Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Three Graces

The Three Graces
Orchestral (original) version: oboe, horn, cello soloists, string orchestra. 11′. Full score
Premiere of original version: 
Chamber version: oboe, horn, cello soloists, piano, double bass. 11′. Score
Premiere of chamber version, first 8 minutes: 

I composed The Three Graces over the chord changes to the chorus of “Wait Till You See Her” by Richard Rodgers. After the introduction and statement of the tune (original to The Three Graces), the soloists take turns on the choruses, first playing two choruses each, then trading off in various ways.

This started out to be a concerto grosso, but an immersion into the complete recordings of Miles Davis got me to thinking how like a jazz combo the concerto grosso formula can be. So I decided to try to compose a work of straight jazz. I grew up listening to my parents’ popular jazz albums, so the sounds of random slices from the 1940s and ’50s—of the Hi-Lo’s (from whom I learned “Wait Till You See Her”); Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; Dave Brubeck; Maynard Ferguson’s A Message from Newport 1958; Billie Holiday; Stan Getz; and of every solo on the 1947 “Star Dust” by Lionel Hampton with the Just Jazz All Stars (especially bassist Slam Stewart’s)—all these sounds inform The Three Graces, which is an homage to them all.

It was my intention for the solos to come across as improvisations. The strings (or piano and bass in the chamber version) take the role of a drummer-less rhythm section, playing what I take to be a mix of swing and early be-bop. I hoped to capture the excitement of something that sounded like it was being made up on the spot, although there is also a great tradition of written-out ensemble jazz.

This is especially an homage to our three daughters, each of the soloists taking on the character of one of the girls. Priscilla, the oldest, was just starting to learn the oboe when I wrote this. Nellie, then six, was the soulful horn. At four, Martina was to be the cellist in this fantasy piece, and cuts in with her first (Slam-inspired) solo before her turn. The two younger girls did not play instruments then, but each later decided to play, in real life, exactly the instrument I assigned to the other one.

Original version for soloists with string orchestra premiered 2,3 Apr 2001 by Gerard Reuter, oboe, Karl Kramer, horn, Wolfram Kössel, cello, and the Jupiter Symphony in New York City, Jens Nygaard conducting. Chamber version (soloists with double bass and piano) premiered 15 Feb 2008 by soloists Priscilla Smith, Patrick Hines, Rajli Bicolli, with Leon Boykins and Jeremy Gill at Rock Hall, Temple University, Philadelphia. Duration, about 11 minutes.

LocalArtsLive on Red-tail and Hummingbird

Sharon Torello is an active observer of Philadelphia’s music scene, a great booster for all things music here. She points out that this is not a “critical review,” but rather “the viewpoint of a ‘regular member’ of the audience. I think her comparison of the early and modern instruments is about as good as it gets.

“Kile Smith’s Red-tail and Hummingbird followed in the first of two performances. Piffaro played first and Orchestra 2001 repeated the performance following an intermission. I had read Smith’s wonderful blog series that described the inspiration and creative process for his work. This greatly enhanced my experience in hearing it for the first time, and provided me with visual images to match the music. The first thing that struck me was a new appreciation for the talent of the Piffaro musicians. Of course, when Smith composed the work he needed to make sure it was playable by Renaissance instruments, but they are notoriously tricky and temperamental, so I never expected such a rock solid performance. Orchestra 2001’s modern instruments provided a more refined version of the piece that helped me to appreciate not only the beautiful tones of the modern instruments but their fine dynamic control as well. The musicians enhanced portions of Smith’s work through crescendos in tight formations that were not apparent with the ancient instruments. Truth be told, however, I preferred the ancient instruments. Their more rustic construction made for an edgier sound, and since I’m not as familiar with their sonority, the new piece sounded even newer with old instruments. Go figure.

Music next emerged from the rear of the church as Piffaro surprised us by setting up in the choir loft. They performed old and new music again with another work [“Steht auf, ihr lieben Kinderlein!”] by Kile Smith from Vespers.

Sharon Torello, LocalArtsLive, 26 Feb 2013

Broad Street Review on Red-tail and Hummingbird

“The second premiere presented the results of the creative process that composer Kile Smith has described in four BSR essays. (Click here.) As Smith has explained in his essays, Red-tail and Hummingbird depicts an encounter between a hawk and an angry hummingbird determined to protect its turf. Smith composed two versions, one for Piffaro’s Renaissance instruments and one for modern brass quintet.

The Piffaro version would have been exciting even if you’d never heard of the bird fight that suggested it. The confrontation between the reedy shawms and the hollower sound of the sackbuts and dulcians provided all the drama the piece needed.

Priscilla Smith produced a bravura performance on the lead shawm, chattering away at virtuoso speed, with her fingers dancing over the surface of her instrument.

The modern version seemed dull by comparison. As Smith noted in the pre-concert discussion, Renaissance instruments possess more “character” than modern instruments. Every note has a different color. Modern brass quintets produce an even sound across all the instruments, and in this case the trumpet failed to produce the contrast that the shawm brought to Smith’s Renaissance version. The modern version might have worked better if Smith had substituted an oboe or a flute for the trumpet.

Then Piffaro’s musicians hopped to the 21st Century and played a sonata [Steht auf, ihr lieben Kinderlein!] from the brilliant Kile Smith Vespers, which they premiered in 2008.”
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, 26 Feb 2013

Another vote for the Renaissance instruments. As gratifying as that is, at this point I feel bound to mention that the moderns nailed their version. Also, and this is no little thing, in the modern brass (plus bassoon) version, we took the fast section faster (maybe ten ticks faster) than the early instruments did.

