Inaugural Concert of American Music
Washington Ethical Society
7750 16th St. NW, Washington, DC
Saturday, 1/24/09 at 8:00

Neil Gladd, mandolin / composer
Marjorie Bunday, mezzo-soprano
Billie Whittaker, piano

Click HERE to see the complete Concert Program

Tickets are $20 ($10 for Students/Seniors) and may be bought at the door or online from Brown Paper Tickets

Program notes by Neil Gladd

This is not an "official" event, but I was inspired by the Inauguration of Barack Obama to produce it. As a classical musician, I love Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but not ALL classical music was written by dead European white males! Come extend the celebration with a concert of diverse American music, including (Gasp!) living composers, women composers, black composers, and at least one gay composer (that we're aware of).  The program covers the gamut from marches and ragtime to art songs and contemporary chamber music, and includes three world premieres, as well as the first American mandolin sonata and the first American mandolin concerto, both of which were written by black composers.

The Mandolin Music

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mandolin was one of the most popular amateur instruments in America. Virtually every town and college had a mandolin club, even if they had no other musical organization. (Including Virginia Tech, my own alma mater.)  The instrument was so popular, that the works of America's most famous composer, John Philip Sousa, were issued in multiple mandolin arrangements by his original publisher. There were more versions for mandolin than for any other instrument! In 1993, I was asked to play his Washington Post for the PBS American Experience series, but we were not able to locate a copy of the published mandolin edition. So, I made my own arrangement, working from the piano version and a set of the original band parts.

From this huge grass roots popularity, we got one generation of brilliant American mandolin soloists, mostly born in the 1870s and 1880s. Among the more famous were Valentine Abt, Samuel Siegel, Aubrey Stauffer and William Place, Jr., as well as Italian immigrants such as Giuseppe Pettine and Bernardo de Pace. To the best of my knowledge, Seth Weeks was the only black professional mandolin soloist during this golden age, and among his published compositions is a mandolin concerto from 1900, the first by an American composer. Weeks toured in vaudeville on the Keith circuit, and had many compositions published by Arling Shaeffer, one of the leading mandolin publishers. In 1901, he traveled to England, and spent most of the rest of his career in Europe. More of his mandolin compositions and a number of songs were published in England, where he also began recording. In addition to his Concerto, the program also includes two of his concert polkas, one from his time in England and one published here. I am currently editing all of these pieces for publication, as all of his music is more than a hundred years out of print. Click HERE to hear his recording of The Handicap March, recorded in London on February 4,1901! Oh, and did I mention that he was from Chicago?

James Reese Europe (1881-1919) was an important transitional figure from late ragtime to early jazz, and used a mandolin section in both his Society Orchestra and his Clef Club Orchestra. He was also the first to present a concert at Carnegie Hall, entirely by black musicians of black composers, in 1912. The second half of our concert, which is also entirely by black composers, opens with his Clef Club March (1910) and ends with the Castle House Rag (1914). In 1986, conductor Maurice Peress recreated the Clef Club concert at Carnegie Hall, and I was lucky enough to be part of the "rainbow coalition" orchestra, in the mandolin section. The orchestra consisted of the usual strings, winds, brass and percussion, plus 10 mandolins, 10 guitars, 10 banjos, 10 pianos and chorus. (!!!)

In 1965, New York mandolinist Howard Frye (1920-1967) announced a competition for new mandolin music. Carman Moore's Sonata: Variations for Mandolin and Piano was judged to be the winner, but when Frye died two years later, he had still not performed the piece. The composer did not know anyone else who played the mandolin, so he put the piece away and forgot about it.  The Sonata might never have seen the light of day, were it not for Wayne Shirley, a Music Specialist at the Library of Congress (now retired). Wayne knew about the piece because he and the composer had been friends in graduate school, and he knew me from my constant trips to the Library, in search of mandolin music.  After he told me about the piece, I wrote to Mr. Moore, and he wrote back that if I was ever in New York, he would be happy to show it to me. So, I hopped on a train to New York, we had a quick 15 minute meeting, he made a copy for me, I spent a few more hours visiting the American Music Center, came home, and gave the first performance in Washington, DC in 1981, 16 years after it was written.

The Vocal Music

Among the gems of the mandolin repertoire are two songs by Mozart with mandolin accompaniment. There was never anything to program with them, though, so I was thrilled to discover Clara Lyle Boone's Slumber Song.  The piece was written for voice with an unspecified melody instrument, but works very well on the mandolin, and I have programmed it with Mozart many times. Ms. Boone is a native of Kentucky, a descendent of Daniel Boone, a current resident of Capitol Hill, and has the distinction of being the only composer on our program to have run for Congress! She studied composition with Walter Piston and Darius Milhaud, and was the first woman to receive a Masters Degree in Composition from Harvard.  It was extremly difficult for women composers to get published at that time, so she saved her money while working as a music teacher in the DC public school system, and in 1974 founded her own company, Arsis Press, to publish concert and sacred music by living women composers.

