The Akropolis Reed Quintet presents These American Stories, a narrative program of influential music from the last century of American history. Each work tells its own story from a different perspective, at a unique moment of realization or imagination, including Bernstein’s jazz-classical crossover, Ives’ transcendentalism, and a new work by Nico Muhly (the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera) based on a Vermont folk song. As America has come of age over the past hundred years, so too has its music, and through it all maintained a uniquely American vocabulary. Akropolis has collected and arranged works which come from different perspectives and different walks of life, bound by exuberance, creativity, and introspection. To open the program, Akropolis presents Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs. It’s a fitting way to open a program of American classical music, because it is hardly classical at all. The opening oscillating chords immediately ring of the Aaron Copland school of open harmonies, but we know we are hearing a jazz orchestra, not a symphony orchestra. Indeed, the work was originally composed for Woody Herman’s big band, though it has been transcribed for numerous settings, including this one for reed quintet. Concord, Massachusetts, from 1840-1860, was the subject of Charles Ives’ second piano sonata, the third movement being “The Alcotts,” the first, second, and fourth being “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” and “Thoreau.” In his Essays before a Sonata, penned in 1920, Ives wrote about Concord, saying “Concord village, itself, reminds one of that common virtue lying at the height and root of all the Concord divinities.” About the Alcott home, he writes:

“The Alcott house seems to stand as a kind of homely but beautiful witness of Concord’s common virtue–it seems to bear a consciousness that its past is living, that the hickories of Walden are not far away. All around you, under the Concord sky, there still floats the influence of that human faith, melody, transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic respectively, reflecting an innate hope–a common interest in common things and common things and common men–a tune the Concord bards are ever playing–for that part of greatness is not so difficult to emulate.”

Paying homage with his second sonata to these four figures of Concord from mid-nineteenth century, the sonata, especially “The Alcotts,” makes itself a sort of modern transcendentalist piece of art, highlighting the beauty and simplicity of goodness and commonness so inherent to the development of the modern American classical music vocabulary. “The Alcotts” is a snapshot not just of a simple 19th century life, but of what wove itself through America so thickly. Closing the first half, Gershwin’s An American in Paris has been brilliantly arranged by Dutch saxophonist Raaf Hekkema, allowing Akropolis to convey a more outgoing outlook on American life. Our American character in Paris begins by taking in the sights and sounds of his new city, then grows homesick, only to be in love with a triumphant Paris by the end. As much as the American in this story comes of age, so did An American in Paris serve as a defining moment for George Gershwin. Throughout his life he questioned the seriousness of his music against the backdrop of American classical music by his compatriots, including those who studied with famous French composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger (among whom were Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter). It was Boulanger who ultimately advised Gershwin not to be anyone but himself, advice he took to heart and poured into An American in Paris. The intermission of this program serves as our journey to the present day as artists in the very world around us create relevant historical works.

Nico Muhly’s Look for Me does this in several dimensions. Look for Meburies the melody of “Mother in the Graveyard,” a folk song from Vermont, inside destabilizing, modernized textures and interjections. The resulting sound is as if we are hearing an original field recording, but the wax has been distorted, and we are listening to the original singer as he or she jumps through and is warped by the time travel to today. Through the well-planted organization of these textures and interjections, Muhly re-establishes the beauty of the original, simple field song in a modern context. The composer of the folk song, “Mother in the Graveyard,” is Margaret MacArthur, a renowned performer and archivist of American folk melodies. Originally a city-goer, she and her husband moved to a 200 year-old farmhouse in Marlboro, VT in 1951, where she preserved instruments and field recordings, living without electricity or running water for the first 6 years in the home. “Mother in the Graveyard” is one of such texts she preserved. Here are two verses:

Mother in the graveyard and I’m on the land

Look for me

Mother in the graveyard and I’m on the land

And I want God’s bosom to be my pillow

Hide me over in the rocks of ages

Look for me

Drive the chariot to my door

Look for me

Drive the chariot to my door

And I want God’s bosom to be my pillow

Hide me over in the rocks of ages

Look for me

As a companion, Sorrow and Celebrationfor reed quintet and audience is a similar sort of time capsule. The work presents a social issue relevant today and allows us to experience it together, while teeming with both optimism and grief. Akropolis commissioned composer John Steinmetz in 2014, during a summer brimming with tension and opportunity in many American communities. The composer describes his early influences and how the piece evolved from them:

“This piece imitates a ceremony or ritual, calling people together to mourn and rejoice. As I began composing, the deaths of two young African American men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, were on my mind. The sorrow in this music started there, but it is meant to honor any grief, whether individual or shared.

After mourning, the music changes mood, eventually becoming dance-like. Sometimes sorrow, in bringing people together, can cut through the illusion of separateness, and that is cause for gratitude and celebration. And a Wendell Berry poem advises, ‘Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.’

When the music was nearly finished, I read about Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s transformative experience while returning from the moon. He described looking out at the earth and the vastness of space. ‘I became aware that everything that exists is part of one intricately interconnected whole.’

I am grateful to Akropolis for commissioning this piece, bringing it to life, helping to improve it, and for encouraging audience participation. To listeners, thank you for taking part!”

Concluding in a jazzy celebration, Akropolis presents an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “The Neo-Hip-Hot Kiddies Communities” from The River, which was a multi-movement orchestral work Ellington composed to accompany an Alvin Ailey ballet. Akropolis thinks Ellington is a fitting figure with which to conclude, someone always smiling, always breathing life into others. He once said, “Gray skies are just clouds passing over.” We think so, too.

Leonard Bernstein, Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949)
Charles Ives, “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No. 2 (1840-60)
George Gershwin, An American in Paris (1928)
Nico Muhly, Look for Me (2015)
John Steinmetz, Sorrow and Celebration for reed quintet and audience (2015)
Duke Ellington, The Neo-Hip-Hot Kiddies Communities (1970)