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Farewell Concert

Looking back over my nearly sixty years so far as a composer, forty-seven of them at Brown, I see that I have had the extreme good luck and pleasure of being a late bloomer. How wonderful to continue to learn and grow throughout your life. How terrible to peak early in your career. And, more good fortune, in the last few years I have been able to attract superb musicians to play my music, several are here tonight. I think instrumental chamber music is the most natural genre for me. I like the resistance of the small number of players, something to push against when you invent the sounds. I like the small forms as well, miniatures really, that seem to go well with reduced instrumental forces. But whatever their size, and there are some big pieces on this concert, all these compositions share my preference for expressive language and sensual delight in the sound of the instruments. I try to make my music change and grow as it goes along, so that each piece is a journey through a unique sonic world. I consciously link my music to events, people, places, ideas, aspirations, memories, dreams, etc. that are important to me, believing that its meaning for me will translate into emotional resonance for the musicians and audience who play and hear it. So here is a concert with some of my favorite pieces and performers from, mostly, the last few years. It is a wonderful privilege to have such an opportunity, only the second concert in my career devoted exclusively to my music. My heartfelt thanks to the Reichley Fund and the Music Department for the generous funding, and to the musicians, present and not, who have made this concert and my life as a composer possible.


Variations

Variations is a happy piece. It was written for Silvia and Etienne, who will play it tonight along with Geraldine Dutroncy. They had already played Change and End and an earlier trio, and I knew how good they were. It is absolute luxury to write for such enormous talent, knowing that anything I can imagine, they can play. That brings out the best in a composer. The piece starts right out with a tune that sounds to me like nothing so much as a pleasant walk in the park on a sunny afternoon. The opening four note turn of the melody and the dotted rhythm that follows form the basis for a not-particularly-tightly-scripted set of variations. As the variations progress, the opening figure becomes less and less prominent, until, in the last variation, it only appears in a brief interruption of the prevailing texture. The second variation is a nocturne. If I may stretch my earlier metaphor just a bit more, it’s as though evening has fallen and now the walk is in gathering darkness with only the sounds of birds and frogs to break the silence. I love to make these imitations of nature – to empty my music of pulse. Paradoxically, for me doing that requires the most precise and complex rhythmic notation I use. The slow cello solo continues the development of the opening material. The third variation is my favorite. Variations is dedicated to my sweetheart Sumati, and much of it, most notably this variation, reflects my love for her and the pleasure I take in our life together. Next comes an acerbic waltz. The theme is hidden in the piano accompaniment, inverted and rhythmically transposed. The variation ends with an interlude recalling the opening, and then the fifth and final variation comes in and sweeps everything away in a rush.

VARIATIONS 2011

Etienne Lamaison - clarinet
Silvia Lenzi - cello
Geraldine Dutroncy - piano


Breath Etude

I had a saxophone period. I wrote or arranged five pieces in a row for saxophones. Breath Etude was written toward the end of that run as the required piece for an international contest. One hundred and eight saxophonists from around the world came to Paris and played this piece for the judges, one after another, over the course of two days. Fortunately I was not in attendance. At the core of the etude is an attempt to make the breathing of the performer an integral part of the sound of the performance. To do this, the performer is often required to breath through the instrument to amplify the breath-sound throughout the piece. The idea is to make the breathing not only audible, but expressive – part of the music – one time explosive, another full of relief, etc. Then too I had the image of a player sitting out on his stoop in shirtsleeves late on a hot summer evening working out some difficult passages – woodshedding, musicians call it. The structure of the piece is built around that process. And, since the piece was for Paris, and about the breath, I put in a bit of the theme from the movie Au bout de soufflé (Breathless), which I saw as a student in Paris in 1966.

BREATH ETUDE 2005

Joshua Thomas, alto saxophone

 


Dance Suite #4

This one was written for a contest – the only time I did that. I was not working on anything at the time and the rules of the contest sounded like so much fun. The specifications for the composition are announced on a Monday and the entrants have only two weeks to write and submit their pieces. I didn’t win, but I did write a piece in two weeks – only six minutes long, but still very fast work for me. Each of the four movements starts with the same tune, a simple rising and falling motive, but each presents it in a different scale pattern and with a different character. Tonight’s performance will be the world premier.

