David Amram's World Premiere:
Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie
by David Amram
This a short note to all the fine poets who grace Okemah every year at WoodyFest, and all the composers and musicians whom I met when at University of Tulsa as composer in residence last Spring, and all the gifted musicians and volunteers of the one and only WoodyFest, to let you know that the new symphonic piece, Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie was a real joy!
The house was sold out opening night, and we got a standing ovation from the audience!
Instead of groans, which often are the only sounds you hear when a new classical work is premiered, there were cheers!
Nora and Joady and seven other Guthrie's came, and since I wrote the program notes, Woody's sister Mary Jo and WoodyFest and Okemah and many things Oklahoman got mentioned in many of the write-ups, and since my program notes are official, as well as the dedication in the score, that will continue to be the case.
Please let all Oklahomans know that they as well as Woody are appreciated and inspirational to many folks like myself who visit there and come home enriched and inspired by that special indefinable spirit!!
Joel Raphael was there opening night too, and I expected any minute that we might all go to OK Motor Lodge in Okemah, as we do every night in Okemah, for a jam session with The Red Rangers after the concert, but....THE SYMPHONY IN SAN JOSE CALIFORNIA COULDN'T ARRANGE TRANSPORTATION FOR THAT, so we'll have to wait until next summer of '08!
Here is a review of piece just played Sept 29th.
Two more orchestras already want to play it!
We'll have to have it done in Oklahoma. I'll have some kind of archival recording soon.
It was an honor to have the chance to try to celebrate his legacy in a new symphonic work. I just hope that we did Woody proud.
San Francisco Classical Voice
The Bay area's most complete source for Classical Music News and Reviews
Variations on This Land
Symphony Silicon Valley imaginatively works out infinite variations on Woody
By David Bratman
September 29, 2007
Symphony Silicon Valley began its sixth season on Saturday evening at the California Theatre in San Jose by hosting a major premiere. Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, by David Amram, is no whimsical notion quickly tossed off, but rather a major, serious work over half an hour long. Played alongside two other major compositions, both well-known works, it made for an unusually large and weighty program.
''A song by Woody Guthrie'' is the song by him, This Land Is Your Land. Amram, who had known the balladeer in his last years, was commissioned by the Guthrie family foundation a few years ago to write this work. Amram''s Triple Concerto was popular when conducted here by Paul Polivnick in October 2005, so with Polivnick '' who has led some of SSV''s most artistically successful concerts '' returning to conduct again, the symphony invited Amram to return also. He offered up the premiere of this new work.
This Land Is Your Land is a simple tune, intended merely to support the words. It''s in the tradition of a plain hymn or Anglo-American folk song. Ralph Vaughan Williams, who used many English folk songs in his compositions, said that the problem with a folk
song in classical music is that once you''ve played it, the only thing you can do is play it again, louder. For that reason I was not expecting much out of a set of variations on this theme, but I was pleasantly surprised. Amram has avoided the traps inherent in this process. His training in both classical and jazz music and their various methods of transmuting a theme has served him well.
Symphonic Variations is really a tone poem in six movements, each depicting a scene from American life that Guthrie knew. It starts with Cherokees and a church service in his native Oklahoma, then goes through a Celtic-influenced Texas barn dance, a scene depicting Mexican immigrant workers, and a ''Dust Bowl Dirge'' serving as a quiet slow movement. The conclusion is a succession of lively street scenes from New York City, where Guthrie spent his later years. All the movements are colorful, yet each is different in style, in structure, and in character. The overall effect is somewhat like one of Henry Cowell''s Americana suites, though Amram has his own sound.
Fresh Take on Composing Variations
A standard classical set of variations usually begins by adding some ornamentations to the theme, and then gradually alters it further, often leaving the underlying harmony unchanged. Amram has the wit to do nothing of the sort with the plain song at his disposal. His approach is signaled in the introduction to the first movement, where a marimba, briefly interrupted by timpani, presents the song already mutated in melody, harmony, and rhythm.
He deals with This Land differently in the successive movements. The Cherokee stomp dance and the Texas barn dance contain their own themes, bearing distant resemblances to the song. Fragments of the song itself, in less transmuted form, turn up here and there as a kind of idΓ©e fixe. Elsewhere he presents the song more directly, though still transmuted. The dirge, for strings only, preserves the rhythm of the original song but entirely rewrites the melody and harmony in the minor mode. This theme is introduced by the viola section; SSV''s players were strong and capable in this mournful role. In the New York finale, the song is transformed in various styles: lively and squealing in a klezmer
romp (great playing by Michael Corner on clarinet), comically pompous from a Salvation Army brass band, and jazzed up for a street party jam.
