In the 1890s, the patron Jeannette Thurber engaged Antonín Dvořák as director of the New York Conservatory of Music, which she had founded. The composer was to help young students bring an independent and distinctive American voice to the concerts of this musical nation. The budding music scene in the New World had indeed long been dominated by European compositions and musicians. However, it did not take too long before a home-grown American musical language developed with jazz, Broadway musicals and the soundtracks and music films of Hollywood. To this day, many major American composers of the classical music scene are distinguished by their ability to combine the serious and complex with the entertaining and audience appeal.
The second instalment of the Berlin Phil Series is dedicated to the music of the United States, and Noah Bendix-Balgley, 1st concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker, who himself comes from the USA, is a particularly keen advocate. He draws attention to the little-known composer and pianist Amy Beach, who struggled with the prejudices of the male world and yet succeeded in the genres of the symphony and the solo concerto. In his piece Stomp for solo violin, John Corigliano, now over 80 years old, demands an unusual tuning of the strings and the use of the foot as the body’s own percussion instrument. In arrangements from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a milestone not only in American theatre history, Bendix-Balgley is accompanied by Ohad Ben-Ari, who has already appeared as a soloist with the Philharmoniker. Gershwin is also the composer of a work performed by the Philharmoniker’s principal clarinet, Wenzel Fuchs.
Among the particularly idiosyncratic and single-minded American composers, in addition to John Cage – who has an all-percussion piece on the programme – is Charles Ives. Although the legendary piece The Unanswered Question, written in 1906, lasts only five minutes, its completely new tonal language and its dramaturgically ingenious question and answer dialogue between the various groups of instruments make it a central work of Modernism. The conductor of this archive recording is Sir Simon Rattle, who is also on the podium for John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a work as wild in its expression as it is precise in its conception. John Adams was composer in residence with the Philharmoniker during the 2016/2017 season. The instalment’s spectacular finale is the soundtrack to an animated series by Scott Bradley, in which orchestra members act in a slapstick interlude as Tom and Jerry, who are bound together by their deep hatred for each other.
In his first New Year’s Eve concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, chief conductor Kirill Petrenko and his orchestra presented music that was all-American. From this concert comes the performance of the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a work that combines European traditions and the spirit of the New World.