WSO Pops Concert Program Notes (March 20, 2010)

WSO Pops Concert Program Notes

(March 20, 2010)

As the United States enters the second decade of the twenty-first century, dance continues to drive significant developments in American popular culture.  Network and cable television have launched immensely popular dance performance and competition series, from Dancing with the Stars to So You Think You Can Dance, and audiences of all ages and backgrounds can easily access amateur and professional performances on YouTube and countless other web sites. Tonight’s program offers a historical tribute to dance from a variety of perspectives and national repertories.

For much of the nineteenth century, Paris remained the dominant cultural center for ballet composition and performance. As such, it is hardly surprising that several of the ballet composers featured on tonight’s program maintained strong connections with that city. Born in Vienna, Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917) began his career as a ballet composer in 1840s Paris.  However, like many of his contemporaries, Minkus soon found himself lured to the musical possibilities of Russia, a nation whose imperial culture had been dominated by foreign nationals and influence for centuries. Following a brief stint at the Italian Opera Theater in St. Petersburg, Minkus began writing ballets for the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow during the 1860s, ultimately attaining the prestigious position of Official Composer to the Imperial Russian Ballet.  His first major success, the three-act ballet Don Quixote (1869), came through collaboration with the great balletmaster and choreographer Marius Petipa (1818-1910).  Drawing upon Cervantes’ famous novel as their source, Minkus and Petipa took full advantage of the novel’s colorful Spanish settings and exotic characters.  Minkus would go on to produce over twenty ballets throughout the remainder of his long career.

Minkus’s ascendancy as a ballet specialist paralleled the emergence of his distinguished Russian contemporary, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93).  Today Tchaikovsky is rightfully  lauded for his ballets Swan Lake (1876), Sleeping Beauty (1889), and The Nutcracker (1892), but for a time Minkus’s popularity eclipsed Tchaikovsky’s own.  Indeed, Russian audiences, dancers, and choreographers alike, long steeped in the stylized and clear, elegant traditions of French ballet, found Tchaikovsky’s ballets confusing and difficult to dance.  The Tchaikovsky selection on tonight’s program, however, comes not from ballet but rather from the opera Eugene Onegin (Moscow, 1881).  Based on Pushkin’s well-known novel, Eugene Onegin demonstrates Tchaikovsky’s keen understanding of dance’s dramatic potential for the genre.  The Polonaise, which Tchaikovsky places as part of a ballroom scene at a St. Petersburg mansion at the start of the opera’s third act, stands as an illuminating example of this approach.  Here, the Polonaise serves not merely as colorful backdrop, but rather as a significant player in communicating the tension between characters who move in opposing social worlds:  essential subject matter at a moment in Russian history when tsarist supremacy faced the threat of an increasingly independent populace.  Indeed, the Polonaise genre had long been associated in Russia with aristocratic pomp and circumstance, and in Tchaikovsky’s opera it effectively sets up the final and defining encounter between the characters Eugene Onegin and Tatyana.

The two other Russian composers on tonight’s program held close associations with Russian nationalism, and their contributions to the dance repertoire certainly reflect that involvement.  Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) studied and worked at the Moscow Conservatory, and would go on to specialize as a composer in the dramatic forms of opera and ballet.  As an admirer of the nationalistic group of composers known as the Mighty Five, of which Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a member, Glière tended towards subjects steeped in the native Russian epic tradition.  His “Russian Sailor’s Dance” is a famous selection from his 1927 ballet entitled The Red Poppy.  Rimsky-Korsakov, on the other hand, following in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, incorporates his Dance of the Tumblers in his folkloric opera The Snow Maiden (1882).