I was quite taken with the imagination in this work and its complete lack of repetition or note-spinning. I was also pleased with the subtle connection to the rest of the program. For if Amram presented his listeners with a set of portraits of the physical and cultural landscape of his own country, Beethoven and Janacek did likewise: the Viennese countryside in Beethoven''s ''Pastoral'' Symphony, and Czech urban scenes in Jancek''s Sinfonietta.
for Pdf version of complete review put into browser window of your computer the URL http://www.sfcv.org/2007/10/02/variations-on-this-land/
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER for
Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie
It was forty-nine years ago, on a cloudy afternoon in 1956 on the Lower East Side of New York that I first met Woody Guthrie. Ahmed Bashir, a friend of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Charles Mingus (with whom I was playing at that time), took me over to meet Woody at his friend's apartment a few blocks from mine.
Woody was lean, wiry, and brilliant, with a farmerly way that reminded me of the neighbors I grew up with on our farm in
Feasterville Pennsylvania during the late 1930s. In the late afternoons after long hours of work, they would often congregate to chew the fat in the side room of Wally Freed's gas station, across the street from our farm. I used to get fifty cents to mow Wally Freed's lawn and when I was done and stayed around the gas station, I never got caught while eavesdropping on all the conversations of the local farmers and out-of-work men who would commune at Wally's for their late afternoon bull sessions after their chores were done.
They always told it like it was, without wasting a word or a gesture, leaving space for you to think about what they were saying, and in spite of the grinding seemingly endless horrors of the Great Depression,
they had better jokes and stories than most professional comedians or politicians. Woody had this same quality, and I felt at home with him the minute we met.
As Woody, Ahmed Bashir, and I sat swapping tales and drinking coffee at the tiny kitchen table from noon until it was dark outside, Ahmed and I spent most of the time listening to Woody's long descriptions of his experiences, only sharing ours when he would ask, ''What do you fellas think about that?''
The rest of the time, we sat transfixed as he took us on his journeys with him through his stories. Woody didn't need a guitar to put you under his spell, and you could tell that when he was talking to us, it wasn't an act or a routine. Like his songs and books and artwork, everything came from the heart.
Looking back at these memorable first few hours with Woody, I still remember the excitement in his voice, as if
he himself were rediscovering all the events and sharing them for the first time, as he told Ahmed and me his incredible stories of his youth and subsequent travels. Both Ahmed and I marveled at his encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music, literature, painting, and politics, which he wove into his narratives, all delivered in a poetic country boy style that was all his own. During these descriptions of his travels and adventures around the country, he often included references to events of his early boyhood days in Okemah.
Ever since that day we first met a half a century ago, I have always hoped that someday I would get the chance to go to his hometown of Okemah, but with my crazy schedule I never had the opportunity to do so.
Shortly after Nora Guthrie asked me to compose this piece to honor Woody's classic song, I was invited to perform at WoodyFest, the annual summer festival in Okemah. I have now done it for the past three summers.
In his hometown, I was able to meet his sister Mary Jo, her late husband, and Woody's remaining old friends from long ago who were still living there. And by playing music and spending time with people who were also natives of Okemah, I felt that I was able to better understand Woody and his work in a deeper way.
I was now able to make a connection, since that first meeting with Woody half a century ago, to the ensuing years during which I have played countless times with his old friend Pete Seeger and his protege Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and times spent with Woody's late wife, Marjorie, and the numerous concerts I have participated in with his son, Arlo, over the past thirty-five years.
All this helped me when writing Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.
The opening Theme and Fanfare for the Road has the percussion introduce the actual theme played by the marimba, followed by a fanfare, expressing Woody's desire to go out on that open road.
Variation l Oklahoma Stomp Dance, is my own melody, depicting Woody attending a nearby Pow Wow and hearing an Oklahoma Stomp Dance of the Western Cherokee, on a Saturday night through dawn of Sunday morning. During the dance, slightly altered versions of the Theme appear, as they do in almost every other variation. The variation ends quietly, joined by fragments of the initial fanfare, blending with the Stomp Dance.
Variation ll Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah is a musical portrait of by gone times. The oboe, clarinet and harp introduce a mournful melody, restated by the strings, and the theme is heard, as Woody heard
it in church played on the organ, but with extended harmonies. The theme is later stated by the English horn and harp and traces of the fanfare are woven in with the first melody and distant church chimes are heard as the variation ends.
