Music Is Powerful

“I say I survived for a reason: to tell my story. I believe that…Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission.”
– Emmanuel Jal

The Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005 was one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars on record, yet it barely registered in Western media. The war resulted in the deaths of roughly two million people and the repeated displacement of over four million others in southern Sudan alone, constituting one of history’s largest refugee crises. Among the atrocities committed during the war were slavery, rapes, mutilations, mass killings, and the forced enlistment of children as soldiers by all sides.

Emmanuel Jal was one such child soldier. Born in what is now South Sudan, Jal was a young child when the civil war broke out. After his father joined the rebel army (SPLA) and his mother was killed by loyalist soldiers, Jal joined the thousands of Sudanese children travelling to Ethiopia, hoping to escape the conflict and find education and opportunity. Along the way, however, many of the children, Jal included, were forcibly recruited by the SPLA and taken to military training camps where they were taught to kill, in Jal’s words, “mercilessly and efficiently.”

For the next several years Jal and his comrades fought with the SPLA, first in Ethiopia and then back in Sudan, until the fighting and deprivations became unbearable. Jal and some of his friends ran away, and for three months they were constantly on the move, stealing food and dodging roving patrols. Eventually Jal met a British aid worker who adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya, where he attended school. It was in the slums of Nairobi that Jal became a community activist. He also discovered hip-hop and the power of the spoken word; singing and rapping became a form of therapy to ease the pain of his experiences, and his life’s course was set. Over time Jal developed a unique form of hip-hop, seemingly conventional in form but layered with African beats and sung/chanted over African-inspired choruses.

Unlike many of his American counterparts, Jal sees hip-hop as a powerful vehicle to lobby for social justice and political change in a positive manner, rather than as a method of pursuing street credibility. His raps and spoken word pieces emphasize unity and common humanity as motivators for young people and weapons in the fight against the scourges of ethnic and religious divisions, such as those that plague his homeland. This hopeful outlook, combined with his many humanitarian activities, dovetails neatly with the goals of UC San Diego’s Eleanor Roosevelt College, and marks Jal as a suitably inspirational figure to help celebrate the College’s 30th Anniversary.

His dynamic performance is by turns thought-provoking and uplifting, at times almost somber, but also leavened with humor and, yes, with fun. As Jal himself puts it, “Life without fun is no life at all,” a remarkable perspective from one who has suffered much but has refused to give in to bitterness or cynicism.

Watch From War Child to Global Citizen with Emmanuel Jal.

Jazz Rules the World

Contributed by John Menier

32822
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the 1920s the “Jazz Age,” and recent inventions such as radio and phonograph records helped to spread the popularity of two quintessentially American musical genres, jazz and blues, across the country and beyond our borders. In 1926 a Paris-based music magazine began its review of recorded jazz with the observation that “Jazz truly rules the world,” and a growing number of influential European composers were jazz fans, including Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, and Poulenc. Maurice Ravel spent several happy nights with George Gershwin at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to jazz, a testament to the music’s appeal.

For a time these foreign composers included jazz elements in some of their works, with varying degrees of success, but by the mid-1930s their ardor had cooled as new forms of modernism took hold on the Continent. It was left then to American musicians to continue nurturing the confluence of their native jazz and “serious” music that began in the early 1920s, and they did so brilliantly.

Three of the foremost practitioners of this hybrid form were George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. Though they came from different backgrounds and training, and each developed a singular musical personality, they shared an interest in elevating the jazz/classical fusion from a novel experiment to a vibrant art form. They shared another quality, harder to quantify but nevertheless distinctive: their music was unmistakably American, with all that implies.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the Gershwin masterpieces on this program, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” In both pieces, the jazz/blues influences are on prominent display, as the music alternates in mood from contemplative to nostalgic to swaggering, and from Paris to Harlem. Gershwin insisted that both pieces are examples of sonata form, but whether sonata or tone poem or concerto or potpourri, it’s not important how it’s categorized. What matters is that this is fun music, as full of personality as anything you’re likely to hear.

It’s been said that Duke Ellington embodied the very soul of jazz. Ellington wrote some of the first extended jazz compositions to appear in the concert repertoire, and the two pieces on this program, “Mood Indigo” and “Solitude,” amply demonstrate his versatility and sophistication as a composer. Ellington was also an innovative, idiosyncratic orchestrator, and what became known as the “Ellington Sound” is a constant feature of his music – elusive, hard to define, harder still to imitate, but once heard, unmistakable.

Aaron Copland was a city boy who brought a certain polished urbanity to his work. After extensive studies in Paris Copland initially worked with then-voguish European styles, but gradually his native “Americanism” emerged and he established himself as the premiere American composer of his generation. “Quiet City” is a mood piece, a tone poem in miniature, originally written for a friend’s play. The play failed but the music lives on as a popular concert selection. The influence of jazz and/or blues is perhaps less overt in this haunting work than in the Gershwin and Ellington pieces, but it’s there in the tones and phrasings of the featured trumpet and oboe combined with the dotted rhythms of the string orchestra.

