Category Archives: Concerto

Music and Killing

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 10 Feb 2014]

GuitarHands“I don’t play guitar anymore. Too much killing.”

My rule for cab drivers and barbers is, if they don’t talk, I don’t, but if they do, I do. My cab driver was taking me to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, after a week of rehearsals and performances of Vespers at Northwestern University. The week before, my driver from the airport to Northwestern had come to Chicago from Ethiopia by way of Minnesota and was a carpenter, electrician, roofer, house-flipper, and Lutheran. The cabbie back to the airport was just as interesting, and talkative.

He asked me what I had been in town for. I told him about the concerts; he told me he played guitar. When I asked if he was in a band, that’s when he said that he had been, but he got out because of the killing. I thought he meant killing in general, like that the world was a hard place, so I said something about wondering if playing music makes any difference. But he corrected me.

I see too much, so I get out

“No, no. They shoot our bass player. Kill him. People get jealous, get mean, you know. Not just him. I see many shootings, hear gunfire.” “Where was this?” “Here, Chicago. Sout’ Side. Bad…mmm, lots of playing, but very bad, I see too much, so I get out.”

He had an accent I couldn’t place. “Are you from here?”

“I move here long time ago. Forty years.”

“You only look 40,” I said.

“Ha!” He laughed and looked at me in the rearview. “I know. People tell me. But I have a son, 39! Ha!”

“So you don’t play at all anymore?”

“Oh sure, but only for my wife, you know, maybe some friends. No more the bars, the clubs, where people get jealous, where the money is too…quick. You know. So you write music? I write songs, too. I have some with me.”

While he talked, he fumbled in the console next to his seat and pulled out a cassette tape. “You must play that for me,” I said. “Really? You’re just being nice. We’re almost at the airport, 10 minutes.”

“No. You have to. I want to hear the music you play for your wife.”

An angel in the sky

The radio had a cassette slot, so he put in the tape, forwarded, checked, forwarded again, and found what he wanted. “This I wrote when Whitney Houston died. So sad. I call this ‘Whitney.’” He shrugged and smiled at me. It was guitar, just guitar and him singing. “Whitney…oh, Whitney…you’re an angel in the sky….” He sang in the cab along with himself on the tape.

The guitar had a warm, deep blue sound, the sound that 55-gallon drums make when they jostle, empty, on a skid. Three or four low notes bumped and revolved around themselves. Rhythmic slaps, ga-chungah, fell into place; melodic fragments—not melody, but Amen commentaries to his voice—circled sweetly and nodded. It was a chocolate sound, the sound of bamboo. It was good. It was quite good. “Whitney, oh Whitney, yass, yass…,” he half-sang, half-prayed, and in the middle, another language. Before I could ask, he said, “I even sing in p’twah, you know, crihl.” Patois, creole. That was the accent. “Yah, crihl,” he smiled, “I mix it in, you know, that’s me.”

When I started my cello concerto, the Ferguson shooting and other tragedies were just then tumbling headlong after each other. The concerto premiered two weeks ago in Helena, Montana, but months ago when I began to compose it, the news, for days on end, was uproar. Anger and opinions flew, and there I was, wondering how to begin a cello concerto, wondering if I should have an opinion, wondering how a composer reacts, wondering how anyone reacts at such times.

The Beatitudes

Unbidden, “Blessed are the peacemakers” came to mind. Of all the things that came into my mind, this, I thought, was the best. I don’t know what I was looking for, but “Blessed are the peacemakers,” I thought, was good. I began to think about a piece of music that could be draped on the Beatitudes, the beginning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the start of which, in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, states, “And seeing the multitudes.” That would make a good title, I thought, for the cello concerto.

I’ve never seen a shooting. Outside of funerals, I’ve seen three dead people, all of whom—one young, one middle-aged, one old—died from natural causes. So I don’t know how one ought to react to a Ferguson shooting, and I try very hard—I’ve spent my life learning how—not to have opinions about things of which I’m ignorant. So: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…,” I thought, was the best I could do.

I still write, after the killings, and after the killings my cab driver still plays the guitar. He gave it up but he still plays, and he still sings. We do the best we can do, my composing brother and I, and the money is not, you know, too quick, but maybe a cello can play a concerto in Montana and maybe Whitney is an angel in the sky.