Variation lll Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance is the beginning of Woody's journeys from Oklahoma through America. The solo violin introduction to the dance is followed by the double reeds, indicated in the score to sound like Celtic Uilleann Pipes. A lively original melody, composed in the style of Irish folkloric
music, is later joined by the trombones and tuba, playing the theme as cantus firmus, in an extended version beneath the dance melody
Variation IV Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico) is a musical portrait of the Mexican workers with whom Woody spent time, and about whom he wrote some of his most memorable songs. The opening trumpet call, marked in the score to be played cuivre ed eroico, al torero (brassy and heroic, like a bullfight ceremony) is followed by a nostalgic melody in the strings, suggesting the workers dreaming of their home and families south of the border. The melody is developed and leads to a tuba solo, reminiscent of the Mexican polkas played by folk ensembles throughout the West. The principal song-melody returns, with the theme reappearing in the horns, weaving through the Mexican song as an obbligato, showing how Woody
could not get this melody and the idea for the song out of his mind.
Variation V. Dust Bowl Dirge, for strings alone, honors the brave people who survived the national nightmare of losing everything during this ecological catastrophe and still found a way to survive. One of Woody's greatest songs, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know 'Ya" was reportedly written as a farewell note during one of the terrible storms when it was feared that everyone present with him would suffocate. This minor variation of the theme is played by the violas and then restated by the whole string family.
Variation VI Street Sounds of New
York's Neighborhoods is a compilation of many kinds of music that Woody loved to hear when walking through the neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn, during an era when music was played everywhere out of doors during the warm seasons.
We hear the lively sounds of a Caribbean Street Festival, with the rhythms of the West Indies,
Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and the theme appears in counterpoint in the middle of the march. this is followed by a Klezmer Wedding Celebration and the festive sounds of a middle Eastern Bazaar, where again the theme is used with the exotic sounds of Greek, Turkish and
Armenian music superimposed over it. We ten hear the brass family play a hymn-like version of the theme (again using harmonies far from the three chords of the original song) evoking a Salvation Army band, which was a fixture on many corners of New York City's neighborhoods during the late 1940s.
The same harmonies are used for a short section entitled Block Party Jam, often an occurrence to welcome returning veterans of World War Two to their neighborhoods, where jazz bands played celebratory as well as innovative music.
Finally the theme returns in a stately fashion with the original fanfare of the road playing
in counterpoint, followed by a rousing conclusion restating the opening of the piece and a triumphant ending.
Just as in the case of Beethoven's' Symphony No. 6 in F major Pastorale, where he titles each movement with a brief description, the program notes for Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie serve as a guide to listener but are not essential to enjoy the piece.
The biographical nature of Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, just as in the case of Berlioz's moving Harold in Italy, (which Berlioz said was inspired by the life and times of Lord Byron), served as a point of departure to write the best piece that I could.
With the help and research of Nora Guthrie, the goodwill and gifts of her brother Arlo,
the excellence of the men and women of the Symphony
Silicon Valley, the brilliant young conductor Paul Polivnick and the innovative programming of Executive Director Andrew Bales, I knew while writing this piece that the premiere would be a guaranteed moment of a life time. Music is a collective effort, which is why it is so important, when presented with that selfless spirit.
I thank all of my colleagues, as I thank my children for understanding why I often seemed to disappear for long stretches of time while putting in endless hours day and night to complete this new piece.
And I thank Woody Guthrie for sharing his gifts with the world, and hope that this piece can honor his spirit of bringing people together to share the blessings we all have with one another.
The dedication in the score
reads as follows.
Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody GuthrieDedicated to Nora, Arlo, Joady and all the members of the Guthrie Family, whose devotion to Woody's legacy enables all of us to feel welcome in those pastures of plenty which he sang to us about.
by David Amram
Theme and Fanfare for the Road
Variation 1, Oklahoma Stomp Dance
Variation 2. Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah
Variation 3. Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance
Variation 4. Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico)
Variation 5. Dustbowl Dirge
Variation 6. Street Sounds of New York's Neighborhoods
a) Caribbean Street Festival
b) Klezmer Wedding Celebration and Middle Eastern Bazaar
c) Salvation Army Hymn (theme)
d) Block Party Jam
e) Theme and finale
This piece is a thank you note to him for all the joy his spirit still gives to people all over the world.
