May 14, 1998
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
San Francisco, CA
Agnegram was written to celebrate the 90th birthday of the San Francisco Symphony's extraordinary patron and friend Agnes Albert, and is a portrait of her sophisticated and indefatigably enthusiastic spirit. It is entirely composed of themes derived from the spelling of her name.
A - G - E are obviously the notes that they name. B is B-flat (as this note is called in German). S is E-flat, also a German musical term. T is used to represent one note, B-natural, the 'ti' of the solfege scale. From these arcane, but not unprecedented manipulations (Bach, Schumann and Brahms amongst others often did this kind of thing), a basic "scale" of eight unusually arranged notes emerges, from which all the themes are drawn. The piece itself is a march for large orchestra. The first part of the march is in 6/8 and is almost a mini-concerto for orchestra, giving brief sound-bite opportunities for the different sections of settling into a jazzy and hyper-rangy tune.
The middle section of the march, or trio, is in 2/4 and settles into a kind of sly circus atmosphere. Different groups of instruments in different keys make their appearance in an aural procession. First, the winds in C play a new march tune saying "Agnes Albert." Then, the instruments in F are heard playing the same tune. But as these instruments are transposing instruments, although the notes they play read A - G - N - E - S etc., the notes that are heard are completely different. They are followed by instruments in E-flat and B-flat until quite a jungle-like cacophony is built up -- punctuated by alternately elegant and goofball percussion entrances. The jazzy 6/8 tune reappears now in canon and the piece progresses to a jubilant and noisy ending.
Michael Tilson Thomas © 1998