Razzle: A Commission for the National Symphony Orchestra

Story posted November 14, 2003

When Assistant Professor of Music Vineet Shende was commissioned to write a piece for the National Symphony Orchestra, he found his inspiration in an unexpected place. He shared the experience at a recent faculty seminar.

On February 14, 2002, while driving to the Cedar Rapids airport, Vineet Shende's cell phone rang.

When a man with a thick German accent said he'd like to commission Shende to compose a piece for the National Symphony Orchestra, Shende was sure that he was the butt of a joke. He had a friend who was a likely culprit, but the more the man talked, the more Shende began to take the call seriously.

"It became evident that this guy knew much more about the NSO than most people would know, well, than my friend would know, since he's a computer programmer," Shende said.

During that phone conversation, Shende was not only offered the commission, but he also learned that his composition would follow Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, a piece that ends in an extremely powerful way; Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 was also to be on the program. Shende's was to be an encore piece, which meant it should be somewhat lighthearted and energetic, so the audience could leave feeling good. But since it was his first major commission, Shende also wanted to say something.

When he began toying with ideas, he started with Bartok's piece, which got him thinking about Bartok's relationship to Shostakovich, who had been a hero of Shende's in his youth. (Though now Shende admits to finding Shostakovich a little long winded.)

"I feel towards him like the uncle who taught you to play baseball," he said.

Bartok, however, felt differently about Shostakovich and mocks him in a portion of Concerto for Orchestra: When Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 was performed in the United States during World War II, the event was accompanied by a great deal of pomp and circumstance (for example, Shostakovich was pictured on the cover of Time magazine as a defender of the allies). Bartok found this to be silly, and he thought the symphony itself was overrated. So he mocked the repetition and tone of that symphony in his Concerto for Orchestra.

The Bartok and Prokofiev compositions to be played alongside Shende's also made use of Perfect 4ths and Major 2nds, which give an "open, very expansive" feel, Shende said. "In both pieces, there are sections with a sense of excitement...flurrying 16th notes [and a] pulsating base."

Shende wanted to incorporate some of the same sense and structural elements in his own composition.

"Those were the basic seeds I had going in my head as I began to think about the composition," he said.

But despite his ideas, Shende was stalled for a while. He kept mulling it over, and finally, on a drive up to Brunswick, he found his inspiration in an unexpected place — coverage of an economics summit in Waco, Texas, hosted by George Bush. He noticed that Bush used repetition in making his points and that he used the same language to talk about corporate scandals as he had to talk about the Taliban a year earlier.

"It seemed that he was completely removing all the nuance, all the subtlety," Shende said.

He also noticed that a number of television networks covered the summit with a split screen, showing Bush on one side and a Dow Jones monitor on another, as if a single statement from Bush could affect the market.

Inspired by these current events, Shende cam up with three areas he wanted to explore in his composition: the brashness of Bush, the subtlety of the Issues, and the mockery of Rumsfeld.

  • Bush would be represented by an unsubtle brass fanfare, and a 16th note flurry with an over-the-top timpani syncopation.

  • Other international and national issues that had a great deal of complexity and subtlety to them would be expressed with strings.

  • Donald Rumsfeld, who seemed to be mocking anyone who disagreed with the administration, would be expressed in a section nearly the same as the second, but with a mocking edge.

"So I thought, what's the most mocking sound I can think of," Shende said.

The answer he came up with was the trumpet with a Harmon mute, which also referenced the jazz music that was popular during the time in which Shostakovich wrote.

He would also use the third section to reflect the way Americans seem to need to lighten up even serious topics.

And all would be tied together with his use of the Perfect 4th and Major 2nd structure.

While deciding how to incorporate a defense of Shostakovich, Shende looked at the programs the National Symphony Orchestra had performed prior to Leonard Slatkin becoming conductor. He found that Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 was the piece most often played, and in that symphony there is an introspective theme built on a Perfect 4th and a Major 2nd, fitting nicely into the approach he'd already decided on.

This symphony also fit well with the issues Shende was exploring, since it was written after Shostakovich had been accused, probably by the Polit Buro or even Stalin himself, of creating formulaic Western music. Shostakovich responded in the symphony by creating a "rejoicing" section in which the rejoicing sounds forced. Shende began to see similarities between a lack of personal privacy under Stalin and that experienced by some under the current Patriot Act.

The result of Shende's efforts and ruminations is Razzle, a piece that reflects Shende's view of the times in which we live, but also situates itself in history by referencing Shostakovich and the age in which he wrote.

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