The program is rounded out with an exhilarating premiere work by Asher Tobin Chodos, “Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Joining the composer on piano is Cecil Lytle, who also performs on “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Watch: Crossing the rue St. Paul – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

Simply Fun

Contributed by John Menier

32822In his remarks from the podium, La Jolla Symphony & Chorus Conductor Steven Schick notes that the 2017 edition of the “Young People’s Concert” features music by two composers with differing influences, temperaments, and styles: George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. While acknowledging the contrasts Schick also points out some surprising similarities shared by the two men: both were born to Russian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn, both studied in Paris, both had an interest in jazz and popular music, both experimented with different genres, and both came to prominence in the Jazz Age. First and foremost, Gershwin and Copland were American, with all that implies; as Gershwin put it, “True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”

Perhaps the best expression of what’s been called “the American touch” may be found in two of Gershwin’s most popular scores, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” Both pieces reflect Gershwin’s abiding interest in jazz and blues, two indisputably American art forms, and both touch glancingly upon some of the conflicts and contradictions of American life (then and now). Ultimately, though, the most profound and appealing quality shared by the compositions is that, in the words of the Conductor, “they are simply fun.”

By comparison to the high-stepping confidence of the Gershwin tunes, Copland’s “Quiet City,” originally written for a failed play, reflects another, more contemplative aspect of the American character. One reading holds that the longing and unfulfilled aspirations evoked by this piece warn of the consequences of not being true to one’s self, an ever-present danger in a fast-moving, ambitious society. Perhaps. However one interprets “Quiet City” (if it needs any interpretation at all) there’s no denying the work’s beauty, the result of a perfect balance between string orchestra and two soloists on trumpet and oboe.

Throughout his remarks, Steven Schick notes the empathy and intricate interplay between the various sections of the orchestra, by turns tempestuous and serene as required by the score, and the absolute need to serve the music and the composers.

Watch Young People’s Concert 2017 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

La Jolla Symphony & Chorus: The Lovers

8232When Dr. David Chase assumed leadership of the La Jolla Symphony Chorus in 1973, it consisted of 60 members. Over the succeeding years, Dr. Chase grew the chorus to 130 voices while expanding the group’s repertoire to include contemporary works as well as proven classics.

To mark his retirement after 44 years as Choral Director in June 2017, Dr. Chase assembled and conducted an eclectic program inspired by love and passion under the appropriate title, “The Lovers.” The first piece, the charming “Overture to Beatrice and Benedict,” is a concert staple from Hector Berlioz’s opera comique based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Next on the bill is Arnold Schoenberg’s tone poem “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”), the composer’s interpretation of a German romantic poem. It is widely considered one of this modernist composer’s most accessible works. In the program’s final piece, “The Lovers,” American neo-Romantic composer Samuel Barber sets a cycle of poems by celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for baritone, mixed chorus, and full orchestra.

Taken as a whole the three pieces form a compelling examination of both the complexities of love and music’s ability to speak directly to the heart. Not coincidentally, the program also reflects David Chase’s passion for music and lifelong devotion to popularizing lesser-known works and is a fitting culmination to his tenure with La Jolla Symphony & Chorus. Dr. Chase will be ably succeeded, but he can never be replaced.

Watch La Jolla Symphony & Chorus: The Lovers

The Rhythm of the 20th Century

8232It’s been said that jazz is one of America’s most significant and lasting cultural exports. The style that became known as jazz originated in New Orleans in the late 19th century, and grew rapidly in popularity and influence. By the beginning of the 20th century this musical genre had firmly established itself in Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, New York City (specifically in Harlem) and other American cities. But it took a cataclysmic event to propel jazz “across the pond,” where it quickly established a firm foothold in the European cultural landscape.

The primary agent of that intercontinental expansion was Lieutenant James Reese Europe, a black officer and bandleader who volunteered in 1918 for service in World War I with members of his celebrated Harlem Society Orchestra. Because the U.S. Army was not yet integrated, their newly-formed 369th Regimental Band fought courageously alongside the French, who nicknamed the 369th “the Hellfighters” and awarded the Band the Croix de Guerre in recognition of their valor and contributions to morale.

In addition to their exploits on the battlefield, the Hellfighters brought jazz to several European cities — most notably to Paris, where several of the 369th’s musicians remained following the war’s end. In the ensuing decades Paris became a mecca for jazz practitioners and aficionados, as more Americans musicians emigrated to the City of Lights.

For the 19th Annual Lytle Scholarship Concert at UC San Diego, internationally renowned pianist and Department of Music Professor Emeritus Cecil Lytle is joined by a stellar array of jazz musicians from Los Angeles, San Diego and Tijuana in a concert entitled “Harlem Hellfighters: Jazz Goes to War.” Through narration and an eclectic selection of music this program relates the history of, and pays homage to, those brave soldiers and jazz ambassadors of the 369th Regimental Band.

“The music of this concert is the story of jazz,” Dr. Lytle notes, “a story of liberation ‘over there’ and back here… Not only did the Harlem Hellfighters fight for their country when they did not have equal rights at home, but they brought jazz to Paris and soon united generations of people around the world-young and old, rich and poor, black and white, friends and foes-in what would become the rhythm of the 20th century.”

Watch Harlem Hellfighters: Jazz Goes to War, a Lytle Memorial Concert.

Contributed by John Menier, Arts & Humanities Producer