American Dreams Santtu-Matias Rouvali – conductor



It means so much to us to be back on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. This is the first time we have been back in our London home since March 2020. It is also our first ever ticketed livestreamed performance. Thank you for joining us as we find creative, sustainable ways to keep playing for you, and for all our listeners, old and new.

Since its foundation, the Philharmonia has pioneered the use of technology to bring great music to the widest possible audience. On the eve of our 75th birthday, who better to lead us into this new phase of our history than Santtu-Matias Rouvali, our Principal Conductor Designate? We hope you enjoy this concert, and we hope to welcome you back for more, whether live, streamed or in a way that hasn’t even been invented yet, for many years to come.

Please share your thoughts on the performance on social media, using the hashtag #PhilharmoniaLive.

This concert is supported by the American Patrons of the Philharmonia Foundation. Header image: Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Camilla Greenwell

Aaron Copland (1900 – 90): Appalachian Spring (1943 – 4)

  1. Very slowly
  2. Fast
  3. Moderate
  4. Quite fast
  5. Still faster
  6. Very slowly (as at first)
  7. Calm and flowing
  8. Moderate. Coda

In 1941 the choreographer Martha Graham approached Aaron Copland to write a new ballet. She had already set Copland’s Piano Variations to dance in 1938, but her suggested topic for the new piece, Medea, was rejected. Only with a change of subject to “an American theme” (and the sponsorship of the wealthy Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge), could Copland be persuaded. He began work in 1943, finishing a year later.

Appalachian Spring’s story centres around a young couple setting up home in Pennsylvania in the 19th century. With the support and guidance of a preacher and an older woman, they confront a pioneer life of challenges and shared emotional resources. They arrive “elated and religious”, marry, go about their daily activities, and finally take their place within their community.

Copland’s music is divided principally between a lively, even naïve, dancing youthfulness, first heard in its bright second section, and a broader, more reflective mode, introduced with the depiction of dawn at the start and concluding as the couple settle into their new life at the ballet’s end.

Philharmonia © Camilla Greenwell
“I gave voice to [Appalachia] without knowing I was giving voice to it...” Aaron Copland

At the work’s heart is a set of variations on the Shaker dance song Simple Gifts, written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848 and which Copland had come across in 1940, before the Graham commission. The tune is best known in the UK as the basis of Sydney Carter’s 1963 hymn Lord of the Dance. Throughout, Appalachian Spring features airy harmonies, built around simple intervals of thirds and fourths, and subtly shifting rhythmic meters, which together create a sense of openness and freedom. This is, after all, the great ballet of the American pioneer myth.

Yet it wasn’t necessarily intended that way. Graham’s commission was vague, and only outlined in general terms its setting and characters. The title was hers, taken from a poem by Hart Crane, but Copland wasn’t aware of it (nor did he see Graham’s choreography) until just before the premiere. “I gave voice to [Appalachia] without knowing I was giving voice to it”, he later remarked.

Nevertheless, dance and music achieved a perfect marriage of subject and setting. Graham went on to become one of America’s most celebrated choreographers, while Copland’s music has become some of his most frequently performed and in 1945 won him the Pulitzer Prize.

Philharmonia © Camilla Greenwell

Florence Price (1887–1953): Dances in the Canebrakes (1953)

  1. Nimble Feet
  2. Tropical Noon
  3. Silk Hat and Walking Cane

The first African American woman to receive national recognition as a composer, Arkansas-born Florence Price was a pioneer in her own right. Yet although she was moderately well known in her lifetime (by reputation at least), her music was little heard, and almost entirely forgotten until a large cache of manuscripts was discovered in an abandoned house in Illinois in 2009.

Dances in the Canebrakes is one of Price’s last works, written shortly before her death from a stroke. A canebrake is a dense thicket of tall bamboo or sugar cane, found in southeastern USA. This is a short suite of African American dances, originally written for piano but heard tonight in the orchestration made by after Price’s death by fellow Arkansan, William Grant Still.

The first movement is a rag, the second a slow drag (a slow-tempo rag), and the third a cakewalk (a form of dance that both satirised white upper-class manners and offered an opportunity for solo improvisation).

