Symphony to perform Brubecks’ composition set to Ansel Adams’ photographs
Few people know that in his youth the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams wanted to become a concert pianist, not a photographer, nor that a yearning to play piano led him to meet his future wife—in Yosemite, no less, which of course later would become one of his favorite photographic subjects.
Music, nature, art, love—the story has it all.
It’s a story the jazz musician and composer Chris Brubeck likes to tell. He’s the son of West Coast jazz giant Dave Brubeck, and together the duo has composed a symphonic tone poem, Ansel Adams: America, that melds their music to a stream of 102 visual images illustrating Adams’ life and work. This unique “audiovisual” composition will be a featured part of the North State Symphony’s upcoming performances of exclusively American compositions, American Portrait, on Nov. 12 and 13.
Chris Brubeck was in Chico for a concert last spring with his group the Brubeck Brothers. During that visit he sat down for an interview with symphony conductor Kyle Wylie Pickett to talk about Adams and the genesis of Ansel Adams: America. (To watch a video of the interview, go to www.northstatesymphony.org.)
According to Adams’ autobiography, it was the beauty of Yosemite that first sparked a desire in him to take photographs. But, as Brubeck related, he also loved the piano, and while visiting Yosemite that yearning to play music led him to the old Chickering upright piano at the home of the man who owned Best’s Studio. There he met, fell in love with and eventually married the proprietor’s daughter, Virginia Best.
The idea for the Brubecks’ composition came from a woman named Susan Carson, a “dynamic patron of the arts,” as Brubeck described her. Over lunch, she broached the idea of an orchestra performing original music while Adams’ photographic images were projected in the concert hall. “I instantly thought this was a fabulous concept and wished it had been my idea!” Brubeck writes in his program notes.
From the beginning he wanted to enlist his father in the project. As he quickly learned, Dave Brubeck and Ansel Adams had much in common. Both were Californians (Adams grew up in San Francisco, Brubeck in Ione), and their careers largely overlapped, spanning much of the 20th century.
As Chris writes, “Because of [Adams’] talent, hard work, and good fortune, he became a pioneer and icon of an emerging new art form. I couldn’t help but think of my father, who grew up as a cowboy in the foothills of California near Stockton. The changes in the mid-20th century affected both Ansel and Dave, propelling them and their respective art forms, photography and jazz, into the new frontiers of American culture. Recognizing their similar histories spurred me to ask Dave to join me in this compositional endeavor.”
His father was 88 at the time and was reluctant to take on such a big project, but Chris sent him a copy of Adams’ autobiography, and he and Chris’ mother, Iola, became hooked. The elder Brubeck went to work on a piano score, with Chris assisting and kibitzing along the way, and when that was finished Chris continued to compose and shape the piece and, with his wife Tish’s help, orchestrate more specifically to exact images. “Dave, Iola, Tish, and I had many good times together ‘auditioning’ different photographs to be shown with various passages of music,” Chris writes.
The result is a 22-minute, one-movement symphonic piece that “fully integrates sweeping melodies with 102 striking images of or by Ansel,” according to program notes.
Ansel Adams: America had its premier in 2009 and has been performed by several West Coast symphonies, as well as the Baltimore and Philadelphia symphonies.
Also on the American Portrait program are George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Richard Rodgers’ Victory at Sea Symphonic Scenario, Aaron Copland’s Our Town orchestral suite, and Lowell Liebermann’s Piccolo Concerto, featuring a young Shasta High School student, Greg Manuel, on piccolo.