“This Land is Your Land” turns 75

Dorothea Lange’s Sand drifts. Dalhart, Texas, June 1938 (Library of Congress | Prints & Photographs Division)

Dorothea Lange’s Sand drifts. Dalhart, Texas, June 1938 (Library of Congress | Prints & Photographs Division)

Hudson Valley Philharmonic pays tribute to an American anthem with works by David Amram and Dust Bowl projections this Saturday

Leonard Bernstein chose David Amram as the New York Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence. “David,” he said, “your job is not only to please yourself. You have to contribute something to the modern repertoire.” Amram, who already had a career as diverse as Bernstein’s, took the admonition seriously. On Saturday, October 17, Hudson Valley audiences will get to enjoy some recent fruits of Bernstein’s advice: two Amram orchestral works based on folk music performed by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic (HVP).

Collaborating with the Poughkeepsie Library’s Poughkeepsie Read (which centers on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), the HVP will perform new compositions by Amram to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” along with projections of historic Dust Bowl images from the Library of Congress set to Barber’s Adagio for Strings and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony.

Amram, who will be 85 next month, has performed an amazing variety of musical roles in his long and successful career. His early teachers were classical musicians. Wendell Margrave, a music critic for the Washington Star, loved Bach above all others. “He used to say, ‘Bach is my man,’” Amram recalls. But along with the polyphony of Bach, Amram was also learning to love Bix Beiderbecke’s and other jazz recordings for the same qualities: the polyphony of several musicians improvising at once. He also learned from them the concept of “choice notes,” which had a double meaning: beautiful, perfect, appropriate, but also that you had a choice of what you felt was aesthetically pleasing, correct emotionally as well as logically.

Amram’s professional career began with jazz. He became a virtuoso player on the French horn, one of the first to use that instrument in jazz. Among the musicians he played with were Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins. “All the Baroque masters made their living as improvisors as well as composers,” says Amram. “By 1949, when Birth of the Cool [sessions led by Miles Davis] came out with all those gorgeous harmonies as well as the solos, it indicated that all the different music I heard that moved me had something to offer. I should learn the basics of Western music and then all the other musics I bumped into so I could see how they were constructed.”

Among those “other musics” were many styles of folk music from around the world – influences that Amram displayed a year ago in a concert at the Maverick Hall in Woodstock. He was one of several musicians backing up Happy Traum, playing piano and Chinese traditional instruments. During his early days in New York, Amram had met Woody Guthrie and became a close friend of Pete Seeger, with whom he performed many times. These contacts served as inspiration when he was commissioned to write orchestral variations on Guthrie’s great anthem “This Land Is Your Land” by the Woody Guthrie Foundation. Amram is pleased that Guthrie’s daughter will be attending this Saturday’s performance.

The other work of his on the HVP program, Theme and Variations on ‘Red River Valley, was commissioned in 1990 for the 20th anniversary of the Kerrville Music Festival in Texas. It was inspired by his encounter a few years earlier with Hondo Crouch, the mayor of a town of seven inhabitants in Texas. They did what Amram describes as a “rap/scat” version of the song together: qualities that he incorporated into the music.

Amram is no stranger to the Bardavon or the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. He conducted the orchestra’s children’s concerts there for two years in the early 1980s. He remembers with pleasure the beautiful theater and the excellent quality of the orchestra.

In his student days, Amram says, “I was liberated from the typical miseducation, when classical music was put into a special wing in the mental institution of the arts; when you had to belong to a certain school until it fell out of fashion. When I came up, Puccini was considered to be like a pop composer and Gershwin wasn’t even considered to be a composer. You had to write 12-tone music or be an avant-gardist and set the piano on fire to get somewhere. It’s fine, but you could only belong to one of the camps, which were all at war. I wanted to participate in all the beautiful rich wisdom of the past thousands of years of all the other musics.

“Those early days in Washington when I played with all the great African American jazz musicians, they would say, ‘Tell your story.’ Everyone had a song and a story to tell. The job as a composer was to tell your story in music to other people, rather than allowing yourself to be imprisoned by a penitentiary sentence that defined a composer’s role as being a useless victim in a society that was too dumb to appreciate classical music. I had to struggle my whole life to find the variety that young people can find today by going on YouTube. Being a real composer is a lifetime’s work, and if you pay attention, everything you do will come back to you and will be part of whatever you compose.”


Hudson Valley Philharmonic’s “This Land” concert, Saturday, October 17, 8 p.m., $20-$64, Bardavon 1869 Opera House, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 473-2072, www.bardavon.org.

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