All three dances originated in the late 19th century, although they remained popular through the early 20th. In this way, Price’s light-hearted work, with its Coplandesque expressions of simple, communal activity, acquires a nostalgic note, apparent in shifts in tone like that heralded by the solo oboe melody in the central section of ‘Silk Hat and Walking’. Yet any darkening of mood is always short-lived: for the most part, Dances in the Canebrakes is sunny and melodic, its gently bouncing syncopations enhanced by Still’s luminously bubbling orchestration.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Camilla Greenwell

Steve Reich (b. 1936): Music for Pieces of Wood (1973)

Steve Reich wrote Music for Pieces of Wood between completing his first masterpiece, Drumming (1970 – 71) and beginning his second, Music for 18 Musicians (1974 – 76). He was seeking to simplify his methods: along with Clapping Music, composed a year before, he says Music for Pieces of Wood represents a desire “to make music with the simplest possible instruments”, in this case five pairs of tuned claves.

Music for Pieces of Wood represents a desire “to make music with the simplest possible instruments..."

The work explores a rhythmic formula Reich learnt from Yoruba music, from West Africa: a syncopated pattern of quavers and crotchets that slides between different time signatures (6/4 and 12/8). The same rhythm appears in Clapping Music, but while in that piece Reich gradually shifted two statements of the rhythm out of phase with one another, in Music for Pieces of Wood he uses an additive process, building up cross rhythms in the other three clave parts one note at a time. Once that process is completed, the four lower claves lock into rhythmic step and a new section begins. This sequence is repeated twice: in the second section the underlying pattern in 6/4 time is cut back to 4/4 before being telescoped once more to 3/4 time.

Although the underlying process is simple, the addition or subtraction of notes continually shifts our attention between patterns of three, four and two. You may find yourself nodding in time to one beat, only to be pulled into a different time stream. Or, just as engagingly, sticking with it as the landscape changes around you. It’s like riding a train, exploring Manhattan or replaying a recording, all motifs in Reich’s later works. Like Copland, Reich explores a tension between freedom and regularity.

You may find yourself nodding in time to one beat, only to be pulled into a different time stream.
Dumbarton Oaks Music Room, credit Jack E. Boucher

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971): Dumbarton Oaks (1937 – 8)

  1. Tempo giusto
  2. Allegretto
  3. Con moto

Few couples can have commissioned works from a major composer to celebrate a significant anniversary. Fewer still can have been rewarded with a miniature masterpiece like Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, written for the American diplomat and art collector Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred Barnes Bliss on the occasion of their 30th wedding anniversary, and named after the couple’s historic estate in Washington, DC.

The work’s composition was overshadowed by tragedy. Stravinsky wrote it at a Swiss sanatorium where he, his wife and his two daughters had been sent to be treated for tuberculosis. In 1938 the disease took the life of his eldest daughter Ludmilla, and in 1939 that of his wife Katerina. During this time Stravinsky drew comfort by immersing himself in the music of Bach. Plenty of Bach can be found in his piece – not least the Brandenburg Concertos, especially the Third, whose quirk of three violins and three violas Stravinsky borrows, and whose spiralling opening melody he freely adapts. “I do not think that Bach would have begrudged me the loan of these ideas and materials, as borrowing in this way was something he liked to do himself”, was his explanation.

Yet Dumbarton Oaks was written for a celebration. It is a tour-de-force of Stravinsky’s contrapuntal and orchestrational skill, written at the height of his neoclassical period. Many parts of the work’s three movements (played without break) are fugal, or fugue-like (a fugue is a formal, layered musical texture), but the music never becomes dense or academic. Light as champagne it fizzes with good humour, with numerous ironic nods to 18th-century idioms and plenty of moments for individual instruments to shine.

“I do not think that Bach would have begrudged me the loan of these ideas and materials, as borrowing in this way was something he liked to do himself...” Igor Stravinsky

It was to be the last work Stravinsky completed in Europe. In 1939 he emigrated to the USA, and in Dumbarton Oaks’s open, grid-like textures of rhythm and instrumentation there are anticipations of his American colleague Copland – Billy the Kid (written in the same year Dumbarton Oaks was first performed), as well as Appalachian Spring. Nadia Boulanger, who had taught both men some years before, conducted the piece’s premiere in a private performance at the Bliss’s Dumbarton Oaks home.

Notes by Tim Rutherford-Johnson © Philharmonia Orchestra/Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Florence Price, Public Domain

Who was Florence Price?

“My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race...”

So wrote Florence Price (1887–1953) to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1943. She acknowledged the barriers that faced people of her colour and gender, writing that in owning them to the conductor he was now in the position of “knowing the worst” of her. Yet Price overcame these obstacles to become the first African American woman to gain widespread recognition as a composer, and from the 1930s until her death she was the most famous African American woman composer in the world.

