Review: 2020 Virtual International Conference (part 4)

By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020

The First Concert – music by Josh Rodriguez and Larry Warkentin

This 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 examine in this blog music by Josh Rodriguez, and Larry Warkentin.

Southern Californian composer and Cal Baptist professor Josh Rodriguez is a dynamic and energetic emerging voice in new music, thanks in no small part to his wife, Mary Vanhoozer, a phenomenal pianist who agilely and nimbly performs Rodriguez’s most demanding licks and runs and comes back for more. Vanhoozer was a member of the ensemble Brahms’s Ghost Trio, which also included Wendy Case, violinist, and Robert Nicholson, cellist. These amazing musicians formed an organism, not merely an organization, and they were crazy, too, by daring to unleash a composer with the challenge “write anything you like and we’ll play it!” Rodriguez proves that this is a dangerous thing to do with him in the aptly-named That Crazed Girl Improvising, so be sure to view it in the video at Thank goodness Rodriguez begins this opening movement, “Jaunty, with attitude” reasonably with a simple Dsus chord unfolding though many silent moments. However, these silences are gradually filled as the tones, one by one are added to form the D Dorian scale. Then, through the prevalent fourths black tones fill in the missing tones to form twelve-tone rows and the work grows into an explosive toccata with only short moments of respite. About four minutes into the 6¾ minute work, the prevailing 4ths and quartal harmonies are challenged momentarily by stringent, serious sounds, seemingly borne out of the serialistic rows, but that, too, is brushed aside, back into the Latin rhythms that give this movement its rollicking energy. This work is inspired by “A Crazed Girl” by William Butler Yeats, whose opening lines read:

That crazed girl improvising her music.
Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,
Her soul in division from itself
Climbing, falling She knew not where…

The second part of this sonnet begins with:

No matter what disaster occurred
She stood in desperate music wound…

These lines seem an apt description of both the work and the Brahms’s Ghost Trio, especially the pianist, in their splendid rendition ending suddenly up in the air – taking our breath away.

My fellow Fresno, California, composer Larry Warkentin, contributed a strange anomaly in this entire event: a composition for solo piano. His splendid and superbly-crafted Academic Variations was composed in 1978 and its roots reach back farther still into the Classical and Baroque periods. Actually, pronounced Romantic and Modernistic influences abound in these variations as well, so they truly are music for all time. Let’s examine some of these diverse elements.

While the theme, set fairly solidly in D Minor, molds itself into both the Classical thematic format and, later, into the Baroque continuous chaconne format, it has the distinct Romantic element of starting, not on the tonic, but on the submediant chord of Bb major. From the very opening measure Warkentin infuses a Romantic yearning for “home” and then obscures where “home” might be. Sure, D Minor is established at the start, but only with one passing tonic triad in the entire theme! And, indeed, this theme flirts with A Minor before modulating and ending in the relative major of F. The variations proceed in Classical fashion with the typical doubling of their pace – halves and quarters in the theme, to quarters and eighths in the first variation, eighths and sixteenths in the second. The scale figures of the second variation are transformed into arpeggios in the third, and then into a sixteenth-note toccata in the fourth. Variation 5 enters a dark phase with its menacing broken octaves in the lowest registers of the piano, leading to an explosion into the heavens in the brillante of Variation 6, which ends the first part of this piece with a full-keyboard glissando.

The ensuing Fugue, of course, recalls the Baroque period and ingeniously absorbs the frenetic energy of the variations into one voice before expanding into a more-or-less conventional three-voice exposition. But the subject itself, closely related to the variation theme, indulges in the use of two closely-related pitch class sets. 01356 (E-F-G-A-Bb) rules the first measure and, by transposition, the second as well, and 02356 (A-B-C-D-Eb) regulates the two other measures of the subject. These pitch class sets introduce new accidentals (maybe even blue notes!) that, in Modernistic fashion, threaten, but don’t obliterate the tonal structure of this fugue, which, in the fashion of Richard Wagner and his admirers, revolves around the tonal axis of D and F. Warkentin confidently explores tonalities up and down the circle of fifths, which gives the fugue a true sense of harmonic progression often missing in the 21st century, and, interestingly, leads to a firm conclusion on C, the dominant of the opening F Major tonality. Warkentin is not above other Modernistic indulgences, including several sprinklings of bitonality in the last half of the Fugue.

The concluding Chaconne reels back the harmonic language and the form into the Baroque period. The opening theme of this work, formerly in 2/4 time, assumes the ¾ time signature prevalent in chaconnes of the Baroque era. Warkentin presents a theme and six variants which, again, progress in rhythmic intensity from a quarter-note pace to whirling dervishes of swooping 32nd-note scales that close this ten-minute work in festive style. I had the privilege of performing this work, which was awarded first prize by the Music Teachers Association of California in 1978, and you may hear this performance at

Up next: Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, Virtual International Conference, The Second Concert.