So, What’s Going On?
Consider yourself warned: This is not your typical concert.
Since this is an open rehearsal, you’ll get to peek behind the curtain and see what takes place as the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) prepares for its concert performance. The objective here is for the conductor, soloist, and musicians to practice and perfect the music for the audience. Sometimes the music is played through; sometimes the conductor may start and stop the music to work on any number of issues. And you’re an important witness to this creative process as you watch the conductor make sure the music and musicians are concert ready.
One other note: The concert is billed as a dance-inspired program for listeners to learn more about the timeless connection between music and dance.
The program consists of:
by Johann Strauss II (waltz) Tales from the Vienna Woods by Astor Piazzolla; arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov (tango) Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Florence Price; orchestrated by William Grant Still (African American social dances) Dances in the Canebrakes by Astor Piazzolla (tango) Libertango by Igor Stravinsky (polka) Circus Polka by Rodion Shchedrin; based on music by Isaac Albeniz (tango) Two Tangos by Albéniz Jeff Tyzik’s adaptation of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet score (ballet) Nutcracker Suite
After the rehearsal, conductor Gianandrea Noseda and violinist Nurit Bar-Josef will answer questions from the audience—that's you! Have your questions ready.
National Symphony Orchestra is made up of 96 musicians who perform around 150 concerts each year. In addition to performing concerts year-round here at the Kennedy Center, the NSO is committed to sharing its music with as many people in the community as possible through a series of community concerts in places like Union Station and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Each year, the NSO’s In Your Neighborhood initiative brings orchestra and chamber performances to various DC neighborhoods.
Credit: Stefano Pasqualetti
Gianandrea Noseda, pictured above with his baton, is the Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted and recorded with orchestras across the globe and leads masterclasses as part of his commitment to preparing the next generation of artists.
what music means to Noseda.
Nurit Bar-Josef is a violinist, concertmaster, and soloist. In 2001, at the age of 26, she was appointed concertmaster of the NSO, then the youngest concertmaster of an American orchestra. She’s had solo appearances with many orchestras and is active with chamber music groups. Bar-Josef is committed to supporting the arts for young people, and serves as a mentor to a young violinist in the Youth Fellowship Program.
Credit: Steve Wilson
What to Look and Listen for
Tales from the Vienna Woods by Johan Strauss II
Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz composed in 1868 by Johann Strauss II (1825–1899), the son of the (more) famous Austrian composer Johann Strauss. Strauss II, called the Waltz King, was known primarily as a composer of waltzes, as the nickname implies.
Tales from the Vienna Woods has a long (very long!) introduction, like many of Strauss II's compositions. It's followed by five distinctive waltzes, all with different stylistic interpretations often used in Viennese music at the time. Listen for changes in tempo and beautiful, almost "singing" melodies, from the violin and flutes. The piece is originally written to include a zither, a string instrument often used in folk music, and includes other elements of folk dance, like tempos alluding to the landler folk dances popular at the end of the 18th century.
Photo: A zither, like the one used in
Tales from the Vienna Waltz. Image Source.
Take a listen to a small section of the piece: VIDEO
About the waltz: Maybe you’ve heard of the waltz as a dance, but did you know there are several different kinds? The Viennese waltz—of which Tales from the Vienna Woods is one—is the original ballroom waltz. Like in other waltzes, the dancers are constantly rotating while throwing in “change steps” to shift their direction. Viennese waltzers also dance at very high speed—about 180 beats per minute, or twice as fast as the English or “slow” waltz.
Watch a short video of Viennese waltzing:
Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla; arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov
Though he was born in Argentina, Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) grew up in New York City, where he learned to play the bandoneon, a type of accordion that’s played by holding the instrument in both hands and pushing in. Invented in Germany in the 1840s, the bandoneon became an integral part of Argentine tango.
Photo: Like a concertina, bandoneons have buttons, rather than an accordion’s piano keys.
Back in Argentina, Piazzolla studied music and began composing, mostly tangos. Although he was heavily influenced by composers like Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, Piazzolla settled into his own style, called
Tango Nuevo or New Tango, which incorporates elements of jazz improvisation. Piazzolla, however, didn't view his compositions as tango at all, but rather as classical chamber music often including bandoneon, violin, bass, piano, and electric guitar.
Four Seasons of Buenos Aires was composed between June 1965 and 1970; the movements were originally written as stand-alone pieces, then later combined to become one larger work. In 1999, Leonid Desyatnikov (b. 1955) arranged it for solo violin and string orchestra, using Vivaldi's Four Seasons as inspiration. Desyatnikov even included fifteen “quotations” of Vivaldi's Four Seasons¬—meaning he used melodies pulled directly from the work. Desyatnikov also arranged each of the four movements into a more classical style, with tempo sections of fast-slow-fast.