He showed us all the beauty part of this land and all the people who live here, and taught us to honor and respect one another.
The composition was commissioned byΒ Woody GuthrieΒ Publications and received its World Premiere September 29th, 2007, performed by the Symphony Silicon Valley in San Jose California, conducted by Paul Polivnick.
SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS ON WOODY GUTHRIE
SONGS PREMIERES IN SAN JOSE
By Richard Scheinin
David Amram is a composer and a jazz musician and an author and a storyteller and a wanderer who, in the course of his 76 years, has befriended many a fascinating character. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack
Kerouac, and Woody Guthrie all fall into that category: All were quintessentially American figures who lived large, as Amram has done himself.
Fifty years ago, these men were part of a loose-knit community of artists in New York City; everyone knew everyone. Or soon would. And it happened, in 1956, that a friend of Parker''s named Ahmed Bashir was crashing at Amram''s $38-a-month apartment on the Lower East Side and awoke one morning to ask, ''You wanna meet Woody?''
''I said, `Woody who?'' '''' Amram recalls. ''I really didn''t know who he meant. Woody Herman?''
''No, Woody Guthrie,'' Bashir answered.
This is how it started.
But before going further with the story, let''s establish this: Half a century later, Amram is inspired by the ''ineffable quality'' he hears in the music of Guthrie, the Oklahoma-bred troubadour who befriended Leadbelly, inspired Bob Dylan, and died in 1967 of complications of Huntington''s disease. He sees Guthrie as part of a ''Whitman-esque tradition,'' one that ''embraces the open road and all the people who live in this amazing vast country of ours.'' It''s a tradition that ''expresses the beauty part of life experience'' in words and song.
And now Amram has taken Guthrie''s most famous song, ''This
Land is Your Land,'' and transformed it into an orchestral work titled ''Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.'' Commissioned by Guthrie''s familyCK '' daughter Nora (see story on page xxx) and sons Joady and Arlo, the folk singer '' it will be given its world premiere performances by Symphony Silicon Valley this weekend at the California Theatre. Paul PolivnickCK conducts.
If you go, you won''t just hear the familiar tune writ large for orchestra. You also won''t hear, Amram says, a treacly pastiche of ersatz folk music.
For a time in the ''60s, he was composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein. His many works include two operas, a flute concerto composed for Sir James Galway, even a ''Triple
Concerto'' which has as ''soloists'' a woodwind quintet, a brass quintet and a jazz quintet. Symphony Silicon Valley performed it in 2005.
What he now has done is take Guthrie''s familiar musical theme and run it through a series of six transformations, re-harmonizing it, reorganizing it, at times outright hiding it amid his own musical inventions, which loosely follow the song''s six stanzas '' which follow Guthrie along that famous ''ribbon of highway,'' discovering this land and its people.
''My idea is to make it almost a biographical sketch,'' Amram says, speaking by phone from his home north of New York City, ''showing Woody''s travels and journeys'' during the Depression, from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to points west and east, eventually landing in New York. ''So I took the six verses as a point of departure and use the song as a central theme and musically take the listeners on a kind of trip all over America, as Woody did, ending up in a big urban setting, New York City, which incorporates the music of many of the visiting cultures which have come to the United States. It''s a way of showing that `this land is your land.'' ''''
Guthrie wrote his iconic song in 1940. (It''s original title was ''God Blessed America for Me,'' a retort to Irving Berlin''s more jingoistic and
similarly titled tune.) By the time Amram met Guthrie in 1956 '' yes, we''re back to the story '' the troubadour was suffering from Huntington''s disease: ''His health was failing, but he was still so positive and full of energy,'' Amram says, ''that it was hard to know that he had an illness and that he had such a hard life.''
''Anyway, Ahmed Bashir and I had walked over to this little place in the Lower East Side and there was Woody Guthrie '' a very small wiry man sitting at a kitchen table and the amazing thing was he was wearing cowboy boots, and I''d never seen anyone in New York City wearing cowboys boots. And since I was brought up in a
farming community of 200, a place called Feasterville, Pa., I could hear something familiar in his speech; the way he spoke and his accent reminded me of the farmers who used to get together at the neighborhood gas station where I grew up.
