June 7, 2009
Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York
Scott Stickley, conductor
Carnegie Hall, New York CityComposer Note:
On August 7, 1974, a man stepped out across a two-hundred-kilogram cable stretched a quarter of a mile above the streets of New York City. Six years of planning, fake ID cards, and several encounters with the police had gone into the forty-five minutes he spent between the uncompleted twin towers of the World Trade Center, a display that popularized the oblong and rather utilitarian buildings for the first time. The police sergeant dispatched to bring him down said of the performance:
I observed the tightrope 'dancer' because you couldn't call him a 'walker' approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Skyline Dances
was written in 2008 on a commission from a consortium of youth orchestras. It consists of two complementary, symphonic-length movements (hence, a "couplet"), one slow, one fast, for large orchestra. While it has no extramusical or programmatic associations, it is linked in my mind to the city of New York itself and its position as a center for creative works of all kinds.
AnalysisI. Andante maestoso
This movement is in sonata form, with development and recapitulation telescoped.
The initial theme is a portentous melody in A minor, with a tendency to break out in canons:
This is brought to a climax and subsides. An oboe enters with a second theme in two strains over pizzicato strings, in a more lyric vein:
When the second strain has run its course, the first strain repeats in the strings with a new flowing accompaniment in the woodwinds. Then strings get the flowing accompaniment while woodwinds get the melody, and it seems the music is happily prepared to continue the rest of the piece as a series of variations on the oboe theme with no mention of Ex. 1, but not so: the first theme returns in the horns, bringing with it a darkening of the mood. Another climax ensues, this one prominently featuring the trombones, and again dies away.
A third theme now enters in a tranquil mood, its characteristic syncopated rhythm being in fact a diminution of Ex. 1 (a). This comes to a close in G major, ending the exposition. A soft drumroll on F-sharp begins the development-slash-recapitulation, Ex. 1 immediately entering again in the low brass, this time punctuated with a short turnlike figure (b):
A sort of march ensues, the beat provided by low strings, the melody by the brass, and developments of figure (b) omnipresent in the upper woodwinds and glockenspiel. A crescendo leads the march to a climax, one very similar to that which preceded the third theme in the exposition. The music dies away, again as in the exposition, and the cor anglais enters with none other than Ex. 2, now over a background of muted strings. (Theme three is not recapitulated, but held over to the second movement.) A final outburst concludes the movement, giving the last word to the kettledrums.II. Allegro vivo
This movement is in rondo form.
Percussion, also, drive the succeeding fast dance, giving out the basic rhythm of the movement at the very beginning. Likewise, the main themes of the ritornello (i.e., the recurring theme) are all better identifiable as rhythms than as melodies:
When the ritornello has concluded (marked by a return of the percussion rhythm), the first episode enters; it is the third (tranquil) theme from the first movement, transformed to fit the dance rhythm, and it is given a 6/8 follow-up featuring the clarinets. The rondo theme returns, expanded, to end on an E minor chord; a solo for timpani directs the music into F minor, where the second episode begins, in much the same mood as the ritornello but given slightly darker tinges by the preponderance of violas and bassoons. Motives from the first episode are restated to give the music a lighter cast, but it suddenly fades into darkness with the bass closing on F sharp, mirroring the opening of the development section in the first movement. A trombone enters with a new foreboding motive, further paralleling the first movement, and the orchestra builds up to a grand climax; but the solemnity rapidly fades with the climactic final reentry of the rondo theme, triumphantly concluding the movement in its home key of A major.