While movements of Vivaldi's Four Seasons are set in calendar order—
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter—Piazzolla's set is a bit different. Since the movements weren't originally part of a larger work, he first placed them in the order Winter, Summer, Autumn, Spring. Today, recordings and live performances largely vary their order.
Take a listen to Verano porteño (Summer) from Four Seasons of Buenos Aires: VIDEO
About the tango: The tango first appeared in the 1880s, along the border of Argentina and Uruguay. It was a combination of several types of dances popular among natives and immigrants in the area, including the German waltz; the Czech polka (more on that below); and the candombe, a rhythmic dance and music style derived from enslaved Africans.
In traditional Argentine tango dancing, the dancer’s torso moves first, and then the feet stretch to provide support. Although the Argentine tango is based on walking, there are small improvised steps, so dancers need to communicate with and completely trust one another. It’s also considered very romantic because of how the dancers position their bodies with their chests closer than their hips (unlike in ballroom tango).
Watch a couple dance the tango on the streets of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina:
Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence Price; orchestrated by William Grant Still
Dances in the Canebrakes was written by Florence B. Price (18871953), the first Black woman in the United States to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a work performed by a major American orchestra. These dances, though, were written for piano and were later orchestrated after Price suffered a stroke and passed away the same year they were written.
The piece is a suite of dances that uses syncopated rhythms, melodies, and themes of African American music, including spirituals and social dances. (FYI: A canebrake is a piece of sugarcane, which was a staple crop of southern plantations.) The first movement,
Nimble Feet, is an ode to the popular nineteenth-century dance called the cakewalk (more on that below), often performed at social events and minstrel shows. The second movement, Tropical Noon, is similar in melody and rhythm to ragtime dances of the early 1900s. Finally, Silk Hat and Walking Cane gives off the dreamy air of a summer scene with its slight syncopations and peaceful melodies typical of folk and popular African music.
William Grant Still (1895–1978), considered by many to be the dean of African American composers, orchestrated
Dances in the Canebrakes. Still was a childhood friend of Price and an avid admirer of her compositions.
Take a listen to Dances in the Canebrakes’s first movement, Nimble Feet, performed as it was written for piano: VIDEO
About the cakewalk: Celebrated in the first movement of Price’s piece, the cakewalk was originally performed by enslaved people in competitions held on plantation grounds. Couples would stand in ¬a square formation—with the men inside—and strut around the ballroom in a way that mocked white men’s manners, prancing with their legs held high and tilting their head, shoulders, and torso upward. The best dancer’s prize—a decorated cake. (That’s where the phrase “takes the cake” comes from.)
By the 1870s, the dance was commonly performed at minstrel shows, and huge cakewalk contests were held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the 1890s. In the early twentieth century, the cakewalk evolved into a new music and dance craze—ragtime— which, fittingly, is referenced in the second movement of
Dances in the Canebreaks.
Watch a short film of the cakewalk recorded in 1903:
Libertango by Astor Piazzolla
In 1973, Piazolla left Argentina for Italy, his parents’ native country. There he wrote
Libertango, its name a fusion of the Spanish word for freedom, “libertad,” and “tango.” It marks the composer’s political and musical freedom outside Argentina and the composer’s independence from the old style of tango. Piazzolla pushed the musicians to perform the music without restraints, incorporating elements from jazz, folk, and classical music. Listen for jazz-like improvisations; counterpoint (that is, melodies combined in different ways); and dissonance, often felt as a tension or “clash” of notes.
Take a listen of Piazzolla's original recording of Libertango: VIDEO
Circus Polka by Igor Stravinsky
Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant was written by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) in 1942. The piece was written for a ballet for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to be performed by 50 elephants and 50 ballerinas. No kidding.
The story goes like this: Stravinsky had just moved to the United States. His friend and famed choreographer, George Balanchine, the “Father of American Ballet,” and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, asked him to compose a polka for the show. When Stravinsky asked who the music would be for, Balanchine answered, "Elephants." So, naturally, Stravinsky asked, "How old?" When Balanchine told him they were young, Stravinsky answered, "If they are very young, I will do it."
Photo: A circus polka performance.
Stravinsky composed a piece with unpredictable rhythms and unusual harmonies, something like an elephant marching out of step. Listen for the bass drum, cymbals, and brass that jerks at times within the 2/4 meter, evoking sounds of a circus. (By the way, Stravinsky was worried that older elephants would be startled by the music, explaining his preference for young ones.)
Take a listen: VIDEO
About the polka: As you’ve probably guessed, though, the polka was originally danced not by elephants but by people—in Bohemia, part of what’s now the Czech Republic, to be exact. After being invented by a young Czech woman named Anna Slezáková, the polka became a hit in the country’s biggest ballrooms by 1835, and by 1844 “polkamania” had spread to Austria, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (It’s still very popular in Chicago and Milwaukee, thanks to the many Eastern European immigrants who settled there.)
