A tribute to the music teacher
Most of us have had kind and generous teachers that left a lasting impression.
For composers, it is often easier to get a first performance of a new piece than a second; “world premiere” has a certain cachet that subsequent performances don’t necessarily have. However, in the case of “The Jury” by Jon Deak from last summer, which set a poem by our dear Rhina P. Espaillat to music, the second performance hasn’t proved to be a problem. This is because, well, it is Jon Deak we are talking about and also because the piece is a slam-dunk (the two are related). Before we even gave the premiere, word had gotten out that Jon - officially “retired” from composing (whatever the heck that means) - had another work coming. Groups were already lining up to program “The Jury.”
One of these presenters is the extraordinary Christopher Kendall, who has the second performance of “The Jury” in a few days in Washington D.C. The concert is free and open to the public, so no tickets required, and will be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill on Saturday January 20 at 5:00 pm. It is really gratifying to know that some of these commissions have lives beyond the first hearing.
Christopher has been a champion for the music of our time his entire career. In addition to being a fine conductor and legendary Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, he is also a world-class lute player (so he also plays music not of our time). I feel fortunate to be in a field full of passionate people.
For this second concert, Jon wrote some program notes. As the snow whips down, maybe it can transport you back to last summer for a brief while. From Jon:
How do I approach the composing of a work involving a string quartet? Those of us who love and play these instruments know that they are alive; they live, breathe, flourish, fight and love like any of us humans – or for that matter, any living being on Earth. In this case they are Birds! Though our feathered friends of course do sing and express themselves with an indescribable beauty, still we don’t exactly understand their language. So as is customary in such circumstances, one makes use of – what? An interpreter, of course.
Adding a vocalist of great skill and beauty not only can make clear the words the birds say to each other, but can provide one more dimension to our musical work of Art, rather like looking at a work of sculpture from a different angle. But there’s more!
If the conversation of these birds is based on the text of a stunning, great work of Poetry; a work of probity, depth, humor, anger, sadness and manifold layers of meaning, we are presented with an opportunity just bursting with possibilities. Can you imagine the excitement of, and the pressure on, a composer presented with the chance to pull all these resources together in a musical work?
When David Yang, Artistic Director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival contacted me with the opportunity to compose a work for his festival, I demurred until he sent me several works by the great poet Rhina Espaillat. From the moment I read The Jury, I was hooked. I jumped. I flew. I loved it, I didn’t change a word and as I composed, those layers of meaning I mentioned only then became clear to me. Four Birds – like a true Jury, passing judgment upon Humanity! The Violin I becomes Eagle, the stern leader and Foreman of the Jury.The Viola becomes Pigeon, who starts off as comic relief, suddenly turning to caustic irony. Violin II, as Sparrow, gives us a contrasting, more lyrical love of humanity, and Cello, well! As Vulture, she loves Humanity in quite a different, ghastly way. (Each instrument-bird uses a different scale pattern.)
The decision? One might think it cynical, hopeless.
But that depends upon your viewpoint . . .
I’m honored to have written this work for David Yang and his Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. And of course, I couldn’t be more pleased to have this performance by the supreme artistry of our treasured 21st Century Consort. While writing The Jury, I was saddened by the passing of a dear, longtime friend, Jack Hoeschler. The work is dedicated to his memory.
I won’t be able to make the concert, alas, but I hope at least one person representing Newburyport might catch it.
David Yang, Artistic Director
On Tuesday, I had the privilege to discuss the composer Arnold Schoenberg with his son, Larry.