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Top Five Works about New York City by its Composers

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As you can see on our map of composers’ homes in New York City, Gotham has played host to its share of great musical minds. And several of its current and former denizens have rhapsodized about the city in their music. Here our five great works New York composers have written about the Big Apple.

1. On the Town

Perhaps no composer better depicted the textures of New York City than Leonard Bernstein, whose West Side Story and score for On the Waterfront show the metropolis’ myriad delights as well as its seamy underbelly. However, the 1949 musical On the Town — a collaboration with Adolph Green and Betty Comden — depicted New York City as a veritable playground for a few sailors on 24-hour leave from the Navy. (Who can forget that the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down). The musical was based on Bernstein’s 1944 ballet suite Fancy Free, which marked Jerome Robbins’s first work for ABT.

2. Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark

Charles Ives composed his 10-minute tone poem “Central Park in the Dark” as a counterpoint to his Unanswered Question, describing the latter as a “cosmic drama,” and the former a “picture-in-sounds.” The work depicts a hot summer night on one of the park benches, and true to his form you can hear the normal passersby: a group of singers, busking musicians, fire engines and some revelers returning home after a night from a bar. Not much has changed.

3. Gershwin’s Concerto in F

When Walter Damrosch commissioned George Gershwin to write a work for the New York Symphony (later the New York Philharmonic) the composer started work on what he originally titled “New York Concerto.” He eventually changed the name to Concerto in F so that it would represent “absolute” music. Still, the piece still retains the throbbing pulse of the city streets, from its Grandioso first movement to its bluesy second movement to its ragtime-inflected finale.

4. Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint

Native New Yorker Steve Reich’s music doesn’t just describe his home city, but more specifically the downtown scene which embraced his minimalist style, which is manifest in “New York Counterpoint.” The original work required a clarinetist to play along with ten prerecorded tracks (though latter renditions have staged the work completely live).

5. Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park

In response to the 9/11 attacks several composers wrote elegies for the fallen towers. Bang on a Can founder, Michael Gordon’s contribution, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, was the 30-minute The Sad Park. Gordon wove recorded comments from nursery school students who attended school with his children two blocks away from the World Trade Center. The result is an authentic sense of what it meant to be in the city on Sept. 11 2001.

Weigh in: What piece best captures New York to you?