Polka dancers perform in pairs—either face-to-face (like in a waltz) or standing side-by-side—and take two steps for each beat of music. Here’ are the basic steps:
Hop on the right foot, then step forward on the left foot.
Take another step on the left foot.
The right foot comes to the left.
Take a step on the left foot, and pause for a beat.
Repeat the whole sequence, switching feet.
Hard to follow, right? Watch this video of traditional Czech polka ballroom dancers, and you’ll get the idea:
Two Tangos by Albéniz by Rodion Shchedrin; based on music by Isaac Albeniz
Some background first: This piece is an adaptation of two piano tangos by Isaac Albéniz
(1860–1909), based on classical Spanish folklore melodies. Albéniz was a pianist, composer, and conductor whose work was often based on the melodies, rhythms, and harmonies of Spanish folk songs. His works were influenced by Andalusian elements from genres like copla (a poetic form of four verses found in many Spanish popular songs) and flamenco. Albéniz has been called the Father of Spanish music.
Then what happened: In 1966, Russian composer and pianist Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932), composed
Two Tangos by Albéniz for orchestra based on Albéniz’s Tango in A Minor, op. 164, no. 2 and Tango in D Major, op. 165, no. 2.
Today: Tango in D has become a staple of tango concert music. Originally composed for piano, it was transcribed for guitar and is one of the most important pieces in the classical guitar canon. Unlike traditional Argentinian tango, this Spanish take on the genre is written in 2/4 time and includes interesting rhythmic flair, including triplets in the melody. Yet listeners can hear the familiar rhythm of the tango come through the music. Shchedrin arranged the tangos for his wife, Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya to dance to on stage.
Take a listen: VIDEO
The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s; Jeff Tyzik’s adaptation of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement
We know the music. We hear it every holiday season.
The Nutcracker Suite by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was composed for the ballet The Nutcracker. In 1960, jazz composers Duke Ellington (1899–1974) and Billy Strayhorn (1915–1967) recorded an album of jazz interpretations of the suite for Ellington’s big band.
The jazz greats clearly had fun with their rendition, renaming the movements to playful takes on Tchaikovsky's score in what Ellington called “reorchestration.”
Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed Pipes)
Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers)
Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)
Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)
Even the program notes, describing a fictitious meeting between Tchaikovsky and Ellington (Ellington was born six years after Tchaikovsky's death), get in on the fun. But the music itself is anything but silly. In fact, it’s considered extremely challenging by musicians. These two jazz legends wove jazz harmonies and structures with Tchaikovsky’s music that was already well-known to concertgoers. This was also the first time Strayhorn, who considered Ellington a mentor and partner, received equal billing to Ellington during their working relationship.
This jazz rendition of the
Nutcracker Suite has become a popular offering at holiday concerts. It also largely represents Ellington's influence on jazz—bringing jazz from city nightlife into concert halls and the living rooms of people who might otherwise never experience it.
Take a listen: The Western Piedmont Symphony perform the Overture of the Nutcracker Suite: VIDEO
About It was first staged in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, by Marius Petipa, who went on to become known as the “Father of Russian Ballet.” (Maybe you’ve heard of his other famous ballets including The Nutcracker ballet: Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty?) Although the ballet was a flop at first, it became a popular Christmastime tradition across the United States and the world, and has been restaged by choreographers including George Balanchine (remember him from Circus Polka?), Alexei Ratmansky, and Mark Morris.
Watch a ballerina from London’s Royal Ballet in “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”—and compare the music to “Sugar Rum Cherry” from Ellington and Strayhorn’s
Nutcracker Suite: VIDEO Think About This…
What do you notice about the conductor, soloist, and instrumentalists in this open rehearsal? Is your role in the audience any different?
How do dance and music add to each other?
Rodion Shchedrin once said, “I have to write music that lives and breathes, that has blood circulating through its veins. I want music that is alive, that makes a connection with the musicians and audience. I am an emotional person and so I write emotional music.” How does dance enhance the living aspect of music? How does it increase the connection between the music and those who hear it? Take Action: Move
The music of this open rehearsal reveals how music and dance are innately intertwined; it can be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Did you know that even some species of birds have choreographed movements that differ depending on the tune? Just as humans tango to tango music and polka to polka music, lyrebirds move in specific ways to the different music they produce.
Think of how music evokes movement in your everyday life and in your artistic life. Choose a piece of music and plan out movement or a dance to accompany it. Or think of a dance and choose music that you feel goes with it. You might even mix music types with unexpected dances—a mashup of bolero and waltz, perhaps? Just move!
Alright, you’re ready to hear the National Symphony Orchestra.