And Seeing the Multitudes

And Seeing the Multitudes is a cello concerto commissioned by the Helena Symphony as part of my 2014-15 residency with them for their 60th anniversary. It was written for Ovidiu Marinescu. The music director, and the driving force behind this project and the entire residency, is Allan R. Scott. The work is dedicated to Ovidiu and Allan. It was premiered January 31st, 2015 at the Helena Civic Center, Helena, Montana.

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rehearsing And Seeing the Multitudes, Ovidiu Marinescu and Allan R. Scott

It is in one movement, 20 minutes long. The instrumentation:

2+pic, 2,2,2—4,3,3,1—timp+3(incl marimba)—piano, harp—solo cello—strings

The title is taken from the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount passage in the Gospel of Matthew. It is built upon the Beatitudes, with the chorale Herzlich lieb’ ich dir, O Herr following. It is not a well-known chorale, even among those who sing chorales, but if it is known in America, it will be in its Catherine Winkworth translation: “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart.”

When I began to compose this in earnest, news of police shootings and angry riots was inescapable. Wondering what a composer’s response might be, “Blessed are the peacemakers” kept coming to mind. I considered a work hanging on the Beatitudes as a framework, but soon realized that a response to them was needed, which is when I turned to the chorale tune to end the work. I then used that as material for the eight Beatitude sections—sometimes obvious, sometimes not—so in effect the piece is a theme and variations, with the variations coming first.

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Ovidiu Marinescu, concertmaster Stephen Cepeda, associate concertmaster Allison Elliott

And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came to him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The Gospel of Matthew 5:1-10

“Lord, Thee I love with all my heart” translated 1863, Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878), from Herzlich lieb hab’ ich dir, o Herr (c.1567), Martin Schalling (1532-1608), based on Psalm 18; Bernhard Schmid, Orgelbuch, Strassburg (1577)

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rehearsal

Cello concerto parts are finished

HelenaMarinescu

Almost as good as hitting the double bar on the full score of the new cello concerto, And Seeing the Multitudes, is to hit the double bar on the last part to be extracted. They’re all finished now and off to the orchestra librarian. As if composing isn’t obsessive enough, copying parts is a preciously inner delight. Of course, the software “makes” the parts automatically, even as you construct the score, but the parts are never good. They’re quite awful, actually, out of the box, so there’s a good bit of manual labor needed to get them into shape.

Which I love doing, ever since I did this, with ink and paper, when I started at the Fleisher Collection. People who do this for a living—engravers—have my unfettered respect. Figuring out page turns, cues, overall spacing, whether to place phrases on one stave or where to split them… goosebumps, I’m telling you. And did I love putting the music for all three percussionists into one part, or what?

Now, okay, now I can get the Christmas tree.

Cellist Ovidiu Marinescu performs this with the Helena Symphony, conducted by Allan R. Scott, on January 31st. And Seeing the Multitudes is based on the Beatitudes, is for full orchestra, is in one movement, and is 20 minutes long. More information about it is here.

The cello concerto is finished

HelenaMarinescu

…and a good thing, since they’re playing it on January 31st. They are cellist Ovidiu Marinescu and the Helena Symphony, conducted by Allan R. Scott. I am honored to have been commissioned to compose this in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Helena Symphony.

The name of the piece is And Seeing the Multitudes, the opening words of the passage relating the Sermon on the Mount. It is built upon the eight Beatitudes, with the chorale Herzlich lieb’ ich dir, O Herr following. It is not a well-known chorale, even among those who sing chorales, but if it is known in America, it will be in its Catherine Winkworth translation: “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart.”

It is in one movement, 20 minutes long. The instrumentation:

2+pic, 2,2,2—4,3,3,1—timp+3(incl marimba)—piano, harp—solo cello—strings

Each of the eight sections is based somehow on the chorale, so it works as variations before the theme.

My friends who allow me to talk about composition—these are a select few, self-effacing, withdrawn, and so shy that they are always changing phone numbers and would rather not inform me—know that I have a firm, one may almost say unshakable, rule about orchestration, and that is that the worth of any piece is in indirect proportion to the appearance of the glockenspiel. I confess to using a glockenspiel in this. It plays eight notes. I tried to cut it to six, but failed.

