By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020
The Second Concert – music by Jack Ballard, Richard Cerchia, and Andy Robinson
In his program notes to Makemnoit (The Witch) Jack Ballard shares some of his influences: “the advanced tonalists, such as Prokofiev, Holst and Copland, but going back as far as the more outside tonal perspectives of Brahms and the chromaticism of Chopin.” I believe he has good taste, because this would describe some of my favorite composers as well. The creator of Makemnoit evidently has heard and internalized such edgy works as Brahms’ Intermezzo in E-flat minor, Op. 118, No. 6 (a very creepy piece) and Chopin’s Ballade in F Minor, op. 52. The Prokofiev mischief with the dark staccato eighth-note octaves and the warm quartal and modal harmonies of Holst also figure in this sinister work. But as I hear the sinuous legato lines alternating steps and large leaps, the free atonality of the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schönberg and his disciples comes to mind. Yet I cannot help but wonder at another influence: the terrifying Sensemayá by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, which takes us through an Afro-Cuban religious ritual of killing a snake. Like Revueltas in his first version of Sensemayá, Ballard scores for a chamber orchestra that sounds much fuller, particularly as the very few motives aggregate variations and transformations to become a horrifying witch’s spell indeed. Ballard casts this scene in an arch form, introducing scales in slow quarter notes that melt into the sinuous motive. The Prokofiev-like menacing motive of staccato octave leaps and repeated eighth notes comes in next, then combines with the first two ideas as more and more of the orchestra is drawn into the specter. At the 2:43 point, just over halfway in the five-minute work, the piece explodes into yet more troubling sixteenths and climaxes forty seconds later in two huge chords followed by a cavernous silence. Ballard then features the sinuous motive in a burbling variation (the marimba sounds like a simmering of a concoction). The simmering, seething sixteenths spread slowly into the rest of the orchestra as the opening scales are recalled. The work dissipates into a clarinet solo as the witch’s “evil plot,” as Ballard explains it, “is set in place.” Ballard takes us on a harrowing ride in this marvelous work which crams so many wonderful musical experiences into its short five minutes that time seems to stand still. To hear this work, please visit http://www.kiwibirdcreativeservices.com/the-light-princess-suite-for-orchestra/. This work is part of a planned seven-movement suite corresponding to the seven chapters of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, which I hope eventually to hear in its entirety.
Ballard’s other work, The Quiet, explores a completely other side of his creative personality – the accomplished jazz artist. Here Ballard recalls the seminal influences of his high school and collegiate vocal jazz experiences in this SATB a cappella setting of friend and business partner David Bunker’s poem, which explores the mating calls of a loon as imagined by a bystander. As Ballard states, he’s not content with mere major triads but must juice up his tightly-voiced harmonies with tall tertians (my collective name for 9th, 11th, and 13th chords) and added-tone triads. The bracing sounds of the dissonant harmonic extensions are most gratifying to the ear and unpack Bunker’s lyrics so poignantly. Ballard recorded and overdubbed himself singing both tenor and bass parts, as well as a tenor solo obbligato, along with Deanna Miller singing the soprano and alto parts. The resulting recording is masterful and sounds like a full jazz choir but remaining razor-sharp in its focused sound. Yes, Ballard is constantly making the small things grand in his creative and performing and recording work. The Quiet may be heard at http://www.kiwibirdcreativeservices.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/04-The-Quiet.mp3, and, while you’re in the neighborhood, check out the many other gems nearby.
Richard Cerchia’s Pastorale Flute Duet makes me both angry and confident: angry that a superlative work like this has not yet seen the light of a live performance because of COVID-19, and confident that, when this work receives its world première, hopefully yet this year, it will be deservedly well received. When I have worked hard on a composition and hear the computer playback, and it actually sounds good, I know I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Based on playback, this piece has hit a home run, and is easily my favorite of all his works I have experienced to date. It must be performed soon. According to Cerchia’s program notes, the work “was commissioned by flutist Christy Thompson-Kliewer for her and her daughter Corrin who is a flute major in college. The one stipulation she had was that it be pretty” and Cerchia has done so, but he has also immersed all of us in a gentle modernism that is a particularly fetching homage to the compositional language of Paul Hindemith, with a little bit of Benjamin Britten thrown in for good measure. Consider the opening dialogue between the two flutes before the piano enters. Although it’s in a diatonic scale, it’s hard to pinpoint the tonic, but D, G, and A all stand out as important. My vote is that it is D, which would make it a central axis with its subdominant G and dominant A, which outline one of Hindemith’s quartal chords (A-D-G), which happen to play a significant role in the work. Hindemith is also given to modal-inflected expressions, so the Mixolydian opening would be an expectation. But the pure diatonicism is given to a persistent exchange between the dueling C natural and C#, which is the Britten touch I relish. At the close of Britten’s Peter Grimes there is a gripping section in A Lydian (with the raised 4th, D#), but the D natural keeps chasing after it, increasing the tension that mirrors the tension between Grimes, the strange and estranged sea captain, and the townspeople of his home. A similar but more playful tension is set here in the Duet which keeps it interesting and unexpected.
