22 June 2009

Program Notes

About the Music

Blue Shamrock :: Although the occasion for ‘finalizing’ this gnarly little number was a call from a European clarinetist for unaccompanied pieces, I had done most of the composing while in St Petersburg, in the mid-’90s. At that time, I was supposed to be finishing composition of my doctoral dissertation; but the comparative ‘formality’ of completing that dissertation aside, on a practical, experiential level, I felt a great freedom in having at last emerged from academia, and this sense of freedom frequently expressed itself in the writing of some small-scale piece which served no practical purpose for the dissertation. In this case, a jeu d’esprit for clarinet solo, three variations ‘in search of a theme’; which I had not quite finished, at a point when conscience regained the upper hand, and I went back to work on the dissertation. The call for scores, which came through my publisher (Lux Nova Press in Atlanta), prompted me to dust off these sketches; and the result is a piece gnarly enough, that I don’t believe the European clarinetist ever did essay it. Every now and again, I get Blue Shamrock back into playing condition, because I can, and because I seem not to lack nerve.

Lost Waters :: Each of the four numbers in this suite — Irving’s Hudson, Thoreau’s Walden, Whitman’s Ontario & Carlos Williams’ Passaic — draws variously upon literary inspiration, upon the writer’s association with a particular body of water, and upon my own impressions looking at and hiking about each river, pond or lake. The four pieces overall form a kind of ‘progression’, from the first (in which all twelve chromatic tones of the octave are used) to the last (for which there are no pedal changes at all). That gradual ‘simplification’ of pitch-world is complimented (inversely) by a stepped increase in the complexity of the rhythmic profile of each succeeding piece. The composition of music as a sort of contemplation of American literary figures was the result of my writing the suite while in St Petersburg. I spent almost four years in Estonia and Russia, where in fact I had gone first as an English teacher, so I had brought both a collection of Carlos Williams’ poems, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I am deeply grateful to Mary Jane Rupert for undertaking the long-delayed première of the suite; and it is gratifying to report that the delay was not any matter of musical impracticality — for when Mary Jane met with me privately to read the pieces earlier this year, it appeared that no musical adjustment of any substance was necessary.

stars & guitars :: After adapting The Angel… (see below) for alto flute, I thought it high time to follow through on a casual promise I once made Peter Bloom, some time since, to write a duet for his bass flute & harp; and I reckoned on compensating for my delay in compliance, by composing something fairly substantial. I began work in February of this year, under a working title which, really, I didn’t much like from the outset; by which, I should probably guess that I prefer working on music with ‘the wrong title’ to working on (say) “Flute & Harp Duo № 1.” The true & proper title of the piece came to me quite readily, when I attended a lunchtime recital at King’s Chapel in Boston — played by a guitarist. I sketched and composed the piece almost entirely “abstractly” (my notes include phrases like fl sustained tones, hp “pixie dust”); but at some point I reflected that the performers, faced with pages and pages of notes, beams & accidentals, would probably find it helpful to have some indication of character, from section to section. Thus the piece unfolds in the following sequence:

i. a dream of a dream
ii. a most cautious alegría
iii. the mesa spread out beneath the stars
iv. love awakens
v. the face of night
vi. a dream of antique navigation
vii. alborada

In exactly the same way that the title stars & guitars belongs to the piece, even though I hadn’t lit upon that title until I was somewhere around p. 12 of the MS., these several descriptions of the different sections were really always a part of the music. It’s only that I drew the veil aside at a later stage in the process than usual.

The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword :: This piece I originally composed for trumpet solo, for Chris O’Hara. I knew it would be a demanding trumpet piece (a schoolmate in high school, Steve Falker, was a trumpet virtuoso, and his playing has been a persistent benchmark for me—to the despair of many another trumpeter). When I had finished composing the piece, and was fine-tuning the graphic layout, I realized that (with judicious transposition) it would work effectively for flute solo. When I showed the piece in that form to Peter Bloom, he suggested a further transpositional adjustment, to suit the piece to alto flute. The piece has some elements of Ego vox clamantis in deserto (as John the Baptist ‘explained’ himself in the Gospel). The sword of flame is in the hands of an Angel posted by the Most High to bar the return of errant man to Paradise; and, in part, this piece meditates on that Angel’s sorrow.

Fragments of « Morning Has Broken » :: Originally this piece was commissioned by Bill Goodwin, organist & music director here at the First Congregational Church, for clarinet, violin & piano. I am happy to say, I seem to be writing enough music that, as time passes, sometimes I forget details of earlier pieces (which, I suppose, means that I ought to write my program notes sooner)—it mystifies me, now, why I arranged the piece, then, for this alternate combination. This fog of memory leaves open the possibility that tonight’s performance is a première of this version, but at present this can only be speculation. The piece breaks down the hymn-tune Bunessan (popularized by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens), and builds a series of ostinato variations on each ‘fragment’. At the end there is a sort of chorale in the winds based on the tune in its entirety. Probably, I ought to be embarrassed to write program notes which feature details that I have forgotten, so prominently, but there it is.

