, “West Side Story.” Sometimes overlooked, however, is Bernstein’s equally meaningful association with New York’s sometime rival to the north, the city of Boston. Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, and grew up in the Boston area. As a child, his father took him to concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, planting the seeds of a long relationship with that orchestra. This relationship deepened in 1940, when Bernstein spent the summer at Tanglewood, the BSO’s summer home in Lenox, MA. There, BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky served as mentor and teacher to the young Bernstein, and later in his life Bernstein followed Koussevitzky’s example by returning as head of the orchestra and conducting programs at Tanglewood. Indeed, Bernstein’s final public performance was a concert in which he led the BSO at Tanglewood in August 1990.
Given his deeply rooted connection with the BSO and the city of Boston, it is no surprise that the BSO commissioned Bernstein to write a piece for the orchestra’s centennial in 1980. The result was the Divertimento for Orchestra, premiered under Seiji Ozawa on September 15, 1980. As its title suggest, the Divertimento is a light-hearted, high-spirited, witty piece, full of musical allusions and in-jokes with orchestra members. The first movement, Sonnets and Tuckets, is a boisterous exploration of the possibilities of the work’s underlying motive, an alternation between the notes B and C. The “B,” of course, stands for “Boston,” while the “C” stands for “Centennial.” Along the way, he throws in references to Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, and at one point gives the clarinets the famous trumpet lick from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. The movement comes to an emphatic (albeit dissonant) close with the full orchestra blaring simultaneous B’s and C’s. Waltz, the second movement, is of an entirely different character: restrained, lilting, and poignant, it keeps the string players happy with some lovely writing. Of course, the Divertimento being what it is, Bernstein casts it in the offbeat meter of 7/8, instead of the usual 3/4.
While the Waltz was written primarily with strings in mind, the Mazurka provides the winds and particularly double reeds with their moment in the sun. Devotees of 19th century piano repertoire will recognize the three note descending motive lifted from Chopin, in another of the many allusions found throughout the work. It is worth noting that Bernstein’s highlighting of the various sections of the orchestra was very much intentional, and in many cases based on Bernstein’s personal relationship with the BSO players. When he wrote in a solo for a particular instrument, it wasn’t (for instance) for some anonymous oboe or horn player, but for a musician whom Bernstein knew personally, and whose personal traits he often had in mind when writing.
The Samba is a lively dance movement, reminiscent of some of the music from West Side Story, and the Turkey Trot is another dance movement, recalling a style popular in the early 1900s. The conductor Leonard Slatkin claims that “Turkey Trot” is the name of a street in Lenox, MA, the town in which Tanglewood is located. If so, the title is yet another of the many allusions and in-jokes sprinkled throughout the piece. However, independent research failed to confirm the existence of this road, so Slatkin’s claim may have to be regarded as apocryphal for now. Sphinxes is a satirical foray into the world of twelve-tone music, of which Bernstein was no enthusiast. The movement contains two twelve-tone rows before a perversely tonal cadence on A-flat major, with Bernstein getting the last laugh on the serialists. The Blues serves to highlight the brass section, and provides the principals with some nice opportunities to display their solo chops. Transferring the blues idiom to symphony orchestra always risks becoming a dull and inauthentic-sounding exercise, but here, Bernstein skillfully captures the color and spirit of the blues.
The final movement, In Memoriam and March: The BSO Forever, begins with a solemn introduction for flutes in memory of BSO members and conductors past. The boisterous music of the first movement soon returns, however, before the orchestra erupts into a full-blown, Sousa-esque march, amply seasoned (of course) with references to Sousa. The final chord brings the work full circle, with a resounding declaration of “B” and “C” simultaneously. – Notes by Daniel Jones

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank You very much, author! I am european musicien, who will be play a first time this piece, at naow I know what is this!