''And in this real Oklahoma drawl he was talking about all the things he was interested in knowing about. He talked about sports, about the Brooklyn Dodgers. And he talked about what it was like to go out to sea and how that gave him a chance to think about everything that happened on land and sort it out. And he knew that I was a jazz player and a budding composer of music and he talked about the different jazz players that he had heard and admired and about ballet and opera and classical music that he enjoyed. He was just
one of those people who just had seemingly endless knowledge about so many different things.''
Amram, though he may not say it, is cut from similar cloth. He grew up in farm country and had a storytelling uncle who was a sea man. At age 12, his family moved to Washington, D.C., to what was then called a ''checkerboard neighborhood'' '' black and white '' and heard, day and night, jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues. He played piano, percusiion, and French horn '' and had a French horn-playing girlfriend in Palo Alto to whom he paid a visit in 1948, also driving south to perform in the Carmel Bach Festival orchestra.
Amram met Parker and
Gillespie in the early ''50s and was drafted into the Army during the Korean conflict. Moving to New York after his discharge, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, played French horn in the bands of bassist Charles Mingus and bassist
Oscar Pettiford, and became pals with folk singer Ramblin Jack Elliott, Guthrie''s protΓ©gΓ©.
After Guthrie''s death, Amram would still run into Woody''s widow, Marjorie -- who had danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company and gave classical music a prominent place in the Guthrie home '' and the Guthrie children around New York. In the decades since, Amram has performed many times with Arlo Guthrie. And about two years ago, when Nora Guthrie conceived the idea of giving ''This Land is Your Land'' a new life in the world of classical music, she could think of only one composer who might find a way to do it: Amram.
She gave him an assignment: go to the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Music Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. He did it; in fact, he has gone three summers in a row: ''I just wanted to get a feeling of where he was from, what people talked like and looked like.''
In Okemah, ''a classic, pristine Western town,'' he met Guthrie''s sister, Mary Jo, and some of the other old-timers who knew him. He jammed with local musicians and worked at absorbing the Oklahoma folk tradition, which owes a lot to Native American and African-American chants and rhythms.
After initially feeling stymied by the commission '' ''How the heck am I gonna do this?'' '' he began imagining himself into Guthrie''s head. It''s been said that the seed of the melody of ''This Land is Your Land'' comes from an old hymn; Amram imagined Guthrie sitting in a church one
Sunday morning, hearing the melody, and then carrying it around with him through his travels.
''And all around me a voice was sounding,'' Amram says, quoting a phrase from ''This Land is Your Land.'' That voice, to Amram, was ''that melody; he couldn''t get it out of his head. My raison d''etre is that no matter where he went, whatever he did, he couldn''t get that melody out of his mind. And in almost every variation of my piece, the melody sneaks in at some point. And as I moved along, each variation led me to the next one.''
Amram''s new composition begins with a ''Theme and Fanfare for the Road,'' then takes to the road with variations that recall an Oklahoma Indian Stomp Dance,
then, in sequence, Guthrie''s seminal morning in church, a Texas barn dance, a ''dream'' of Mexico (''there''s a wonderful tuba solo in the middle; the Mexicans use tuba in some of their polka music''), a ''Dustbowl Dirge'' and then street sounds from New York: Caribbean, Jewish, jazz.
There''s a Salvation Army band sequence, too. Maybe this imaginary band is collecting money for the unemployed men and women lined up outside the relief office in Guthrie''s song: ''In the shadow of the steeple,'' he sings, they wait and wonder ''if this
land''s still made for you and me.''
With all of this, Amram hopes to re-imagine Guthrie''s travels and to underline Guthrie''s affection for the American melting pot and for ''the little things in life that are so precious.'' In a way, Amram says, ''This Land is Your Land,'' which has come to be sung around the world in many languages, carries the same message as Beethoven''s ''Ode to Joy,'' a message of universal brotherhood.
Amram says he isn''t looking to do anything trendy or cutting edge with his new piece. Leonard Bernstein once told him, ''David, your job as a composer is not only to please yourself, but to contribute something to the repertory.'' He hopes the piece will have a shelf life and slowly wind its way into ''the musical fabric.''
He plans to attend this weekend''s concerts is San Jose and already is plotting
out his next compositions. He has a new autobiography going to press and can happily talk for hours about his recent performances '' folk, jazz, classical '' around the world. ''You keep on trying to improve,'' he says, ''and that has a wonderful medicinal effect of being anti-aging. When you have a real crowded schedule, there''s no time to grow old. To put it in the vernacular, you just keep bopping til you drop.''
To learn more about David Amram, go to www.davidamram.com
Contact Richard Scheinin at HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com"