By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020
The Third Concert – The Music of Robert Myers and Walter Saul
COVID-19 has not left much room for life as we used to know it – except for maybe the outdoors. Robert Myers has celebrated this in a captivating way with his musical journey on the Beartooth Highway, a spectacularly scenic 68-mile section of US 212 as it journeys from its western beginning at the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park and crosses the Wyoming/Montana border three times. There are seven “way-stations” in this panoramic work: The Canyon Gate, Rock Creek Canyon, The Lower Switchbacks, Rock Creek Vista, The Upper Switchbacks, Twin Lakes, and Summit 10,947’. Evidently, Myers tracks the eastern segment of this scenic, All-American highway from Red Lodge, Montana, southwestward to the summit in Wyoming at Beartooth Pass.
Myers’ program notes are well worth reading and the score worth perusing. You may do both while listening to a fine MIDI realization of the work at https://wheatmyermusic.com/product/eastern-ascent/. Read the program notes first in the score by clicking the “Look inside” button just under the orange image of the score. Then click the play button for the track just to the right of the score image. You can then follow the score as the music is playing – a godsend for any band director! As you follow the score note where Myers has labeled the beginnings of each of the way-stations and the progression of this wonderful panorama will become quite clear. Myers’ tone-poem truly takes us there, which is a great blessing, because I am not sure I want the “white-knuckled” drive, as he puts it.
In the quiet respites of this work, Myers quotes the Hamburg hymn tune, which most of us would recognize as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” In Rock Creek Vista, only the first four notes are heard in sequences and in a noble 7/4 meter rendition. Surely exploring amazingly beautiful places such as these should give us inspiration to contemplate our Redeeming Creator. The opening four notes of Hamburg return in a variation passage in Twin Lakes with filigree sixteenth notes that resemble Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and many other orchestral scores. The music reaches its apex at the Summit 10,947’ as the entire first phrase appears festively in trills and other ornamentation. Another hallmark motive announces itself right at the beginning. Borne out of the whole-tone scale the four-tone motive E-D-C-F# (like Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes, “Nuages”) always appears on those four tones and calls us to attention as witnesses to the majesty of God’s creation.
Everyone in the very full wind ensemble will relish his or her part, whether sounding one of the main melodies or adding to the Ravel-like filigree that fills this score. Especially noteworthy, however, are the four demanding and rewarding percussion parts with their own contributions to the filigree work of this composition. Gone forever, I hope, are the days when the percussionists would spend 95% of their time counting rests. No, in Eastern Ascent, they are absolutely essential to the magnificent orchestration. It is a welcome response to the large numbers of percussionists who are demanding virtuoso opportunities even within a band or orchestra – and earning those opportunities well! Bravo, Robert Myers!
Another work on this final program was my Rhapsody for Oboe and Orchestra (Kiev 2014), recorded, as one might guess, in Kiev, Ukraine, at Christmastime in 2014. This was a work composed especially for my first Naxos CD which is available at www.waltersaul.com. This work is also readily available through Naxos at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGCJQm8XPgY. Rong-Huey Liu is the stellar oboe soloist and is accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under the direction of my good friend and mentor Theodore Kuchar. Under his direction the NSOU has recorded more than 100 CD’s for the Naxos label, preserving the great composers of the 20th century and introducing new voices like mine to the world.
Remarkably, we stayed in Kiev during a welcome lull in the tensions between Ukraine and Russia over the latter’s forced annexation of the Crimea. The war, however, was always in the background. This work therefore reflects the warfare in its vitriolic opening, cast in the same 10/8 time signature of the “Mission Impossible” theme of Lalo Schifrin, but much more menacing. In this work, molded in a modified sonata-allegro form, the oboe pleads for peace and the end of war, getting almost drowned out by the cacophony of the orchestra bent and determined to conquer. The pleading blossoms into a quiet and caressing new theme as the oboe solo woos the orchestra and wins a few followers from the other double reed instruments and the harp. But other instruments nastily interrupt this new fellowship and, as the development section begins, tumble headlong into battle as the music recalls the stark primitivism of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The oboe sings an elegy over the carnage as the nasty opening war theme inaugurates the recapitulation. However, as the music transitions into the second theme, its quiet and unassuming character is transformed into victory and celebration as the whole orchestra joins in the joyous festivities.
I have since added two movements to this work to transform it into a three-movement Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra (Kiev 2014). The first two movements are “Maidan” and “Pray for Ukraine.” “Maidan” is named for central Kiev, where most of the recent protests and struggles for renewed Ukrainian independence have taken place (and where we stayed, in the shadow of St. Sophia’s Cathedral!). “Pray for Ukraine” appeared on countless billboards throughout Kiev, including even government buildings in the capital district. The Rhapsody is the finale and is now entitled “Archangel Michael” whose statue stands in the middle of the Maidan in defiance of atheistic rule over this place which, in AD 988, became the first European place to welcome Christianity.
Because of length, I have chosen to postpone discussing the music of Jack Ballard and Larry Mumford until the next edition of the Stanbery Chronicles.