Review: 2020 Virtual International Conference – The Paul Stanbery Chronicles (part 8)

By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020

The Second Concert – music by Bill Vollinger and Heather Niemi Savage

I did not plan it this way, but, as we wrap up our overview of the second concert of the Virtual International Conference, I have saved my colleagues Bill Vollinger and Heather Niemi Savage for the last reviews. Yes, they are my colleagues because we all belong to the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, but we also worked together indefatigably and put our limited tech knowledge together to work out the logistics of bringing 55 people together from six time zones into our virtual community last October, and both Vollinger and Savage were a joy to work with, a collaboration I will always remember with rich pleasure.

But they both also provided music not only fetching and beautiful to listen to, but whole new worlds of music that are quite a contrast to the rest of the conference. Let’s enter these new worlds now.

Very often the music for piano, violin, and violoncello is quite predictable in that it is typically structured in the sonata form cycle, with a sonata-allegro opening movement, a slow movement, and a finale in sonata-allegro or rondo form. But in Vollinger’s world, this normally absolute music ensemble of the piano trio has a program: it unfolds, completely instrumentally, a few parables of Jesus Christ, specifically 1. Pharisee & Tax Collector, 2. Mustard Seed, 3. Prodigal Son. The entire work is entitled Trio Parables and dates from 2004. Alas, I searched Soundcloud, YouTube, and Vollinger’s website for recordings of this work without success. I will update information on this as it becomes available to me. But we got to hear the middle movement of this work “Mustard Seed.”

Vollinger’s program notes are about as concise as any I have read; here, all we get is the quote from Matthew 13:31-32 about the kingdom of heaven being like a tiny mustard seed that grows to become the largest plant in the garden. No more needs to be said, because the music says it all. It is anchored, quite firmly, in D major, a friendly key for the string instruments, and it focuses its chord changes on only the primary triads on the tonic (I) subdominant (IV) and dominant (V). Strangely, the dominant sonorities only bookend this four-minute movement; the main body alternates between only the tonic and subdominant chords. This framework is about as simple as things get in music, so how can it tell this earthly story with a heavenly meaning?

After an initial flourish on the dominant chord, Vollinger becomes quite elemental: nothing for a while but repeated D’s separated by long, then shorter silences. This reminds me of the flourish that opens the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which is then followed by an elemental theme of sparse notes and silences. Of course, that is the tiny mustard seed that certainly begins to grow as the silences compress and more notes enter this growing process. Not much later, enough notes cause the gentle rocking back and forth between the D major and the G major chords. These chords sometimes have extra notes, and sometimes they sound together as the music extends the tendrils of growth into quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. The plant does indeed grow up and takes over the whole garden, and somehow Vollinger keeps it interesting and compelling to experience. Eventually, the work commands the entire piano keyboard and much of the ranges of the violin and cello to underscore the miracle of growth. A short coda reminds us of the tiny seed from whence all this came before a dramatic unfinished ending on the dominant emphasizing the leading tone (the C#’s that must move to the keynote of D, but don’t!).

In a word, this piece is optimistic, much like its composer, and a breath of fresh air in this new world that helps us escape the dreariness of our COVID-19-laced existence in an old world often far from God. The Amasi Trio, consisting of violinist Sungrai Sohn, cellist Chungsun Kim and pianist Tammy Lum, is the resident trio of Nyack College School of Music, where Vollinger has taught for many years. They present this movement in a jubilant and joyous fashion which is delightfully infectious.

Our other new world is the world of guitar music, a daunting world indeed for an art music composer to navigate. She must learn about all the chord fingerings and which sonorities work well on the instrument and which chords and note combinations are impossible to play. Then she must learn about the many techniques of playing those notes, way beyond just plucking or strumming the strings. But Heather Niemi Savage is a master of all these things. It helps tremendously that she is married to a superb guitarist, John A. Savage, who commissioned her Chant De Benediction for solo classical guitar in November, 2019. The Savages are a pastoral family as well, which helps to explain the creation of the Chant De Benediction. This work was birthed in response to an outreach to an orphanage in Haiti, and I think I will just let Heather Savage explain it herself, from her program notes:

This piece was commissioned by my husband, John A. Savage, Jr. in November 2019 so he could perform it at the “Three in Concert”, an annual concert at Perryville Bible Church held to benefit The Loving Hands Orphanage in Turbé, Haiti. John recorded the piece and all proceeds from the recording go to support the orphanage. Since the piece was written to support the orphanage, I wanted to incorporate the tune of a song they would know. I was sent a video of a benediction (prayer of blessing) that the children sing before meals. The translation is “Bless this food, Bless the hands that prepared it, Bless everyone, Bless the ones who have no food.” That melody, which bookends the piece, and the Haitian meringue rhythm provide the foundation of the piece. I combined the tune of the prayer with a dance rhythm because I wanted to convey two things: God loves all the peoples of the world, and prayer is not always something formal. We can talk with God about anything, any time. I aimed to capture a variety of emotions in the piece – thankfulness, joy, sadness, and hope because God is near to his people in every situation.

This piece was first performed on February 9, 2020, at the “Three in Concert” program at the Perryville Bible Church, Wakefield, Rhode Island. As she mentioned above, the proceeds from the sale of John Savage’s recording continue the support of this orphanage. If you would like to help out, please visit and invest one dollar to add this beauty to your library. Here’s why you should do this.

The work opens with the melody to the grace the orphanage community sings before meals, a robust melody of joy and thanks for daily bread. Much ink has been poured out lamenting the extreme poverty of Haiti and the misery under which its people live, but you would never know that from this grace, the lilting meringue rhythm and bubbly joy that saturate this guitar solo. Starting out in G major, it eases into a Mixolydian feel with all the F#’s becoming F naturals as gentle syncopations and triplets versus duples. Rev. Savage navigates this virtuoso writing nimbly along with hefty chords often involving four of the six strings, and he doesn’t strum the strings, but plays them all precisely together, a sound and technique I have never witnessed before on guitar. Heather Savage’s music takes us on a whirlwind of emotions. Midway through the Chant the music seems to die as it enters the relative minor key of E minor. The grace melody from the beginning becomes wistful and melancholy, perhaps a look at the bleak landscape around the orphanage, but that short-lived moment quickly transitions into a beautiful, heavenly recapitulation of the opening dance, up an octave from the beginning. Ms. Savage saves the highest note for this closing paean of praise to an always-providing God. Once again, “grace” is spoken at the end of the work as it ends in reverence and worship.

We are grateful to Vollinger and the Amasi Trio and the Savages for opening these new worlds up to us. And we are thankful to the Holy Spirit Who has led the composers featured in this Virtual Conference in so many different directions, yet to the same Lord of love.

In the next Stanbery Chronicles, we will begin our journey through the closing concert by celebrating music by Lavinia Kell Parker.