NEC Combined Saxophone Ensemble | Bennett: Suite of Old American Dances
The NEC Combined Saxophone Ensemble — comprising musicians from the College, School of Continuing Education, and Preparatory School — perform Robert Russell Bennett's Suite of Old American Dances, arranged by Matthew Fishman.
WATCH CONCERT STREAM:
Soprano I: Megan Dillon, Chuze Sun
Soprano 2: Jinghao Li
Alto 1: Matthew Fishman, Yingjie Hong
Alto 2: Ethan Shen, Daihua Song, Guangcong Chen, Rayna DeYoung
Alto 3: Guanlong Shen
Tenor 1: Alexis Aguilar
Tenor 2: Jordan Roach, Xiquan Zuo
Baritone 1: Leo Thanyasirin
Baritone 2: Lila Searls, Juchen Wang
NEC School of Continuing Education
Alto 1: Matthew Fishman
NEC Preparatory School
Soprano 1: Daniel Gliksberg
Soprano 2: Madison Massad
Alto 1: Jayme Billings
Alto 2: Davi Rangel
Alto 3: Noah Li
Tenor 1 & 2: Liz Seward, Ethan Kasparian Weisman
Baritone 1: Narissa AlDayaa, Evan Coons
Baritone 2: Michael Xing
- NEC Combined Saxophone Ensemble
- Kenneth Radnofsky, director
Robert Russell Bennett (arr. Matthew Fishman) | Suite of Old American Dances (1949)
The Suite of Old American Dances is a tribute to the songs and dances of the composer’s childhood. The suite features 5 dances, ranging greatly in style from a lyrical waltz, to a dark and mysterious Schottische, to a sharp and dramatic one-step. In his autobiography, Bennett recalls being struck with the inspiration for the piece during a 1948 birthday concert for famed band leader at the time Edwin Franko Goldman. Bennett writes:
“[My wife] Louise and I went to that concert and I suddenly thought of all the beautiful sounds the American concert band could make that it hadn’t yet made… they were so new to me after all my years with orchestra, dance bands and tiny “combos” that my pen was practically jumping out of my pocket begging me to give this great big instrument some more music to play.
[The piece] was published with the name Suite of Old American Dances. I had a nice name for it, but you know how publishers are—they know their customers, and we authors never seem to. My name for it was Electric Park. Electric Park in Kansas City was a place of magic to us kids. The tricks with big electric signs, the illuminated fountains, the big band concerts, the scenic railway and the big dance hall—all magic. In the dance hall all afternoon and evening you could hear the pieces the crowds danced to, and the five movements of my piece were samples of the dances of the day.”
I, like many other band kids across the country, first played the suite in my high school wind band, and immediately fell in love with the rich harmonies and quasi-theatrical drama (certainly picked up by Bennett during his tenure as a very successful Broadway arranger and orchestrator) contained within each of the 5 movements. As I neared the end of my college career, I felt compelled to engage with this piece again in some way or another, when I realized that an arrangement for saxophones may be the perfect way to do so.
The Cake Walk movement starts with an upbeat fanfare rhythm which then acts as the main theme of the tune, getting repeated, inverted, and broken up into pieces as the piece plays on. In this movement Bennett makes a great display of his mastery of rhythm, with constant syncopations and accented off-beats that give the piece great energy. More on the history of the Cake Walk is discussed in the director’s notes below.
The Schottische movement is bookended by featuring the tenor saxophone, which covers for the original scoring of unison clarinets. The tenor sax is supported by driving quarter notes from the baritone saxes, wood block, and sandpaper blocks (covered in this arrangement by shushes!). The movement makes great use out of the swinging eighth note rhythm, which gives the whole piece a dark and mysterious swagger.
The Western One-Step is an aggressive, driving, and intensely dramatic tune. The fast opening section is contrasted by softer, more songlike music, before reverting back to the previous material. After another softening of sound, the bottom voices lay down a foundation of short eighth notes that get progressively more textured and filled out by the rest of the group until the tune comes to an extreme climax, after which the piece once again fades to a final hoppy and humorous conclusion. Listen for how Bennett masterfully weaves the chromatic scale through some of the melodies to add an extra element of color and humor.
