Monday, September 14, 2009

Nicolas Slonimsky on Classical Connections

From my colleague Michelle Sweet:

This month WGBH has been re-airing select episodes from the Classical Connections series for Classical Music Month. I spent a year putting together these short features that highlight just some of the stories about classical music happening in Massachusetts—both past and present. So during this special highlight month I thought it would be a great chance to bring back a small part of a documentary I produced back in 1994 about a significant, but little known musical genius—Nicolas Slonimsky. He made history when his Chamber Orchestra of Boston premiered Charles Ives Three Places in New England (albeit the premiere happened in New York, but we’ll just have to share that milestone with them.) In the middle of the three movements, Putnam’s Camp (located in Connecticut) there’s a section of the score where two competing bands are playing in different rhythms, in competing time signatures. The technical difficulty of one conductor leading what’s essentially these polyrhythmic sections was a nut that no conductor had attempted to crack. Until Slonimsky heard about it. Ives met Slonimsky through a mutual friend—composer Henry Cowell. Upon their meeting Slonimsky asked Ives if he might have a work Slonimsky could play with his Chamber Orchestra, and Ives suggested Three Places in New England, and offered to re-orchestrate it for the smaller ensemble. In his autobiography Perfect Pitch, Slonimsky says “The more I absorbed the idiom of Three Places in New England the more I became possessed by its power.” So he took it on and on January 10th 1931 history was made at Town Hall in New York.

This week on Classical Connections I’m bringing back the entire trilogy of features on the Ives masterpiece—one for each of the movements of Three Places in New England, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, respectively. Composer and professor and Ives scholar John Heiss walks us through the first and third movements. And for that second movement, I dug into my archived interviews of Nicolas to tell his story about premiering Three Places. And on Tuesday, as a prelude to listening to these modern works of art, composer and conductor Gunther Schuller makes some suggestions for how to approach listening to contemporary music.


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