Instrumentation: 4 flutes (I=piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 4 trumpets; timpani, 4 percussion; 2 harps, guitar; organ or synthesizer; strings
Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)
Duration: 29 minutes
World Premiere: November 15, 2001 / Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / Philadelphia Orchestra / David Zinman, conductor
Philadelphia Stories (2001) for orchestra was commissioned by Music Director Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra in celebration of the orchestra’s centennial. The world premiere was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of David Zinman at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 15, 2001. Each movement of Philadelphia Stories may also be performed independently.
Philadelphia Stories (2001) is my third symphony, and part of a series of orchestral and large ensemble compositions inspired by American places and spaces, including MotorCity Triptych (2000), Sunset Strip (1999), Route 66 (1998), and Niagara Falls (1997). In Philadelphia Stories I bring to the concert hall some of the diverse histories associated with Philadelphia. My music also conveys the feelings, sounds, and rhythms that I experienced talking with the people and walking through the streets of the city. My musical travelogue is divided into three movements, entitled “Sundown on South Street,” “Tell-Tale Harp,” and “Bells for Stokowski.” I think of the first movement beginning at sundown, the second movement after midnight, and the third movement at sunrise.
In “Sundown on South Street,” I recreate the mood of walking down one of the most popular streets of Philadelphia where one finds numerous cafes, used book stores, ethnic restaurants, nightclubs and musicians from all walks of life. The many generations of musicians who lived in Philadelphia and have walked down this musical street over the years include John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Fabian, Pearl Bailey, Eddie Fisher, Al Martino, Chubby Checker, James Darren, Mario Lanza, The Four Aces, Grover Washington, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Dizzy Gillespie, Jim Croce, Sun Ra, Gerry Mulligan, Teddy Pendergrass, and Patti LaBelle. In the 1980s, I too was a frequent visitor to South Street. I played jazz piano and experimental electronic music in various nightspots, and saw concerts by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. In this movement, I bring together memories of all these Philadelphia musicians, known and unknown, in a tightly structured, polytonal, polyrhythmic groove.
“Sundown on South Street” begins with lush string melodies and glissing guitar chords evoking the soulful 1970s “Philadelphia Sound” created by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. A pulsating woodblock suggests the snapping fingers of 1950s teenagers strutting down South Street. As nighttime approaches, I introduce a cool, jazzy tune in muted brass, doubled in octaves by clarinets and flutes. This melody is punctuated in B-flat major-minor by lower woodwinds, marimba, guitar, and pizzicato contrabass. Transposed to C major-minor, the polyrhythmic syncopation continues in the lower brass, timpani, and percussion (wood blocks, cymbals, and claves). The melody then unfolds as a triple musical canon heard in strings, brass, and upper woodwinds. After a dramatic return to the opening chords, the listener arrives at a vibrant musical street carnival where the Sun-Ra inspired polytonal sounds of South Street grow louder and louder as the movement progresses. Dynamite trombones and tuba, funky trumpets and horns, snappy strings and woodwinds, strumming guitar, and lively Latin percussion such as bongos, go-go bells, vibraslap, and maracas bring the movement to a rousing conclusion.
“Tell-Tale Harp” is an eight-minute arabesque for two solo harps and orchestra. I imagine this movement beginning after the stroke of midnight, in the ghostly streets of Philadelphia: one of America’s most haunted cities, and the place where Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) lived and wrote some of his most famous tales of horror. In The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), Poe tells the story of a murderer who thinks he hears the heart of his dead victim hidden under the floor of his house. The heart seems to beat louder and louder, until he finally shrieks to the police, “I admit the deed!–tear up the planks!–here,here!–it is the beating of his hideous heart!” Poe’s poems, much admired by the French Symbolists, are also haunted by obsessive rhythms and ghostly echoes.
Because Poe often invoked the lute and the lyre in his lyric poetry, I chose the harp as the primary musical instrument for this movement. Two solo harpists are positioned stereophonically on the stage, and surrounded by the impressionistic, spectral sound world of the orchestra. The harps play rolling chords in a periodic pulse, like the beating of a heart. I cast a long shadow by spinning a slow tune in a minor key, first heard in the harps and then echoed by the English horn, bassoon, and finger cymbals. This haunting melody is contrasted with faster ostinato sections, consisting of compulsively repeated patterns. In Tell-Tale Harp, to quote Poe himself, we hear “spirits moving musically, To a lute’s well-tuned law.”
“Bells for Stokowski” is a tribute to one of the most influential and controversial conductors of the 20th century. Born in London, Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) began his career as an organist. As maestro of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1912-36), he became famous for interpreting classical music in brilliant new ways, and expanding his audience’s expectations of what might they hear in the concert hall. In Philadelphia, Stokowski boldly conducted American music alongside European traditional and new orchestral repertoire. Stokowski created a sensation by conducting world premieres of avant-garde composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varese, and he enraged classical purists with his lavishly Romantic orchestral transcriptions of Bach. Appearing as a conductor in various Hollywood films, Stokowski’s 1940 collaboration with Walt Disney in Fantasia resulted in the first stereophonic recording of an orchestral soundtrack. It was in Philadelphia that he created the famous “Stokowski sound,” making the orchestra sound like a pipe organ. To create rich textures and tone colors in the orchestra, he allowed string sections to exercise “free bowing” (unsynchronized up and down string bowing of musical phrases). His fascination with timbre led him to experiment with the seating of players, moving sections of the orchestra to different parts of the stage. These dramatic spatial arrangements appealed to the eye as well as the ear.
In “Bells for Stokowski” I imagine Stokowski in Philadelphia visiting the Liberty Bell at sunrise, and listening to all the bells of the city resonate. The composition begins with two percussionists, placed on opposite ends of the stage, performing stereophonically on identical ringing percussion instruments such as chimes, crotales, bell trees, and various non-pitched metals. A violin soloist introduces an original theme that I have composed in the style of Bach. This baroque fantasy is modulated in my musical language through a series of tonal and atonal variations. Next the entire string section plays a long hymn-like tune in unison employing Stokowski’s free bowing technique (rarely used today). Later I also introduce my own “transcription” of Bach’s C Major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Klavier.
In keeping with Stokowski’s musical vision, I look simultaneously to the past and the future of American orchestral concert music. I utilize multiple musical canons, polyrhythms, and counterpoints to achieve a complex timbral layering throughout “Bells for Stokowski.” With unusual orchestrations and an alternation between chamber and tutti configurations in the orchestra, I recreate the musical effect of Stokowski’s experimental seating rearrangements. In the coda I evoke the famous “Stokowski sound,” by making the orchestra resound like an enormous, rumbling gothic organ. In the final chords of “Bells for Stokowski,” we hear the last echoes of a long legacy of great performances by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music.