24 February 2009

The Unfinished Tale of Radiant Maples

The instrumentation of Radiant Maples was determined by the occasion for which I composed, although (in the event) we did not perform the piece then.

Phil Michéal, the eminently bonhomous music director at the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit—it would not be overstating the case to describe him as a musical teddy bear, an illustriously agreeable gent—was organizing a musical program for a Sunday late in November of 2001, a ‘Service of Light’. He invited us out to Detroit for the occasion (all of us, as Maria and Irina would exhibit their luminous artwork in the church, as well), and an early musical decision of his was to include my setting of O Gracious Light for choir, harp & organ. Phil also had a piece or two for which he requested me to play clarinet; and we talked about an interlude I might compose fresh for the occasion. Phil also had a flutist engaged for the service; and his organist at the time was also a crack pianist. Thus, I was keen to write a quartet for flute, clarinet, harp & piano, reserving the right to require a little brilliance from the pianist. My working title for the quartet was from the prologue to John’s Gospel, although at this remove I’m a little unsure just which “light” phrase I adopted, unsure even whether the title at the head of my draughts was in English or Latin.

Probably the verse about light shining in the darkness; for the piece begins with a kind of murky tumult in the bass register of the piano, out of which there emerge bright “pings” of harp harmonics.

At the time I began composition of the quartet, I had been writing several sacred choral pieces, designed in some ways for musical restraint. In a welcome change of pace, I set to composing this instrumental quartet with turn-on-a-dime rhapsodic exuberance. The beginning (as mentioned) is almost a cadenza for the piano. Following a harp arpeggio, there are sinuous arabesques for the flute. Then, after some stops & starts, there is an extended passage of a sustained lyrical duet in the winds, underpinned by complimenting ostinati in the harp & piano.

Even these several years later, I clearly remember an evening when I had taken Maria & Irina to the Home Depot Expo Center, where they needed to do some shopping & price-checking on one of the design projects they were then engaged on at the First Congregational Church in Woburn, Massachusetts. While they were about their business, I sat on a sofa in a lounge area with my notebook, constructing the interlocking patterns for harp & piano.

It was about this stage of the work’s composition, as I was playing bits of the work-in-progress to Maria, that we decided to amend the title. Even with the inclusion of the word ‘light’, the working-title came to feel too gloomy and static, and wasn’t suited to the character of the piece which was emerging. It was then high autumn, and the foliage was in brilliance, and with visions all around me of westering sun shining through the leaves, I chose instead the title Radiant Maples. (That new title, I wound up needing to explain to Phil, who felt I’d done a mild switch on him . . . we sorted things out.)

After I had finished the piece, and as the occasion drew nearer, unfortunately the organist fell terribly ill. There was no time to rustle up a substitute pianist at Thanksgiving time, and my eagerness to write a pianistic challenge resulted in a piece which was beyond Phil’s abilities. So, the piece joined others on my shelf.

The story doesn’t end there (just yet).

The New England chapter of the American Composers Forum sent a call for chamber works, which the ensemble Brave New Works would read at Northeastern University in November, 2007. Radiant Maples was accepted, and tape would be running during the reading. Unfortunately, of the perhaps ten pieces which the group bravely read over the course of the hour or two, mine presented more technical challenges (mostly in terms of ensemble, fitting things together) than most, and it did not prove possible to get a clean take of my piece from start to finish. Audience response to the piece was positive, however.

So, I have not yielded over hope.

But, the piece is still on the shelf. And an accommodating shelf it is.

No comments: