flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, strings
What makes music American? There are as many answers to the question as there are composers in the Americas, but we still find ourselves looking for something in common, an identity we might share in this hemisphere. There is a certain urge to reconfigure institutions and forms shared among American composers, conductors, and performers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Classical music, after all, is a European transplant. Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions were convinced that it could only survive in America with a transfusion of new ideas, so from 1928 to 1931, they hosted a series of concerts in New York City designed to foster young American composers. With a similar concern, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge endowed a foundation at the Library of Congress in 1925 to commission and perform new works, a legacy that included Appalachian Spring (1944). More recently, Robert Spano’s commissions and public outreach as leader of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have led to the emergence of the “Atlanta School” of composers, including Christopher Theofanidis, for whom accessibility is not a byword. The newest work from John Luther Adams, there is nothing, not even the wind, is the result of an innovative co-commission from five partners, including the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center and the Redlands Symphony Orchestra. But what about the sound and the spirit of the music? Another shared attitude that this program reveals is the awareness of nature—whether human physicality, natural landscapes, or the living web of our environment—that inspires many American composers. American composers look to the future and to the horizon.
Another chamber work, Jean Françaix’s Sérénade (1934), returns us to the world of ballet and embodied music, grounded in gesture rather than repose. The series of contrasting moods captured here made the work an intuitive choice for American choreographer George Balanchine to adapt as his ballet, A la Françaix (1951). In its premiere by the New York City Ballet, Balanchine’s choreography made the music visible with its graceful, arching lines balanced by occasionally playful rhythms. Françaix was also interested in nature, but more as an analogy for his compositional process than in the ecological sense: “When I am composing, the finest theories are the last things that come to mind. My interest is not primarily attracted by the ‘motorways of thought,’ but more the ‘paths through the woods.’” His preference for naturalism and clarity was reinforced by his studies with Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Copland to value “la grande ligne”—an organic concept integrating content and form. Although he is the only European on this program, Françaix shared a respect for nature with his American counterparts.