This music sounds like being in love: inspiration behind my “All that Jazz” Program

Written by pianist Kariné Poghosyan in anticipation of her February 14, 2024 Carnegie Hall performance.

I have always been deeply inspired by Gershwin’s story – the natural genius who was able to compose some of the most iconic works of the 20th century, even though he had hardly any professional training. Most impressive to me, a classical concert pianist, was just how effortlessly Gershwin navigated and often combined completely the different styles of classical, jazz, and pop music. This genre-defying approach is one of the reasons why his iconic Rhapsody in Blue is such a unifier, connecting to and inspiring people of all backgrounds since its premiere in February of 1924, almost exactly 100 years ago! As an artist, one of my biggest missions is indeed to seek ways to unify – to create points of connection, both among compositional styles and among my listeners. And so, what is the point of connection among an Argentine, an Afro-Englishman, a Cuban-American, an Armenian, and the son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa? All five composers reached to go beyond the Western Classical forms and techniques toward something much more ancient, a Paul Gauguinesque desire to embrace primal folk elements. This creates a remarkably cohesive theme among the five of them, with various “cross-pollinations” and commonalities. Both Ginastera and Babajanian embraced their respective folk traditions, while also exploring modernist 20th century elements such as the 12-tone serialist techniques. Both Coleridge-Taylor and Tania León were spurred to return to their roots, embracing rhythmic and melodic elements that could be traced back to African songs and dances. And of course, the overarching theme of Jazz, with spicy dissonant sonorities and Afro-Cuban driving rhythms unify all five composers.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), born in Buenos Aires to a Spanish father and an Italian mother, was prolific in all major genres including opera, ballet, symphonic and smaller-scale ensemble works, and even film music. He studied with Aaron Copland, and went on to become an important teacher himself, with such notable students as the great master of Tango, Astor Piazzolla. The Piano Sonata No.1, Op.22 was commissioned by the Carnegie Institute and the Pennsylvania College for Women and was premiered in 1952 by Johana Harris, the wife of the composer Roy Harris; the couple became the dedicatees of the Sonata. One of Ginastera’s biggest inspirations was the folk music of his native country, yet he aimed to compose in the Argentine style without directly quoting any folk themes. He referred to this integration of native dance-like rhythms and melodic figurations, and the modernist compositional devices of his times, such as polytonality and quartal harmonies, as “Objective Nationalism.” Certainly, the Piano Sonata generously showcases this unique style. The opening Allegro Marcato movement juxtaposes a muscular chordal theme with a lyrical song-like theme. The Presto Misterioso is a modernist masterpiece, with a 12-tone row presented most creatively – with both hands playing in unison 3 (and later 5) octaves apart! The Adagio molto appassionato opens with a mysterious note-by-note unraveling, leading up to a heart-wrenchingly dissonant climax in the middle section, before settling back into the mist it had emerged from. Ginastera chose to give the finale of the Sonata an unusual descriptive – Ruvido ed obstinato! The word “Ruvido” translates to “coarse,” “harsh,” and my personal favorite – “rugged!” It is an unabashed celebration of the brave and proud figure of the Gaucho, the Argentine version of the American cowboy! The interplay between 6/8 and 3/4 metric figurations adds to the driving pace that makes for one of the most audacious finales in all of piano repertoire.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was born in London and had the most remarkable journey as a composer, fully finding his musical identity only after visiting the United States. My friend, the renowned WQXR host Terrance McKnight, after hearing a bit of my recording of Coleridge-Taylor’s Three-Fours, remarked “This music sounds like being in love. Here is a composer who has given himself permission to love himself and be at peace with who he is.” Terrance was referring to the life-transforming moment of reconnection the Afro-English composer experienced during his U.S. visits. His English family had been encouraging of his great musical gifts, and young Samuel became immersed in the London classical circles, studying first the violin and then composition at the Royal College of Music. However, all through this early stage, a part of his identity – his African heritage – had remained an untapped resource; he had never met his Sierra Leonese father. When Samuel Coleridge-Taylor arrived in the U.S., he became a heroic figure for the African-American community because of all the success he had already achieved. Teddy Roosevelt caused a stir in 1904 when he invited this black composer to the White House! While he gave hope and encouragement to the African- Americans, he also experienced an invigorating rebirth, reconnecting to his African roots through the great riches of African-American music he heard. It was as if this long-dormant part of his soul came to life! In his Three-Fours, a set of six waltzes composed in 1911, Coleridge Taylor combined masterfully the Western classical vocabulary with the distinctly jazzy rhythmic and “blue-note” elements.