Florence Price was born Florence Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas. When she married attorney Thomas J. Price in 1912, Florence took his name. Growing up, Florence’s mixed-race family was part of the black upper-middle-class community. Her grandparents had been free but had lived in a slave state. Her father, Dr James H. Smith, became Little Rock’s first black dentist. Her mother, Florence Irene Gulliver Smith, was a successful businesswoman and an accomplished pianist and singer who gave her daughter her first music lessons. The young Florence was educated alongside William Grant Still, another African American composer whose arrangement of Dances in the Canebrakes we hear on this programme.

In 1927 Price, with her husband and three children, moved away from the increasing racial oppression in the South and headed for Chicago, where she studied at the American Conservatory and at the Chicago Musical College. In 1931 Price ended what had become an abusive relationship and remarried soon afterwards.

It was in the 1920s that Florence Price started to win awards for her compositions. Her Symphony in E minor won first prize at the Wanamaker competition in 1932, and was premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony conducted by Frederick Stock, making Price the first black woman to have an orchestral piece played by a major American orchestra. The symphony was well received, paving the way for Price to become a significant figure in Chigaco’s musical life.

“... one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song..."

When Marian Anderson performed Price’s Songs to the Dark Virgin (1941), the Chicago Daily News hailed the occasion as “one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song”. John Barbirolli commissioned an overture from Price in 1951, but he and Stock were in a minority, and many prominent musical figures, including Koussevitzky, ignored her.

A stash of Florence Price’s scores was left languishing in a tumbledown house until its discovery in 2009. Thankfully, her music is now being programmed and listened to more widely than ever before; a voice at risk of falling silent is singing for all to hear.

Feature by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld

Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Camilla Greenwell

Santtu-Matias Rouvali – Principal Conductor Designate

“He is the real thing: music unmistakably flows from him...” The Sunday Times

Santtu-Matias Rouvali first conducted the Philharmonia in 2013, aged 27. He was instantly recognised by the players as “an inspiring individual… a musician with spirit and passion akin to our own” (Cheremie Hamilton-Miller, Vice-President of the Philharmonia Orchestra and member of the Viola section).

In 2018 he became Principal Guest Conductor, and in 2019 we named him as our next Principal Conductor. He will be just the sixth person to hold that title when he takes over the baton from Esa-Pekka Salonen in the 2021/22 season. On his appointment, he said: “This is the start of a great adventure. The players of the Philharmonia can do anything: they are enormously talented and show an incredible hunger to create great performances. There is huge possibility with this orchestra, and we will do great things together.”

He has already conducted a wide range of music with the Philharmonia, from blockbusters by Strauss and Rachmaninov to lesser known works by his compatriots Sibelius and Lindberg. In 2020 his first Philharmonia CD, a live recording of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, was released by Signum Records.

Santtu is also Chief Conductor of Gothenburg Symphony, and retains his longstanding Chief Conductor position with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra close to his home in Finland. With the Gothenburg Symphony he is recording an ambitious Sibelius cycle – the first two volumes both received the Choc de Classica, and the first was also named Gramophone Editor’s Choice and Diapason D’Or ‘Découverte’. In Tampere, alongside a busy symphonic conducting schedule, he has conducted Verdi’s La forza del destino, and the world premiere of Olli Kortekangas’s My Brother’s Keeper (Veljeni vartija) with Tampere Opera.

Last season included concerts with the New York and Berlin Philharmonics and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and this season he is due to appear across Europe, with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and Münchner Philharmoniker, and alongside soloists such as Alice Sara Ott, Pekka Kuusisto, Bryce Dessner, Nina Stemme, Vadim Gluzman, Nemanja Radulović and Vikingur Olafssson.

When he’s not conducting, Santtu loves to spend time working on his farm near Helsinki, and meditating, foraging and hunting in the forests around his home.

“It’s a rare thing to have such an instant rapport with a conductor and we are all extremely lucky. We look forward to making history together” (Victoria Irish, President of the Philharmonia Orchestra and member of the First Violin section).

“This is the start of a great adventure. The players of the Philharmonia can do anything: they are enormously talented and show an incredible hunger to create great performances. There is huge possibility with this orchestra, and we will do great things together.” Santtu-Matias Rouvali