Priscilla was indeed bravura, but I should also mention that, since these were canons, whatever she played, Christa Patton copied on the second shawm! Shawms really do get your attention, I must admit, and it was thrilling to hear.

Inquirer review of Red-tail and Hummingbird

“an excellent (but short) new Kile Smith piece… Red-tail and Hummingbird, was played by both ensembles in separate performances. The Piffaro version had particularly intellectual passion clearly outlining the memorable thematic basis of the piece and showing the music’s distant kinship to Monteverdi’s Orfeo overture…. a rock-solid piece (more rapid and dense than typical Smith) had obscure-sounding dissonances when repeated by Orchestra 2001, which uses different tunings.”
David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 Feb 2013

The link above takes you to the entire review. David Patrick Stearns had mixed feelings about the meeting of old and new in the concerts. He also seemed to agree with many who preferred the Piffaro version of Red-tail. I don’t know, I adore the chiff-like voicing the Renaissance instruments provide, but also love the brilliance and smoothness of the brass. Vive la différence!

Three Dances, for string orchestra

Three Dances, for string orchestra
str. 12′. Review. View full score

1. Introduction and Country Dance 
2. Waltz 
3. Fuguing Tune 

The melody in the Introduction is the first half of the Lutheran chorale “Eins ist Not, ach Herr, dies Eine.” In the Country Dance, the recurring melody, carried mostly by the lower voices, is a variant on an early American fuguing tune called “Eternal Day.”

The Waltz is actually a passacaglia employing six pitches: D, F#, G, G#, A, C#. Every note in the movement is from this group. Whether the pitches create a scale or give the impression of the outline of a scale is debatable, but the large gaps and the reliance on the tritone abet the feeling of absence and longing.

The beginning of the Fuguing Tune repeats the truncated chorale of the Introduction, leaving the long 6/8 section as the fuguing part. The melody here is a variant of the English carol “A Virgin most Pure.” The second half of the Lutheran chorale appears as the repeating bass line in this movement at, for example, measures 21-25.

Here are details about the re-orchestration of this in 2013.

Commissioned by the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, Donald Spieth, Music Director, and premiered March 9, 10, 11, 1995. The string orchestra version, with percussion, was premiered by the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia November 8, 1998. Revised and percussion removed, 2012-13, for a performance by the Temple University Music Preparatory Division Youth Chamber Orchestra, Aaron Picht conducting, at the Festival of Young Musicians, Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, 11 May 2013.

Three Dances, for orchestra

Three Dances, for orchestra
2/.2.2.2-2.2.0.0-1perc-str. 12′. Review

1. Introduction and Country dance View full score 

2. Waltz View full score 

3. Fuguing Tune View full score 

The melody in the Introduction is the first half of the Lutheran chorale “Eins ist Not, ach Herr, dies Eine.” In the Country Dance, the recurring melody, carried mostly by the lower voices, is a variant on an early American fuguing tune called “Eternal Day.”

The Waltz is actually a passacaglia employing six pitches: D, F#, G, G#, A, C#. Every note in the movement is from this group. Whether the pitches create a scale or give the impression of the outline of a scale is debatable, but the large gaps and the reliance on the tritone abet the feeling of absence and longing.

The beginning of the Fuguing Tune repeats the truncated chorale of the Introduction, leaving the long 6/8 section as the fuguing part. The melody here is a variant of the English carol “A Virgin most Pure.” The second half of the Lutheran chorale appears as the repeating bass line in this movement at, for example, measures 21-25.

Commissioned by the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, Donald Spieth, Music Director, and premiered March 9, 10, 11, 1995. The string orchestra version, with percussion, was premiered by the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia November 8, 1998. Revised and percussion removed, 2012, for a performance by the Temple University Music Preparatory Division Festival of Young Musicians, Youth Chamber Orchestra, Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia
11 May 2013, Aaron Picht conducting.

American Spirituals, thanks

baptisterion2As if Sunday’s successes of Red-tail and Hummingbird weren’t enough, a drive from Swarthmore’s concert to Abington took me to the loveliest of Lenten recitals given at Holy Trinity Lutheran, to American Spirituals, Book One played by violinist James Finegan, and two of the American Spirituals, Book Two played by cellist Elena Smith, all accompanied on piano by Ken Borrmann.

Jackie, sounding more beautiful than ever, sang excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Progress of Ralph Vaughan Williams and arrangements by Alice Parker.

James was simply brilliant: stunning, actually, in the outer movements “Sinner, Don’t Let This Harvest Pass” and “The Old Ship of Zion.” He lingered just enough over the slid notes, sometimes octaves, of “Sinner.” Man, I love solo violin octaves. “The Old Ship of Zion” is flat hard to play. He was all over it. So was Ken, tossing fistfuls of notes. In some ways, the simple, singing “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” is my favorite. Wish I could take credit for the tunes!

I could not have been prouder of Nellie for taking on the first two of the cello book of spirituals; first of all, for agreeing to try them, and second, for performing them with such love and passion. She dug into “Jesus, Master, O discover,” and “When the stars begin to fall” was a revelation to me. These are crazily nuanced pieces with loads of double-stops, but she played big, warm, and confidently. I’m lucky and blessed to be her father.