Radiant Maples :: In November of 2001, Phil Michéal (music director at the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit) programmed a Service of Light. One of the choral pieces he selected for use was my setting of O Gracious Light for choir, harp & piano; he was hiring a flautist for another piece that the choir was to sing, and so we discussed an instrumental interlude which I would compose, for flute, clarinet, harp & piano. In keeping with the Service of Light theme, I had told Phil that the title of my interlude would be Et lux in tenebris lucet (“And the light shineth in darkness”), and I set to work. I had just finished a wild piece for woodwind quintet and piano, Counting Sheep (or, The Dreamy Abacus of Don Quijote), and compositionally I was exulting in writing energetic, challenging chamber music, as a welcome change from a long stretch when most of the music asked of me was relatively calm sacred music (not that there’s anything wrong with that). As I was working on the interlude for Phil’s service, the music grew fairly cheerful, and so came to be at odds with my working title. As we had enjoyed especially beautiful foliage that autumn, I decided on Radiant Maples as a more suitable title. Although Phil felt that I had pulled something of a ‘switch’ on him with the new title, in the event it was not that alteration which caused the piece to be dropped, regretfully, from the service (the pianist’s health had sharply failed, and the piano writing in Maples was a bit daunting for the last-minute substitute).

About the Performers

Peter H. Bloom, whose playing has been called “a revelation for unforced sweetness and strength” (The Boston Globe), tours widely with leading chamber music and jazz ensembles and appears on 30 CDs (Dorian, SONY Classical, Newport Classic, others) with distribution throughout North America, Europe and Asia. His career encompasses a wide range of chamber music from period-instrument performances to the great European and American masterworks, to new music premieres. He is also a noted jazz artist, celebrating his 30th season with the internationally acclaimed Aardvark Jazz Orchestra (“a bracing walk on the wild side of the big band spectrum” — Jazz Times). Mr Bloom is historical woodwind consultant for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; provides musical direction for museum exhibitions in the US and abroad; and lectures widely. He earned the prestigious Noah Greenberg Award of the American Musicological Society for his work in 19th century American music. A board member of the James Pappoutsakis Flute Competition, Mr Bloom received a Master of Music with Distinction from the New England Conservatory of Music and holds a BA in Philosophy from Boston University.

Paul Cienniwa’s 2008-2009 concert season has included performances at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and in Chicago with violinist Rachel Barton Pine. His direction of Handel’s Alcina for the Boston Opera Collaborative prompted the Boston EDGE to write that “his playing was expert” and the Boston Musical Intelligencer to report that “[his] music pacing was expert”. Following his undergraduate studies at DePaul University with harpsichordist Roger Goodman, he received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Yale University, where he was a student of Richard Rephann. He has been awarded BAEF and Fulbright grants, and his musicological articles have appeared in American and European journals, including Early Music and Ad Parnassum. In addition to leading Newport Baroque, he is director of Sine Nomine choral ensemble and Music Director at First Church Boston, where he can be heard weekly on WERS (88.9 FM) Boston.

Mary Jane Rupert, acclaimed as a concert pianist and harpist, has performed throughout the world from Carnegie Recital Hall to the Beijing Concert Hall. She has appeared with symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles across the United States including the Boston Philharmonic, Louisville (Kentucky) Symphony, Mannheim Steamroller, The New Philharmonia, New England Philharmonic, Monadnock Orchestra, Nuclassix, and Underground Composers. In solo recital, she has performed for the National Meeting of the American Harp Society, Syracuse University, Western Michigan University, Longy School of Music, and others. She records for North Star and Harmony Hill. Dr Rupert serves on the music faculties of Tufts University, Wellesley College, Boston College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has taught at Oberlin College, Indiana University, Western Michigan University, and elsewhere. She holds a DM in Piano Performance and Music Literature, an MM in Piano, and an MM in Harp from Indiana University, as well as a BM in Piano from Oberlin College.

Karl Henning holds a B.Mus. with double major in composition and clarinet performance from the College of Wooster (Ohio); a M.A. in composition from the University of Virginia (Charlottesville); and a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Buffalo, where he studied with Charles Wuorinen and Louis Andriessen. His music has been played and sung on three continents (North America, Europe and Australia), and there is unconfirmed rumor that an Uruguayan zookeeper has papered walls with the Henning organ Toccata. Karl has served at different times as Interim Choir Director and Composer-in-Residence at the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston, where he composed a 40-minute unaccompanied choral setting of the St John Passion (premiered in March of 2008). Current projects include a full evening’s ballet based on Dostoyevsky’s novella White Nights, and a set of short pieces for cello ensemble.

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