THE BIRTHDAY for soprano, oboe, cello and harp was written in 1981 for Carolann Page and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The text by Philip Dacey is a poignant portrayal of a woman reaching her thirtieth birthday and examining where her life has been and where she sees it taking her. She senses a deep change growing within her. But, instead of fear, she longs to experience what the “dark stranger” or the future has prepared for her. It is so new that words often elude her and as she struggles, wishes that she could at least express to her husband what she is going through. It is all a wonderfully mysterious sensual metamorphosis.
“Our Fathers’ Road”: A Cantata for New Sweden for Soprano, Oboe/English Horn, Violoncello, Percussion and Piano is a cycle of five songs in Swedish and the Lenni Lenape language translated into English. It was commissioned and premiered by the Vinland Duo in 1989.
Memories To Keep Awhile for trumpet/flügelhorn, violin, violoncello and piano was commissioned by and written for David Elton for premiere at the 2015 Australian Festival of Chamber Music. The title was taken from a label that my mother had placed on a box of photographs of my family when I was growing up in South Carolina and Virginia. She passed away a few years ago leaving me with all of the familys’ historical documents. It has been my responsibility to examine all of these photographs, slides, newspaper articles and films to decide what to keep and what to throw away. I am the family historian for my generation. My guess is that many of you have done this already and most of you will experience this in your lifetime. What I have found was that it stirred up a tremendous amount of varied emotions. I also found that when I saw the rather self-effacing label that my mother created for one of the boxes, I smiled at her wonderful attitude. She was correct in the observation that these cherished memories are cherished by only a few presently and will be only a curiosity to future generations.
Memories To Keep Awhile is divided into four movements which I call “photos” with the third and fourth “photo” played attacca, that is, without pause. I choose not to describe the actual photos, instead, allowing your imagination to create your own. The work is an attempt to aurally depict a small portion of what my familys’ lives have meant to each other.
Dectet for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, 2 Violins, Viola, Violoncello, Double Bass and Piano was written on commission for the Chicago Chamber Musicians and completed on September 23, 1998. It is an unusual work for me because there is no program or narrative impetus in any of the movements except for the second. This means that writing about the music becomes a bit pale compared to the actual sounds themselves, which stand quite well on their own.
I can reveal that the first movement begins ominously with a sustained pedal in the bass and ostinato figures in the other strings while the winds create long lines over this texture, but until you hear the actual sounds, this could describe a thousand other pieces. I could mention that the third movement owes its life to Shostakovich with his twisted waltzes and decadent nostalgia, but, until you experience the playfulness of my own twisted sequences, these are just words. I could describe how I love that the fourth movement has this energetic, indomitable quality with a percussive piano, swirling string lines and screaming winds, but you may think me merely boastful. The music only lives in the music. If words could truly duplicate or explain, we would not need to sing.
That said, I would like to tell a story around the second movement. After completing the first movement in the middle of August, 1998, I began the second. For several days I pondered what might follow the rather “fearful first” with little success. Then on Friday, August 21st, my family left me for the day to visit relatives and I struggled alone with my still born thoughts. Eventually, I wrote down my first tentative notes and before long I was furiously writing measure after measure. I stopped around four in the morning having completed what I later knew was most of the movement. The next day, when I studied what I had written, I was surprised to find that the movement was a traditional passacaglia with a four measure ground bass and a strong sense of loss and lament. Its simple directness puzzled me.
I continued revising the movement the next few days. The following Wednesday I received a call from a friend asking if I had heard about Alan. I said “no: and he proceeded to tell me that Alan Balter, conductor, clarinetist, and good friend, had died in Philadelphia on Friday night from complications after lung surgery. I was stunned not only for the terrible, wasteful loss of a dear friend but, also because I realized that the second movement was so urgently created at the moment of his passing. The lament now made sense and has added a reverent poignancy to the rest of the work.