DANCE SUITE #4 2014

Nicolas Dautricourt - violin
Etienne Lamaison - clarinet
Silvia Lenzi - cello
Geraldine Dutroncy - piano


Quartet for Saxophones

Composing this quartet, I tried to stay on the surface of the music - the sound that is heard, not the structure underneath. Usually, I project an idea of the shape of a composition forward from the first moment I begin to write it. Sometimes I shape a piece in my mind well ahead of composing any of the actual notes. That shape, whether conceived ahead of the sounds, or in response to them, is the structure of the piece. Typically I have it complete well before half of the sound on the surface is written. Certainly, there are changes and discoveries after that, but the smaller elements are fit into the larger scheme, not the other way around. In the quartet, as an experiment, I tried to compose the skin of the piece without planning ahead. The process was much more one of discovery than usual, and a lot of fun. I'm very fond of the sound of the saxophone quartet, and that is what I was paying attention to. But as I proceeded further and further into the composition, I began to feel like I was driving on ice - hard to steer, hard to get home. I was working on the music within a minute of the close of the piece before I saw the end clearly - exhilarating, but pretty scary for me. I do admit that after I got to the end, I want back and reshaped some sections to fit everything together. Experiment only goes so far, and one doesn't expect such clear results from music experiments as from science experiments. Nevertheless, I learned a lot, principally that the large can be subsumed in the small, and that if I work this way, the music doesn't come out all that different.

QUARTET FOR SAXOPHONES 2008

Greg Case, soprano
Joshua Thomas, alto
Joe D'Aleo, tenor
Jeff Emerich, baritone


Change and End

My commission requested a piece for clarinet and cello, nothing else specified. I decided on several short movements and began the first. As you will hear, it has one of those sensa misura passages at the end, a little cadenza-like flourish only tangentially related to what came before, which reminded me of the endings of some of Bach's fugue preludes. It's an interesting structural trick, introducing new material right before the end. Usually that's the place where you want to be most reassuring, so the most repetitive. I decided to do a set of movements exploring that and, tentatively, gave the piece its title. At the same time, I wanted to make one single sound out of the two instruments – to fuse them together as though there were only one instrument and one player. I began the second movement, a canon except for its "change and end", with that idea in mind as well.

Then my dear 93 year-old mom started her final decline. Suddenly the idea of change and end became a personal, and very compelling, metaphor. I wrote the rest of the piece during the next two months, while my mother was dying, and just after her death. She was always on my mind, thoughts of her inextricably mixed with the musical ideas of my piece. The ensuing movements tended to be more serious, of course, although the next-to-last is as frankly joyous as anything I've ever written. The idea of using cannons, often associated with memorials, became ever more important to the set, playing a part in both the fourth and the last movements as well as the second. The idea of making a single sound out of the two disparate instruments also took on an added resonance for me, and played a formative role in shaping the rest of the inner movements. As the piece took shape, the "change" of Change and End got spread out more inside some of the movements, and dropped entirely from the fourth. The last movement is one continuous process of change, from strict adherence to 16th Century contrapuntal rules, to freely composed music in my own voice. The first four notes of its theme, BEAG, are taken from my mother’s name.

Change and End is lovingly dedicated to the memory of my mother, Beatrice Gunner Shapiro.

CHANGE AND END 2010

Etienne Lamaison - clarinet
Silvia Lenzi - cello


Piano Trio #1

In 1991, I received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts to write a piece for the Yuval Trio, a distinguished Israeli ensemble. It was my most prestigious commission up to that point and I set to work happily on the first movement. But soon I learned that the trio was going through a bitter breakup after years of successful touring and recording. The concert at Brown where they were to premiere my work was to be their last. They were so angry at each other they could barely rehearse. Discussing the piece, my contact in the group told me, “Make it short and make it easy!” Oof!! A few days later, I went to hear the Toledo Symphony give a very good performance of a piece of mine, which cheered me up a bit. And on the same concert there was a Prokofiev violin concerto that blew me away. I went home and wrote the second movement of my trio, Scherzando Alla Russ as a kind of homage. The next two movements are linked respectively to my daughter, Emily and son, Ben – 6 and 8 at the time. The third movement is perhaps a lullaby and at the same time a vision of the young woman my daughter was to become. For the fourth movement, I tried to invent a music that would satisfy both myself and my eight-year-old son. In the end, although the Yuval played it only once – and badly – the piece turned out pretty well and has been my most performed composition over the years.

PIANO TRIO #1 1992

Nicolas Dautricourt - violin
Silvia Lenzi – cello
Geraldine Dutroncy - piano


 

PRELUDE - for Arlene 1981

Arlene Cole plays her prelude.