By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020
The First Concert – music by Jan Mittelstaedt and Greg Pascuzzi
The first virtual concert took place at 2:15 pm Eastern Daylight Time. Amazingly, this concert and the other events were presented via Zoom to an audience in six time zones and six nations with very few glitches. Six CFAMC composers’ works were featured, so we will look at this program by the composers represented: Jan Mittelstaedt, Greg Pascuzzi, Ken Davies, Robert Myers, Josh Rodriguez, and Larry Warkentin over this and the next two blogs.
Portland, Oregon, composer Jan Mittelstaedt presented four works that were beautifully performed and recorded through the auspices of Cascadia Composers, a chapter of the National Association of Composers USA (NACUSA). Circle Loops, in a compelling performance by the Resonance Ensemble, directed by Katherine Fitz Gibbon, and accompanied on the organ by Greg Homza at the Agnes Flanagan Chapel of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, beautifully unfolds a poem Mittelstaedt wrote herself in 2001 and then updated in 2016. While the concept of circles is hinted at in the first two stanzas of her poem, the images of circle loops and peace encircling the world must have blossomed from a children’s pastor at her church using a hula hoop to show the children how God’s love works. The music grows out of an ether of pandiatonicism, with descending and ascending scales in a major key, yet no tonality. The choir (were there truly only eight singers!?) complements this with clusters of pitches that paint the clouds and foam so effectively. Then the music seems to have moments of great focus, as though the light were directed onto one spot. This is true especially at the end, where the tonality of D Major comes into crystalline focus portraying God’s piece encircling the world. Mittelstaedt is particularly fluent in gradually entering and exiting tonality, producing an enchanting continuum of sonic experiences along the way, which she amply demonstrates in a mere four minutes. This work may be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9Mw3EmX9JY
The Swan, for choir and piano, was also performed masterfully by the Resonance Ensemble, with Homza at the piano. This is a marvelous collaboration of Mittelstaedt and Gene Jackson, a physician friend of hers for over 35 years who published at least seven volumes of poetry, including Lyric Verses, which includes “The Swan.” This poem expresses profoundly the sheer elegance and grace of the swan and how well it portrays beauty, truth, human essence and the mystery of God. The pregnant opening arpeggio suggests a tonality of G major, but that is just a passing thought. As with Circle Loops, we are treated to a continuum from mild atonality to tonality. Mittelstaedt also leads us through many different textures, from a single choral strand to an ornate tapestry of divided choir and rich arpeggios, even including two moments of stark narration. There is a particularly breathtaking moment as the last stanza brings a return of that original enigmatic arpeggio leading to a triumphant declaration of God’s good and beautiful mystery. Enjoy this performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msM4vTnxS0U
With Embarrassing Moments, Mittelstaedt ventures into verismo opera of the ordinary kind of life that not many of us composers would dare to do. These short vignettes may not be of the high drama of a Carmen, but, especially through the eye-popping performance of mezzo-soprano Lisa Neher, mundane moments of commonplace life burst into unimaginable dramatics. With “Temper Tantrum,” the lyrics and music of Mittelstaedt (yes, she penned them both) examine a child’s hissy fit in a posh department store and all the raw feelings of shame felt by Mom, with her imaginings of the surrounding shoppers. Bitter dissonances yield to a delicate, hymn-like G Major strain imploring the listener not to rush to judgment of parents caught up in bad public moments. “Luncheon” repeatedly pleads with the queen of etiquette, Emily Post, to stop abandoning the somewhat frightened teenager Mittelstaedt as she dines at a friend’s elegant estate in Long Island. The arrival of the guests is heralded with a quote from the Triumph March and Chorus from Guiseppe Verdi’s Aïda, leading into another plaintive plea for Emily Post to come to the rescue. She survives the etiquette exam, but looks forward to her next chicken coming from the more relaxed KFC, while the bitonal riff that follows illustrates the tension quite well. “Tongued Tied,” like the other songs, was inspired by a day in Mittelstaedt’s past, when she was introduced to her then-boyfriend’s relatives and could not think of anything to say to them. A quote from the famous wedding march from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin only adds to this embarrassing moment. Neher, who plays all of the characters in this short three-act opera so brilliantly is splendidly accompanied by Sequoia (only one name) at the piano. This delightful and heartbreaking cycle may be enjoyed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsvTi_dF8jI
Mittelstaedt’s voluminous reading includes the remarkable An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniovski, published in 2011 by Howard Books. It details the true story of “the friendship between a busy sales executive and a child panhandler,” as Mittelstaedt describes it. Once again, Mittelstaedt, in Soulmates, rides up and down the tonality/atonality continuum as the child insists on Ms. Schroff, the executive, preparing his lunch “in a brown paper bag” so he will look like someone has taken a personal interest in him (banal tonality) and Schroff panicking on just how much of herself to invest in this strange relationship with an abandoned child (atonality reminiscent of Maria in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck). The two singer-actresses, Vakare Petroliunaite, soprano, and Renee Favand-See, mezzo-soprano, are exquisitely accompanied by flutist Gail Gillespie and cellist Diane Chaplin. Daniel Brugh, another member of Cascadia Composers in Portland, Oregon, which presented all these performances, prepared a track of street sounds, and the performance also included slides of street scenes. This may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuoR9Lfd98Y
Diaspora by Baltimore-area composer Greg Pascuzzi has a fascinating history. The US Navy Band Southwest (Bruce Mansfield, director) requested a work for Navy musicians that could be recorded by each member all over the world and then assembled by, as Pascuzzi describes him, “some techno whizz.” Thus the concept of “diaspora” was inspired by this musical unity from performers scattered around the world. Knowing how much Pascuzzi integrates his life and faith in the Lord, it’s not surprising to me that he immediately thought of the Jewish diaspora in reference not only to the Navy musicians but to all of us separated by COVID-19 around the world. The plaintive minor melody with its many ascending fifths and fourths certainly suggests this scattering around the world, but the victorious quote of the Navy hymn raises a note of hope.
Most of us composers would start from a piano solo or a chamber ensemble and arrange that work for band, but Pascuzzi faced the opposite challenge. Having met and collaborated with Dinu Serfezi, a Romanian-born violist, and Julia Sigova, a Belarussian pianist, years earlier, Pascuzzi pondered if an arrangement of the band work would work for their duet. Amazingly enough, it works quite well. While each ensemble highlights different attributes of this modern-day diaspora in its version, each is equally poignant and well worth enjoying on its own. The band version may be experienced at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxoyKi3S6nU. The viola-piano version is at https://www.facebook.com/julia.sigova/videos/10157239293673314 beginning at 8:55.
Up next: Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, Virtual International Conference, The First Concert – music by Ken Davies and Robert Myers.