George Perle, Adagio

by Richard Wilson

Written for the concert American Variations: Perle at 100, performed on May 29, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born May 6, 1915, in Bayonne, NJ
Died January 23, 2009, in New York City
Composed in 1992, commissioned by Carnegie Hall
Premiered April 13, 1993, in New York City by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Zinman
Performance Time: Approximately 9 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, 1 celesta, 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

George Perle’s Adagio is wistful in tone, direct in expression, and free of rhythmic complexity. As the title suggests, its pace is slow, with an eighth-note pulsation prevailing. The loudest dynamic marking is mezzo-forte—and that only fleetingly. Formally the work is a transparent ternary, or ABA, in which the middle section is only slightly faster than its surroundings. When the opening material returns, its pitch level is raised a minor third. Rather than presenting an exact reprise, the composer artfully modifies both scoring and continuity. The harmonic language is chromatic without being serial; it especially favors the interval of the minor third as well as chords constructed from it. These descriptive details, however, fall short of conveying the beauty and power of this jewel of restraint.

On the subject of his compositional approach, George Perle had this to say:

I have a language that permits progressions, and cadences, and keys. I can think in a systematic way about music. That’s what you can do when you have a language—as with Mozart, Brahms, Palestrina, and Schubert.

Richard Wilson is ASO’s Composer in Residence and the Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Music at Vassar College.