The Seven Ancient Greek Lyrics (2007) by Victor Kioulaphides came about in the same way that the election was won: On the internet!  We have yet to meet in person, but Victor and I are both regulars in the Classical section of the Mandolin Cafe Message Board.  He had written many vocal works, and then produced quite a bit of mandolin solo and chamber music over the last several years. (Six mandolin quartets!!!)  He had yet to combine mandolin and voice, though, so I started dropping hints and reminders on the message board until he eventally wrote a piece for me! It was scheduled to be premiered in 2007, but the concert was canceled, so this concert will be the first performance. More music to play with Mozart on my future concerts!

We are performing three songs from the song cycle, Another Sleep, by Ned Rorem - "The Bed" (Thom Gunn), "This Room" (John Ashbery), and "The Waves" (Virginia Woolf).  In the composer's note to the cycle, he writes:

    "When Jim Holmes died on January 9, 1999, the world instantly took a new meaning--or rather, a new lack of meaning. Nothing mattered now, neither life nor         death. He was nearly sixteen years younger than I; we had lived together since 1967.

    But the world goes on turning, and I'm supposed to be a composer. So I've sewn together a memorial for Jim, nineteen songs based on texts (prose and poetry)         by fourteen authors..." [complete text here]

I first met Elizabeth Vercoe through Clara Lyle Boone. Clara knew that I wanted to encourage composers to write new music for mandolin, so she began to introduce me to the composers in the Arsis Press catalog. (The direct result being that, to date, I have premiered 9 new mandolin works written by women!) Elizabeth eventually wrote three pieces for me, the most recent being Herstory IV (1997), for mezzo and mandolin. Marjorie Bunday and I plan to record it, but for this concert, I lobbied my fellow performers to learn her most popular work, Irreveries From Sappho, for voice and piano. The combination of the ancient Greek lyrics with classical takes on Ragtime, Blues and Boogie just fit into this program too perfectly!

Nearly all of my own compositions involve the mandolin, but my two premieres on this concert are both vocal music with piano. My song cycle, In the Dark Times, was started after the 2004 presidential election, and is the only political music on the concert.  Rather than moving to Canada, I decided to put my outrage at the prospect of a second Bush term into my music, and the result is these songs. I found many poems that would have worked from various countries and time periods, but the ones that fit most perfectly were written by Bertolt Brecht, in Germany of the 1930s. The first three are from his German War Primer, and are extremely short, only two or three lines apiece.  The only full length song is The Ballade of Paragraph 218, which had previously been set to music by Hans Eisler. For my setting, I made a conscious effort to channel the music of Brecht's most famous collaborator, Kurt Weill. The songs also owe something to Charles Ives, in the way that they quote snippets of familiar melodies (two popular Texas tunes, and one from Germany.)  Paragraph 218 was the section of German law that made all abortions illegal. Not for any moral reason, but simply because they needed more warm bodies to be soldiers and factory workers. Brecht wrote the poem nearly 80 years ago, to protest a government that was both pro-war and anti-choice.

As I am writing these notes, I am still putting the finishing touches on my other song, The Atonal Blues. Your typical blues song is for someone that has lost their man, their woman, their job, their dog, etc.  This is a blues song for a new music performer that has lost their funding from the National Endowment for the Arts! (OK, so it's a niche market...)  I probably started it some 20 years ago, and would occasionally pull it out and write a few notes just to amuse myself. As above, this song also contains some musical quotes, but this time they're from Stravinsky and Schönberg.

From the first planning stages, I was determined that the program had to include the Grand Old Man of modern American music, Charles Ives (1874-1954), considered by many to be our greatest American composer. Although largely unknown for much of his lifetime, Ives won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947 for his Symphony No. 3, which was written in 1904, but not performed until 1946.  His 114 Songs were printed in 1922 at his own expense, and are amazing in their scope. Hymn tunes, circus bands, cowboy songs, classical and American literature, and the avante garde all coexist and comingle. Equally amazing is how he blythely ignored the fact that most pianists have only ten fingers! The five songs we have chosen are a good representative sampling, and one, in particular, demonstrates Ives' sense of humor.  He had done a setting of Rudyard Kipling's poem, Tarrant Moss, but as his 114 Songs were going to press, it appeared that he was not going to receive permission to reprint the poem.  He included the music, anyway, but without the lyrics, giving only the first few words followed by "etc."  He later wrote his own poem to fit this music (a parody of Kipling), sped up the tempo, and changed the title to Slugging a Vampire!

It is extremely unlikely that you will ever hear all of this music on the same program again, so please join us as we celebrate the Inauguration of Barack Obama and the amazing diversity of American music!