More later, as we get closer to the premiere and as I write up program notes.

And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came to him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The Gospel of Matthew 5:1-10

“Lord, Thee I love with all my heart” translated 1863, Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878), from
Herzlich lieb hab’ ich dir, o Herr (c.1567), Martin Schalling (1532-1608), based on Psalm 18; Bernhard Schmid, Orgelbuch, Strassburg (1577)

Variations on a Theme of Schubert

Variations on a Theme of Schubert

Solo Piano, 17′ 

Solo Piano—2222—2100—timp, 1 perc—str. 17′. Full score

The theme is from Schubert’s song “An mein Klavier,” or “To my Piano.” Following the theme are seven variations, each exploiting significant intervals or rhythmic gestures of the song, and each making use of the tune in some way.

Variation 5 also quotes “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” a favorite hymn of Samuel Hsu’s, the dedicatee of the original version for solo piano. In this variation, the middle register sings the first few notes of that tune, while the left hand assays the Schubert tune in the extreme low register, extremely slowly.

Variation 6 leads into the final variation without a break, and the Schubert tune is treated as a three-part invention, leading into a chorale.

The piano part in the solo and orchestral versions is the same.

The solo version premiered in 1997 by Paul Jones to honor the 25th Anniversary of Samuel Hsu’s professorship. The work was revised, and Variation 4 was added, in 1998/99; the orchestration was completed in August 1999, and premiered by the Jupiter Symphony in New York City on September 20th and 21st, 1999, with pianist Makiko Hirata, Jens Nygaard conducting.

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.

Exsultet

2007; hn-str; 18′
Premiered 2 Mar 2007, Jennifer Montone, Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Karl Middleman. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Classical Symphony. Review

1. In the darkness, fire is kindled
2. Procession
3. Exsultet

The Exsultet is an ancient chant sung near the beginning of the Easter Vigil, and is without parallel for its ecstatic yet profound utterance of joy. The Vigil, fixed on the Saturday evening between Good Friday and Easter, balances, as all services do, repentance and thanksgiving. But on this day the tension is the most acute. While the remembrance of Friday’s sacrifice still resonates, the anticipation of Easter’s glory intensifies as dusk falls.

This horn concerto follows the unfolding drama of the Vigil’s opening, the soloist reflecting the interior meditations of the assembled. The three movements are played without pause. The people gather after sunset outside the sanctuary, with unlit candles. The rubric from the Book of Common Prayer states simply, “In the darkness, fire is kindled,” providing the title of the first movement. One by one, the candles receive flame. Contrition and the memory of sacrifice mingle with the growing light as each person is illuminated in silence. Only when all have received is the darkened nave entered.

During “Procession” the evening chorale “Christe, du bist der helle Tag” comes to mind, although no hymn would actually be sung now. In the presence of the light of day, night is banished. At appointed times “Lumen Christi” is intoned, answered by “Deo gratias.” This is the only music from the service that appears in the concerto, here radiated by three solo violins. The enormity of the sanctuary regards the congregants as they gradually become aware of the space that both humbles and uplifts.

The Deacon approaches the lectern, and the upturned faces, reflecting the candlelight pressing against the darkness, follow the one who will announce what, until now, has only been hoped for. To the Deacon, the lowest-level cleric, to this one alone is given the work of proclaiming the one word all have gathered to hear, the word that will shatter the gloom of despair and pierce the soul.

“Exsultet.” To all angels, rejoice. To every created thing, rejoice. To all gathered here and around the world, rejoice. This is the night we must pass through to rejoice. This is the night where all sacrifice ends. This is the night that turns clear as day.

It is an ancient, mystical invocation. One imagines the angels and all creation slowly turning, attracted to the light and the chant, and stepping into a dance, giving themselves over to an estampie of praise. All are caught up in it: one leads, then another. Even in rejoicing, though, contemplation travels alongside, and so the concerto ends much as it began, in the silence of remembrance, in the warmth of gathering, in the flicker of the light of hope.

First performance 2 March 2007, Jennifer Montone, horn, with the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Karl Middleman, conductor, at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia.