June 27, 2008
I'm a fan of Mr. Anderson. Born on June 29, 1908, this American master of light orchestral music would have turned 100 this Sunday.
I've always had a soft spot for pops and light music. Like others, including pianist Christopher O'Riley, I can't help but agree with the famous Duke Ellington sentiment that there are really only two types of music, good and bad. A well-crafted melody is one of the most wonderful things in life.
When growing up in the Chicago suburbs (before moving to Houston), I attended an arts magnet elementary school. Lucky for us kids, there were many school orchestras in which we could participate: Beginner's and Intermediate Levels, a Chamber Orchestra and even a Strolling Strings Orchestra!
Our conductor and teacher, Stanley Ackerman, had spent time as a musician on the West Coast -- in Hollywood, in fact -- and had returned to his hometown to teach. What I remember best about Mr. Ackerman is that, though he himself was a serious violinist, he loved to joke around and had great affection for popular and movie music. In addition to learning pieces by Vivaldi, Handel and Mozart, we played arrangements of Fiddler on the Roof, Disney songs, "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks, the Theme from A Summer Place and others. I got to know those show tunes pretty well for a ten-year old. Later, he re-invented the school orchestra as "The Strolling Strings." We memorized our pops music, so that we could stroll leisurely through the audience while playing. (That is, the violins and violas would stroll; cellos and basses would remain seated/standing, while Mr. Ackerman continued to conduct and somehow keep us all together.) We had "gigs," like performing at teacher's banquets. It seems a little wacky now to imagine myself as a strolling violinist, but it was one of the funnest times in my "musical career"! I learned to appreciate all types of musical expression.
Back to Leroy Anderson. "It's concert music with a pops quality," he said of his own repertoire. The New England Conservatory-trained and Harvard-educated composer made it look easy to invent perfect orchestral miniatures. Each of his 3 to 4-minute morsels bursts with spirit, imagination and clever sounds.
A runaway typewriter becomes a percussion instrument in The Typewriter. Three different strengths of sandpaper (coarse, medium and fine) are used to create various effects in The Sandpaper Ballet, evoking softshoe dance. And wood blocks used to describe the horse's gallop in Sleigh Ride also symbolize the tick-tock of time in Syncopated Clock. How can this not make you smile?
These "songs without words" combine beauty and irresistible catchiness with an element of the everyday. And the stories behind some of the pieces are so relatable. Though we think of Sleigh Ride as a Christmas piece, the story goes that Anderson started the melody during a heat wave in August 1946 (maybe to cool down by writing about a wintry escapade?).
Another one of his signature pieces, and a personal favorite, is Trumpeter's Lullaby -- an oxymoron of a title! He wrote it in 1949 for Roger Voisin, principal trumpeter of the Boston Pops Orchestra, who challenged Anderson to write something other than the customary trumpet fanfare or other triumphant, military-like solos. If you never thought a trumpet could sound tender and gentle, just listen to this piece.
I've mentioned just a few beloved examples of his music, and there are of course many more. Anderson also composed a delightful Piano Concerto in C, rarely performed. The Houston Symphony and its pianist, Scott Holshouser, played it just a week ago at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Associate Conductor Robert Franz shared his love for Anderson's concerto recently on "The Front Row." If you missed it, please check out his great interview with Bob Stevenson on June 19.
Leroy Anderson passed away on May 18, 1975. But let's salute him in spirit on this 100th anniversary of his birth, and say "thanks" for the music!