The Wallflower Waltz starts with a somewhat mysterious and harmonically ambiguous duet between the tenor and baritone saxophone (originally scored for flute and English horn). After a couple of statements of this theme, three notes from the other tenor and baritone saxophone parts lead the ensemble into a brilliantly sweet and colorful waltz tune. The melody is harmonized using chords with 4 or sometimes 5 pitches per chord, giving the ensemble an extremely dense and vibrant feeling to each note, reminiscent of slower jazz tunes from the great early jazz arrangers such as Duke Ellington. The piece is then rounded off with a flowing, nostalgic melody introduced by alto and soprano saxophones, before the initial mysterious melody returns, this time grounded by the harmony provided by the lower saxophones.
The Rag is fast, syncopated music, reminiscent of the Ragtime music of Scott Joplin. The movement features a melody consisting of 8 groupings of 3 notes which give the tune an exciting rhythmic vitality. The middle section contrasts the intensity at the beginning of the movement by introducing a beautifully harmonized songlike melody in the middle horns. As the songlike melody continues to be heard, more and more rhythmic variation is brought in under the melody until the final climax of the piece arrives.
I give my warm thanks to Ken Radnofsky for always indulging me and supporting me in projects such as this, and for being a mentor to me both in music and in life over the last three years.
"SUITE OF OLD AMERICAN DANCES"
By Robert Bennett
Chappell & Co. Inc. (ASCAP)
A note from Kenneth Radnofsky, ensemble director
When we began rehearsals of Robert Russell Bennett’s Suite of Old American Dances, few of us had any idea of the real beginnings of the ‘Cakewalk’ as a musical form/style. Saxophonist Jayme Billings, a Vermont high school junior in the Preparatory Dept., puts it into perspective for us, with the following:
The first movement in ‘Suite of Old American Dances’ by Robert Russell Bennett is entitled ‘Cake Walk’. The cakewalk originated before the Civil War as a dance performed by enslaved people to be judged by their plantation owners. It also gave enslaved people an opportunity to mock their plantation owners without their knowledge, with prancing and highstepping. The winner of the competition was then awarded a cake, and hence its name.
The term “cakewalk” is still used today to describe something that is easy to achieve (e.g., “That exam was a cakewalk.”). In actuality, cakewalks were not known for being easy to win but rather the dances were performed so fluidly that they looked easy to execute. By the 1870s the dances began to be performed in minstrel shows by black and white performers, both wearing black face. As the cakewalk grew in popularity, it spread throughout the world and gave rise to a new form of music: ragtime.
It is important to educate society and help them understand the offensive use of black face and the degrading nature of these dances in minstrel shows. We feel it is important to share what we have learned and put “Cakewalk” into perspective for our listeners. Because of its racist beginnings, we want to make a point not to glorify this music but rather to learn from it and explain to our audience that we chose to perform it due to its importance in American musical history.’
We very much appreciate Jayme’s knowledge and sensitivity and for sharing it with us. Discussions have ensued with Stanford Thompson, Special Advisor to the President, other members of the administration, and with all members of Preparatory, Continuing Ed, and College Ensembles. It was unanimously agreed to perform the work along with our explanation of its history, which had almost been forgotten, if ever known, by so many of us.
Thank you Jayme, Stanford, and all the members of the combined ensembles.
– Ken Radnofsky, Director NEC Saxophone Ensemble
Matt Fishman is a 4th year undergraduate student at Northeastern University, studying for his double major in Music and Mathematics, as well as a performance certificate in saxophone through NEC’s School of Continuing Education. Matt has had multiple arrangements for saxophones premiered around Boston, including his arrangement of the Finale from the New World Symphony by Antonín Dvořák for 20-some-odd saxophones, which was premiered by the NEC saxophone ensemble in Jordan Hall in 2018. Matt is also active in the music scene at Northeastern, where he has conducted multiple shows for NUStage, and where he has held the position of President of the Northeastern University Wind Ensemble for the last two years.
Many thanks to Conrad Kline at Azure Sound/Video for the preparation and editing of this layered video, to John Rabinowitz at the Boston Woodwind Society, and to Rebecca Bogers of NEC's Preparatory School for grants to aid in production.