The composers Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) and Leroy Anderson (1908-75) came of age during a time when the long-held cultural divide between classical and popular music was being challenged by works such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1927) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935), which consciously merged the two categories.  Born in Australia, Benjamin spent the bulk of his life and career in England, studying and working at the Royal Conservatory of Music in London.  Benjamin was especially interested in Latin-American music, and he wrote several works with a blatant Latin tinge.  Benjamin originally composed his popular Jamaican Rumba (1938) for two pianos, but the work’s lively color and rhythms demanded realization in an orchestrated version.  The title Jamaican Rumba is indicative of the murky history of the rumba’s evolution as a dance in South America and the Caribbean region.  Most historians understand rumba as a highly syncopated, duple meter dance of Cuban origin, typically performed at a moderate tempo. The rumba would eventually make its way to the United States and the European continent as part of the Jazz Age fascination with ballroom dance, and would become a model for later developments in Latin-American ballroom dance, such as the cha cha cha and mambo.

The American Anderson built his reputation amidst the rapid rise of Pops orchestra concerts and festivals during the second half of the twentieth century.  Like many jazz musicians before him, Anderson played multiple roles:  composer, arranger, conductor, and performer.  He first became known as a composer and arranger for local dance and school bands (including that of his alma mater, Harvard University).  He would soon be hired, however, as a principal arranger for the Boston Pops.  Like Benjamin, Anderson’s work reflects the influence of Gershwin, as well as that of the classic Tin Pan Alley songwriters. His debut recording of Blue Tango (1951) would sell over a million copies and pave the way for his music to be featured on high profile television and radio shows for decades.  Like the rumba, the origins of the tango are a matter of some debate, but its classic duple meter, coupled with the prominence of the habañera rhythm made famous in Bizet’s opera Carmen (1875), have remained constant.  Once again, the explosive rise of jazz fueled an international fascination with the tango, and it would become the most popular ballroom dance of the World War II era.

Composer Richard Rodgers (1902-79) and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1943) are widely considered the “dream team” in the history of the American musical.  Rodgers and Hammerstein shared a common goal: the creation of a musically and dramatically integrated musical, in which vocal numbers would flow naturally out of spoken dialogue and plot, and in which music would play a defining role in establishing character and developing the drama.  The duo placed great emphasis on dance as part of this effort, of which the musical Carousel (1947) serves as a prime example. Musicals of the pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein era tended to employ dance as spectacle extraneous to the musical drama:  a tradition most visible in the chorus girl numbers initially popularized by the Ziegfeld Follies revues and Busby Berkeley’s film musicals. Carousel, however, opens not with the expected potpourri overture or medley of song themes, but rather with a pantomimed prelude that would become known as the “Carousel Waltz.”  In keeping with Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s goal of integration, this waltz serves several significant dramatic purposes:  it allows for the introduction of the main characters, provides insight into their uneven and troubled relationship, and serves as main source material for the musical as a whole. The dramatic role of dance in Carousel was also due to the talents of its young choreographer, Agnes de Mille (1905-93), whose work with Rodgers and Hammerstein would prove instrumental in later developments in staged and filmed dance, including the use of ballet sequences in musicals.

The medleys featured tonight offer inspiring tributes to three legendary figures in American dance.  Fred Astaire (1899-1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911-95) first appeared on screen together in the 1933 film Flying Down To Rio.  Their patented blend of romantic comedy and energetic dance numbers proved to be an immediate success, and they would go on to co-star in eight more musical films during the 1930s.  While Gene Kelly (1912-96) fit more neatly into the role of Hollywood leading man, he shared Astaire’s charismatic energy and athleticism, and both men were the key figures in elevating the popularity and importance of tap dancing.  The film musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952) includes what may well be Kelly’s most famous dance scene: his rain-soaked performance of the title song with his umbrella.

The remaining works on the program offer yet more variety in national style and flavor:  the Irish character and dance rhythms of the Irish Fantasy and Ronan Hardiman’s tribute to Michael Flatley’s immensely popular Lord of the Dance. The tribute is excerpted from Hardiman’s own score for Flatley’s work. The Brazilian composer Zequinha de Abreu (1880-1935), on the other hand, draws upon the native Brazilian tradition of choro music for his well-known work Tico Tico (1917).

Elizabeth Lorenzo, PhD Naugatuck Valley Community College (Department of Music)