The Elephant and the Clown
One of the most enduring lessons Paquito D’Rivera learned as a child from his classical-saxophonist father, Tito, was the principle Duke Ellington famously articulated: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” For D’Rivera, music is simply music—whether it’s jazz, classical, or vernacular styles from Latin America and the Caribbean, improvisation, or composition. He has spent his prolific career celebrating hybrids of styles and traditions that are usually categorized as separate worlds.
A powerful indication of how far D’Rivera has journeyed in these explorations can be gleaned from his vast discography of multiple Grammy Award-winning solo albums and collaborations with artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie and Astor Piazzolla to Yo-Yo Ma. Born in Havana in 1948, D’Rivera emerged as a child prodigy on saxophone and clarinet, and began making history early on as a member of the trailblazing, all-star fusion ensemble Irakere. He left Cuba in 1980 and became a US citizen, continuing to develop an international following for his ongoing legacy as an instrumentalist and bandleader—and, increasingly, as a composer.
The Elephant and the Clown is a short work D’Rivera originally wrote in 2012 for double clarinet quintet, later arranging it for large orchestra (adding “play toys” to the percussion section to evoke bird calls and other animal sounds). He was inspired by a memory from his Havana childhood, when D’Rivera performed in a TV circus “full of light, colors, animals, and fantasy” that featured “a wonderful trio of musical clowns from Madrid.” He recalled a prank pulled by one of the clowns that involved hiding the elephant from his trainer and convincing him to march to the police station to report its theft.
With The Journey, D’Rivera set out to pay tribute to his personal and artistic connection with Yo-Yo Ma, with whom he had already collaborated for such projects as the cellist’s 2002 album Obrigado Brazil. The idea eventually expanded from a double concerto for cello and clarinet to a triple concerto when he decided to add a third solo part to the second and third movements. This part is assigned to the erhu, an ancient, two- stringed Chinese instrument played with a bow. D’Rivera additionally surrounds the three soloists with a pianist and a percussionist who helps ensure a balance between this upfront combo and the rest of the orchestra.
The instrumentation points to the varied styles and cultural references D’Rivera fuses together in this score. Here, too, a memory from his Cuban childhood prompted the artist’s imagination. He recalled regular visits to a restaurant in Havana’s Chinatown where “the aroma of orchids, jasmine rice with black beans, and the laundry parlor downstairs” blended with the sounds of “different
groups of Asian musicians rehearsing.”
Following the first movement (“Beans”), the erhu makes its first appearance in the slower second movement (“Rice”), introducing a dreamy melody that is soon taken up by the cello and clarinet. D’Rivera weaves what he calls the “nostalgic” and “mystical sounds” of the erhu with jazz rhythms and vocabulary and “melodies, harmonies, and rhythmic cells from Brazil and the Afro-Cuban traditions.” The third movement (“The Journey”), which gives the concerto its title, is meant as “a soulful tribute” to the Chinese people who came to America “in such precarious conditions” and “hugely contributed to the arts and culture of the New World.”
In February 1932, George Gershwin headed to Cuba for a vacation that shaped up as “two hysterical weeks in Havana, where no sleep was to be had, but the quality and quantity of fun made up for that.” What intrigued him most of all, he wrote, were Cuba’s “small dance orchestras, who play [the] most intricate rhythms most naturally.” He came home loaded with a new collection of Cuban
percussion instruments, putting them to work in a concert overture he wrote that summer for a hugely successful concert in August devoted to his music.
Gershwin at first called the piece Rumba, the name for the Cuban style that had become fashionable in its exported guise. He later retitled it Cuban Overture to emphasize the skills in classical symphonic technique and orchestration he had been honing. “In my composition I have endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms with my own thematic material,” Gershwin explained, “The result is a
symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance.”
Danzón No. 2
The son of a mariachi violinist, Arturo Márquez, who was born in 1950, early on began absorbing the folk and popular musical idioms characteristic of his native Mexico. He has become especially well-known for his vibrantly colorful orchestral adaptations of dance genres and the traditions that have grown up around them. Last summer, for example, his latest major work, saw the premiere of his violin concerto Fandango, which explores how the popular Spanish dance evolved in new ways in eastern Mexico.
Márquez has over the years written a series of danzóns that similarly draw from his experiences with a dance that was imported to Mexico, where it took on unique characteristics. The danzón originated in Cuba but went on to become popular in Veracruz, Mexico City, and elsewhere. Fascinated by a visit to a ballroom in Veracruz, Márquez studied the rhythmic, melodic, and formal
qualities of the danzón, listening closely to old-school recordings of the genre. He writes: “I started to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness.”
In Danzón No. 2, which dates from 1993, Márquez focuses on the dance’s “nostalgic melodies” and “wild rhythms,” creating what he calls “a very personal way of paying my respects and expressing my emotions towards truly popular music.”
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Like the other composers on our program, Leonard Bernstein effortlessly moved back and forth between so-called classical and popular styles, in the process creating innovative hybrids. A case in point is the landmark West Side Story, which altered the course of American musical theater from the moment it opened in 1957.
Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film remake (with a revised book by Tony Kushner) reaffirmed how startlingly fresh and impactful this music and the revolutionary choreography connected with it remain more than six decades after West Side Story was conceived. Just a few years ago, the Symphonic Dances became the single most performed of his compositions during the Bernstein centennial.
As part of an upcoming fundraising concert for the New York Philharmonic in 1961, of which he was then music director, Bernstein gathered nine excerpts from the show to create the stand-alone Symphonic Dances, overseeing their orchestration into a suite by his associates Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal; they had just finished scoring the first film version of West Side Story. An extensive percussion section is used to intensify the aggressive confrontation between the rival Jets and Sharks gangs and also for the dances in the gym where the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria first meet in this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Bernstein’s organization of the material draws attention to the score’s dynamic rhythmic patterns and tight interconnection of motifs. The order of the nine sections departs from the dramatic sequence of the musical and is as follows: Prologue, “Somewhere,” Scherzo, Mambo, Cha-Cha (including “Maria”), Meeting Scene, “Cool” Fugue, Rumble, and Finale.
Program notes by Thomas May.