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SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS ON WOODY GUTHRIE
SONGS PREMIERES IN SAN JOSE
Symphony Silicon Valley premieres David Amram's marvelous 'Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie'.
By Richard Scheinin
David Amram is a composer and a jazz musician and an author and a storyteller and a wanderer who, in the course of his 76 years, has befriended many a fascinating character. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kerouac, and Woody Guthrie all fall into that category: All were quintessentially American figures who lived large, as Amram has done himself.
Fifty years ago, these men were part of a loose-knit community of artists in New York City; everyone knew everyone. Or soon would. And it happened, in 1956, that a friend of Parker's named Ahmed Bashir was crashing at Amram's $38-a-month apartment on the Lower East Side and awoke one morning to ask, "You wanna meet Woody?"
"I said, 'Woody who?' " Amram recalls. "I really didn't know who he meant. Woody Herman?"
"No, Woody Guthrie," Bashir answered.
This is how it started.
But before going further with the story, let's establish this: Half a century later, Amram is inspired by the "ineffable quality" he hears in the music of Guthrie, the Oklahoma-bred troubadour who befriended Leadbelly, inspired Bob Dylan, and died in 1967 of complications of Huntington's disease. He sees Guthrie as part of a "Whitman-esque tradition," one that "embraces the open road and all the people who live in this amazing vast country of ours." It's a tradition that "expresses the beauty part of life experience" in words and song.
And now Amram has taken Guthrie's most famous song, "This Land is Your Land," and transformed it into an orchestral work titled "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie." Commissioned by Guthrie's familyCK -- daughter Nora (see story on page xxx) and sons Joady and Arlo, the folk singer -- it will be given its world premiere performances by Symphony Silicon Valley this weekend at the California Theatre. Paul PolivnickCK conducts.
If you go, you won't just hear the familiar tune writ large for orchestra. You also won't hear, Amram says, a treacly pastiche of ersatz folk music.
For a time in the '60s, he was composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein. His many works include two operas, a flute concerto composed for Sir James Galway, even a "Triple Concerto" which has as "soloists" a woodwind quintet, a brass quintet and a jazz quintet. Symphony Silicon Valley performed it in 2005.
What he now has done is take Guthrie's familiar musical theme and run it through a series of six transformations, re-harmonizing it, reorganizing it, at times outright hiding it amid his own musical inventions, which loosely follow the song's six stanzas -- which follow Guthrie along that famous "ribbon of highway," discovering this land and its people.
"My idea is to make it almost a biographical sketch," Amram says, speaking by phone from his home north of New York City, "showing Woody's travels and journeys" during the Depression, from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to points west and east, eventually landing in New York. "So I took the six verses as a point of departure and use the song as a central theme and musically take the listeners on a kind of trip all over America, as Woody did, ending up in a big urban setting, New York City, which incorporates the music of many of the visiting cultures which have come to the United States. It's a way of showing that 'this land is your land.' "
Guthrie wrote his iconic song in 1940. (It's original title was "God Blessed America for Me," a retort to Irving Berlin's more jingoistic and similarly titled tune.) By the time Amram met Guthrie in 1956 -- yes, we're back to the story -- the troubadour was suffering from Huntington's disease: "His health was failing, but he was still so positive and full of energy," Amram says, "that it was hard to know that he had an illness and that he had such a hard life."
"Anyway, Ahmed Bashir and I had walked over to this little place in the Lower East Side and there was Woody Guthrie -- a very small wiry man sitting at a kitchen table and the amazing thing was he was wearing cowboy boots, and I'd never seen anyone in New York City wearing cowboys boots. And since I was brought up in a farming community of 200, a place called Feasterville, Pa., I could hear something familiar in his speech; the way he spoke and his accent reminded me of the farmers who used to get together at the neighborhood gas station where I grew up.
"And in this real Oklahoma drawl he was talking about all the things he was interested in knowing about. He talked about sports, about the Brooklyn Dodgers. And he talked about what it was like to go out to sea and how that gave him a chance to think about everything that happened on land and sort it out. And he knew that I was a jazz player and a budding composer of music and he talked about the different jazz players that he had heard and admired and about ballet and opera and classical music that he enjoyed. He was just one of those people who just had seemingly endless knowledge about so many different things."