You will come away with a new love for the minor 7th interval, the first interval of the piece, that forms the nucleus of the main 4-note motive. Cerchia obviously loves this motive (good for him!) as it is everywhere in the piece, yet never overused.
What shall we say about the form? Cerchia takes a multi-layer approach. There is a main theme area that leads, at about 2:50, into a charming dance with mordents and quintal chords (based on fifths and close relatives of the quartal chords mentioned earlier). Just a moment later, at 3:30, we are back to the main theme, but then another moment after that the dance figure returns again. Cerchia rapidly changes keys as well as themes and it is rather fragmentary here, so perhaps we are in a development section of a sonata form. At 4:47, the two flutes return, mimicking the opening, so it feels like a recapitulation. At 6:06, the dance theme returns leading to a coda at 6:24. The scoring of the flutes alone and with piano reinforces this, especially when the piano gets its first solo at the beginning of the dance theme at 2:50. But they also buttress the symmetry of this piece when the opening gestures return as a final codetta before the piece ends on A, the last of the tonal axis to be presented.
I would make one pleading to the composer: please keep it a flute duet with piano. The timbres of the two flutes are exquisite as they interweave and richly complement each other. We are rewarded with brilliance in the high registers and a gorgeous sotto voce in the beckoning lower registers, which might be lost if a violin is used instead of the flute. All these sonic delights are woven into a rich tapestry indeed by the piano, whose filigree recalls that of Maurice Ravel.
Cerchia reports to me that he has been spending his pandemic composing a lot of music, a far more productive use of time during COVID-19 than many I know. To listen to this piece, and several others by Cerchia, visit https://soundcloud.com/cerchiamusic. You will find this work listed as Pastorale on the third track.
We end today’s blog with the delightful and (mostly) cheery Fantasy for Clarinet Quintet – Day Trip by Andy Robinson. Scored for clarinet and string quartet, this is a perfect work for Father’s Day and is obviously written by a father (although this work was not intended to be autobiographical). The program story is delightful and easy to follow in the music:
- Embarkation – starting the day trip with an excited family
- Getting lost – which way to go?
- Contrition – the clarinet has a despondent solo, possibly representing the father, who, like me and many other guys, is too proud to ask for directions or use the GPS!
- Found Again – back on track toward the destination and family fun
I can’t resist quoting Robinson’s program notes’ “coda”: “In a pandemic, we can fantasize.” Well, that certainly explains the title, and maybe more besides! It is interesting how the four sections mimic Franz Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, coming joyously back into the tonic key after many distant adventures away. “Embarkation” and “Found Again” bookend the Fantasy with bubbly excitement on the white notes in a captivating pandiatonic structure, meaning the scale is C major, but C does not sound like the keynote, and neither does any other note. The cello sets the upbeat mood by a pizzicato ostinato up and down the circle of fourths and the upper strings enter one by one with optimistic riffs mostly going up and down the scale. Like a Johnny-come-lately to the party, the clarinet joins the fray. And, in fact, the clarinet was an afterthought to this would-be string quartet, but what an inspired afterthought! It turns out to be the main character in this instrumental operetta. As though on the journey, the music whipsaws in and out of different keys, sometimes downright tonal, or somewhere on the continuum between tonality and pandiatonicism. It’s a whirlwind of a ride; please fasten your seatbelts! At 1:41, troubling chords dispel the ebullient mood and hurl us into the anxiety of “Getting Lost.” The music gropes around, occasionally with the opening ostinato, but finally gives up with the cello throwing away a couple of scattered notes. In “Contrition,” the clarinet finally fesses up to being lost (like I have had to do with my grandson on bicycle rides), and it’s a heartfelt confession, floating in the low chamuleau register over stark tremolos in the strings before they fade out for the soliloquy. At 5:29, the clarinet seems to have rediscovered the correct route, leading into the ebullience of “Found Again,” the last section that functions as a loose recapitulation of “Embarkation” along with a coda that develops and sequences several of the ideas before finally arriving victoriously, at last, into C major to end the work.
This is another work that passes the MIDI test; it sounds incredibly well, especially the clarinet solo, just from the Sibelius playback. To enjoy this work with an automatically-scrolling score, please visit https://www.dropbox.com/s/jjn4mhsrinkdpwh/Fantasy%20for%20Clarinet%20Quintet%20-%20Day%20Trip%202020.wmv?dl=0. Like many other worthy works in this era of COVID-19, the Fantasy is looking for its world première. If you would like to peruse score and parts, please contact Robinson directly at .
In the next Stanbery Chronicles, we will visit the music of Bill Vollinger and Heather Niemi Savage.