October 2, 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 idée 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 Janáček did likewise: the Viennese countryside in Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, and Czech urban scenes in Janáček's Sinfonietta. Beth Fleming's program notes wisely emphasized the scene-painting aspects, even resurrecting Janáček's unofficial and rarely used titles identifying the locales that inspired his movements. Unfortunately, preconcert lecturer Roger Emanuels had been left clueless as to why these works had been paired with Amram's.
The "Pastoral" came in a calm, fluid performance. The first movement and the finale flowed like water, as smoothly as the second movement set by the brook, the finale opening out in this performance into grandeur like the conclusion of Smetana's Moldau. If the birdsong imitations at the end of the second movement were a little awkward, the comic village band in the third movement was delightfully conveyed in the winds, particularly by Patricia Emerson Mitchell on oboe and Glen Swarts on French horn.
Janáček developed his distinctive rhythmic style from his experiments in setting Czech lyrics, so even his instrumental music is as authentically rooted in the Czech language as Guthrie's tune (and thus Amram's work based on it) is rooted in American English. The Sinfonietta is a difficult work to play, and I expect that most of the available rehearsal time had been eaten up by the Amram premiere. That must be why the performance of the Sinfonietta was full of flubs, even threatening to break apart entirely for a moment in the second movement. But Polivnick bravely shoveled onward and took the players with him. The orchestra showed its quality by providing a lively and coherent interpretation despite these problems, even at the end of a long and challenging concert.