for chamber orchestra
This program, the last of Eos' 1996-97 season, was organized as a benefit for Classical Action, an organization that is raising money and awareness everywhere through concerts in which artists donate their services. Classical Action seeks funds for AIDS treatment and education, and has done so in a community that had heretofore done little to respond to the devastation this illness has brought upon us all, in one way or another.
With that aim in mind, this program also begs an age-old question about the context of musical performance and its meanings. In a post-modern way, we are asked to bring healthy doses of context with us to concerts. Much concert programming nowadays is "titled," that is, targeted for its potential strength: "Lost Masterpieces," "Degenerate Music," and the like. (Question: What is "Gay American Music," the theme of a recent CD? Answer: Marketing.) Additionally, a familiar piece can take on an added dimension in a charged atmosphere: Barber's Adagio for Strings is often used as a memorial piece, though this was not its original intent.
A program which tries to address the issue of AIDS is bound to fail to satisfy, erring on the side of mawkish gravity or of misappropriation of content. I have attended concerts of music by young composers who died of the disease; the poignancy of such a concert is the contemplation of what might have been written as much as what was.
Our approach tonight is to both celebrate and to say farewell, two opposite reactions to loss which give us the spectrum of our responses to AIDS. Haydn's Farewell Symphony No. 45, which closes the concert, is famous for its way of writing players out of the last movement, until only two solo violins are left playing (standing?). The symphony was written on behalf of the Esterhazy musicians who performed Haydn's music, and was intended to address the poor working conditions which separated musicians from their families for long periods of time. It seems an eloquent metaphor for the sort of loss that has resulted from the fifteen years of this disease. Yet, does this invalidate the changed interpretation of that original metaphor? Not really: we have seized this masterpiece of "political" music, and captured its meaning for a more immediate needs. (In fact, the real revelation in this work is the actual music, generally unknown except for its name, which isn't authentic anyway!)
The Classical Action Variations resulted from an effort to extend the circle of artists donating their services from performers to composers. Working with Meet the Composer, we asked their members to donate a variation on a simple theme. The hope is that this first effort will spawn more variations in future concerts in other cities, eventually allowing conductors to draw from a large pool of pieces, and always educating the local audience.
The theme upon which these four variations are based is taken from the letters "C-L-A-S-S-I-C-A-L-A-C-T-I-O-N." This was done by lining up the pitches of the diatonic scale (a-b-c-d-e-f-g) under the letters of the alphabet, repeating the seven pitches four times to reach the end of the alphabet. Then, as an example, "L"s and "S"s become the pitch "E," and from these pitches the melody was formed. Bach used this system to form the basis of a famous fugue on his own name (B becomes "B-flat" and H becomes "B"); Ravel used it in his piano piece dedicated to Haydn.
Having the pitches, I chose to present the melody in an abstract sort of way, remaining emotionally neutral and not creating a sentimental theme, or an overtly dissonant one, for that matter. In this sense, the theme is really a first variation. The piece carries no overt message, no pleas for understanding or dramatizations of feelings associated with the crisis of HIV disease. Instead it is a mechanism for some of our finest composers to donate a piece of work that, in the right context, may help audiences and orchestras ponder their own activism. In a note accompanying his variations, William Bolcom wrote, "...laughing in the face of death; I've shed so many tears for my friends who are gone that at this point all I can think of is the cosmic joke in it all....Sorry if it offends someone, but I couldn't do another lament!"