Tania León, born in 1943, in Havana, Cuba, is undoubtedly one of the most impactful composers and musical figures of our time. Her list of accomplishments is mile-long, with only a small number of highlights including Kennedy Center Honors, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Most recently, she was appointed Composer-in-Residence by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and is the holder of the 2023-24 Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.
Her father deeply inspired her compositional journey, by asking her one day, after hearing a recent early work, “Where are you in your music?” This question urged her to embrace her roots and proudly incorporate rhythmic and motivic elements of Cuban music. The fact that Maestra León is now on top of the music world becomes even more extraordinary considering her humble beginnings. Her family in Cuba would save up pennies to invest in what she now calls the “Tania Project,” getting her music lessons and encouraging her budding gifts. At the age of 24, she comes to the US as a refugee, escaping the turmoil of the revolution in Castro’s Cuba. She would make New York her home, soon joining forces with the dancer/choreographer Arthur Mitchell to establish the Dance Theater of Harlem. Through the years that have followed, Maestra León has personified the inspiring motto of women’s rights activists – the heroines in her Pulitzer-prize-winning work “Stride” – the motto of “Failure is not an option!”
In her 2005 piano work “Tumbao,” dedicated to the great Cuban singer Celia Cruz, Maestra León fully embraces her father’s advice, highlighting the vivacious Salsa-like rhythmic patterns and spicy dissonant sonorities, which range from sharp minor seconds to full extended techniques of tone clusters. This is how she describes her approach,
“Like everything in life, we are all reinventing ourselves constantly. Cultures have emerged from the influences of people traveling around the planet. The same could be said for the evolution of music..I draw my inspiration from my ancestors and all of those I have been able to learn about or learn from in all walks of life. My early influences were Bach and Cervantes. The piano was the first instrument I touched as a baby – Grandma gave me a toy piano before I was one year old. I began my music studies, on the piano, at four, In Tumbao, I enjoyed being able to release some of my most vital roots into my composing mix.”

Arno Babajanian (1921-1983) was born in Yerevan, Armenia, and showcased such prodigious talent at the age of 5 to receive the encouragement and blessings of Aram Khachaturian himself. He would go on to study at the Yerevan and later Moscow Conservatories, excelling both as a composer and a pianist. Babajanian’s writing is centered around Armenian folk music, however quite similarly to Ginastera, he easily navigated many different styles, ranging from pop to serialism, as seen in the five selections on the program. The 1970 delicate miniature Melody is an homage to the style of the C-Minor Andantino by Khachaturian. The Six Pictures written in 1965 highlight Babajanian’s fascination with the modernist styles of the 20th century, such as 12-tone serialist techniques and polytonality. In the Folk Song, the right hand and left hand each present a unique 12-tone row, while the crazed and breathless Toccatina highlights Babajanian’s great love of Jazz. The last two works in the “Babajanian” group are examples of his deep love of Armenian music and the nation’s composers that had come before. The 1978 gem Elegie is undoubtedly one of his most beloved works, however, there is a very special meaning behind the work that is not well-known. The work was written in memoriam to the icon of Armenian music and the figure, whose encouraging words had been the reason for Babajanian’s musical journey, Aram Khachaturian, who had passed that year. At the root of the piece is “Qani vur jan im,” a heartwarming love song by the 18th-century Armenian troubadour, poet, and singer, Sayat-Nova (1712-1795). Though at first, the choice of this love song may appear unusual, Babajanian was quite purposeful in his gesture, knowing that Khachaturian was himself a great admirer of Sayat-Nova’s work and would often be found at his desk, voraciously studying manuscripts of his songs. The group concludes with a grand virtuosic showpiece, Dance of Vagharshapat. Just like the Elegie, at its heart is a beloved tune, which was used as a source by several Armenian composers, chiefly among them Komitas Vardapet in his Yerangi from the “Six Dances for Piano.” Given his deep love of Rachmaninoff, Babajanian’s work shines with bravura and virtuosic flare.

George Gershwin (1898-1937), named after his grandfather Jakov Gershowitz, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrant parents who had fled the increasingly anti-Semitic Russia. Their young boy did not show much interest in music until 1908 when the 10-year-old would hear a violinist’s recital and be utterly transformed. The Gershwins had purchased a piano for their older son Ira, but it ends up being George, much to Ira’s relief, who spends the most time with the instrument. Gershwin’s music journey is atypical, to say the least! He never attended a traditional music conservatory, only taking sporadic private lessons in theory, composition, and piano. This created a fascinating dilemma in Gershwin’s life. On the one hand, he would often feel insecure as a composer, always looking up to and befriending the “masters” (Stravinsky, Ravel, Schoenberg, etc). And yet, the reason why those masters did indeed befriend him and the audiences adored his music is precisely because of his self-discovered and completely original style! The legend even has it that Ravel, after hearing of Gershwin’s desire to study with him, warmly replied, “You should give me lessons.” The very thing that George Gershwin often felt ashamed of was ironically what made him truly special! At 15, Gershwin dropped out of school to work as a pianist for the Tin Pan Alley, and soon after, he had already published his first song! Within the next ten years, Gershwin would hone in on a unique compositional voice that blended pop with classical, Western European with African American, and folklike with academic styles.

His iconic Rhapsody in Blue was commissioned by the jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman and would become the work that would define the Jazz Age. The tremendous success of its premiere on February 12, 1924, firmly established the 26-year-old Gershwin as one of the most notable composers of his era. It has since been richly featured in anything from films, such as Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan and Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby, to advertisements for United Airlines. Ironically, the writing process of the piece was quite nerve-wracking. Whitman and Gershwin had tentatively chatted about a new work but didn’t finalize any specifics. One fine afternoon a mere five weeks before the premiere, George’s brother Ira opened up a newspaper to read in horror of an upcoming performance of a new “jazz concerto” by George Gershwin. Recovering quickly from the shock, Gershwin set out to work, while traveling by train to Boston for an opening of a new musical. He later described:

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer…. And there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end…I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot.. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece.”