Amram, though he may not say it, is cut from similar cloth. He grew up in farm country and had a storytelling uncle who was a sea man. At age 12, his family moved to Washington, D.C., to what was then called a "checkerboard neighborhood" -- black and white -- and heard, day and night, jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues. He played piano, percusiion, and French horn -- and had a French horn-playing girlfriend in Palo Alto to whom he paid a visit in 1948, also driving south to perform in the Carmel Bach Festival orchestra.
Amram met Parker and Gillespie in the early '50s and was drafted into the Army during the Korean conflict. Moving to New York after his discharge, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, played French horn in the bands of bassist Charles Mingus and bassist Oscar Pettiford, and became pals with folk singer Ramblin Jack Elliott, Guthrie's protégé.
After Guthrie's death, Amram would still run into Woody's widow, Marjorie -- who had danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company and gave classical music a prominent place in the Guthrie home -- and the Guthrie children around New York. In the decades since, Amram has performed many times with Arlo Guthrie. And about two years ago, when Nora Guthrie conceived the idea of giving "This Land is Your Land" a new life in the world of classical music, she could think of only one composer who might find a way to do it: Amram.
She gave him an assignment: go to the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Music Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. He did it; in fact, he has gone three summers in a row: "I just wanted to get a feeling of where he was from, what people talked like and looked like."
In Okemah, "a classic, pristine Western town," he met Guthrie's sister, Mary Jo, and some of the other old-timers who knew him. He jammed with local musicians and worked at absorbing the Oklahoma folk tradition, which owes a lot to Native American and African-American chants and rhythms.
After initially feeling stymied by the commission -- "How the heck am I gonna do this?" -- he began imagining himself into Guthrie's head. It's been said that the seed of the melody of "This Land is Your Land" comes from an old hymn; Amram imagined Guthrie sitting in a church one Sunday morning, hearing the melody, and then carrying it around with him through his travels.
"And all around me a voice was sounding," Amram says, quoting a phrase from "This Land is Your Land." That voice, to Amram, was "that melody; he couldn't get it out of his head. My raison d'etre is that no matter where he went, whatever he did, he couldn't get that melody out of his mind. And in almost every variation of my piece, the melody sneaks in at some point. And as I moved along, each variation led me to the next one."
Amram's new composition begins with a "Theme and Fanfare for the Road," then takes to the road with variations that recall an Oklahoma Indian Stomp Dance, then, in sequence, Guthrie's seminal morning in church, a Texas barn dance, a "dream" of Mexico ("there's a wonderful tuba solo in the middle; the Mexicans use tuba in some of their polka music"), a "Dustbowl Dirge" and then street sounds from New York: Caribbean, Jewish, jazz.
There's a Salvation Army band sequence, too. Maybe this imaginary band is collecting money for the unemployed men and women lined up outside the relief office in Guthrie's song: "In the shadow of the steeple," he sings, they wait and wonder "if this land's still made for you and me."
With all of this, Amram hopes to re-imagine Guthrie's travels and to underline Guthrie's affection for the American melting pot and for "the little things in life that are so precious." In a way, Amram says, "This Land is Your Land," which has come to be sung around the world in many languages, carries the same message as Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," a message of universal brotherhood.
Amram says he isn't looking to do anything trendy or cutting edge with his new piece. Leonard Bernstein once told him, "David, your job as a composer is not only to please yourself, but to contribute something to the repertory." He hopes the piece will have a shelf life and slowly wind its way into "the musical fabric."
He plans to attend this weekend's concerts is San Jose and already is plotting out his next compositions. He has a new autobiography going to press and can happily talk for hours about his recent performances -- folk, jazz, classical -- around the world. "You keep on trying to improve," he says, "and that has a wonderful medicinal effect of being anti-aging. When you have a real crowded schedule, there's no time to grow old. To put it in the vernacular, you just keep bopping til you drop."