The Donner Party
I first heard soprano Gwen Curatilo sing the role of the governess in a San Francisco Opera production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. We met a few years later at a Marin Arts Quartet rehearsal of my First String Quartet. The group had commissioned the work for a concert of American quartets that included George Rochberg’s Quartet No. 2 with Soprano. Madame Curatilo introduced herself and told me that she wished she were singing my music instead of the Rochberg. Being a great fan of Rochberg’s Quartet No. 3, I was sur-prised and pleased at her preference. I asked her if she would sing my songs, and she answered, "I will sing any-thing you write." Thus came about my Songs of Pegasus, for which the music and her performance were highly praised by the critics. It was again several years later that, as head of the opera workshop at Chico State, she commissioned my first full-length opera.
It was through the auspices of Margery Tede, mezzo-soprano and president of the American Concert Association, that I was commissioned by the Squaw Valley Creative Arts Society to create a concert version of my opera The Donner Party. This group wanted a somewhat shorter work, performed with chorus but fewer solo parts and played by a full symphony orchestra. The original opera, as the title suggests, was a story about an entire wagon train of pioneers. The new restrictions gave me the opportunity to trim the work down to both the most dramatic and the more intimate scenesnow called Tamsen Donnerthe role sung by Gwen Curatilo who directed the earlier version.
The story of Pegasus, the winged horse who comes aboard Noah’s Ark as a surprise passenger, is a tale that has continued to fascinate me since my first reading of the original Rumer Godden story In Noah’s Ark as a teen-ager.
I had wanted for some time to write a dramatic aria for mezzo-soprano Margery Tede on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses and to present it as an "audition," in which the performance was in the form of a rehearsal. Playwrights Unltd. gave me the opportunity when they commissioned five short dramatic scenes. Molly Bloom was first performed with three of its companion pieces at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival with mezzo Vickie Shaghoian as Molly and with me at the piano as the composer.
The Sonata for Violin and Piano was written soon after the success of the Suite for Piano, and was begun as a piano sonata. I soon began to feel the need of a stringed instrument to bring out both the lyrical and the more strident characters of the piece thereby the work for violin and piano was born.
The Sonata is in 3 movements: Theme (Largo) and Toccata (Con móto); Andante; and Tempo di giga, non troppo allegro. The Giga is a fast jig or dance in 6/8 or 12/8 rhythm and derives its name from the German word geig, meaning fiddle, as the music is particularly adapted to that instrument.
One critic explained the work as being a “dissonant and edgy piece expressing dark and complex emotions.” He also admitted that it was his favorite work on the CD he was reviewing.
I borrowed the first six notes of my “First String Quartet” from my opera “Pegasus,” based on Rumer Godden’s poem “In Noah’s Ark.” These six notes, immediately inverted, making a quasi twelve-tone melody, are the building blocks for the four movements. The linear structure of the work suggests early Baroque, using the melodic devises of inversion, retrograde, retrograde-inversion, rhythmic displacement, diminution and augmentation.
The ‘Allegro maestoso’ is in sonata allegro form: exposition (Fanfare), development (fugato) and recapitulation. The theme first played by the second violin and the inversion by the cello is then taken up successively and developed by each of the instruments. The following cantando theme is a retrograde inversion of the first motif. This theme is further developed as the lyrical ‘Serenade’ of the second movement. The inverted row becomes the theme for a set of ‘Variations’ (Andante sentimentale) followed without pause by a ‘Scherzo finale’ that humorously returns to the original material of the Fanfare, sounding like a drunken Bach invention borrowing counter melodies from such divergent composers as Richard Wagner and Vince Guaraldi.
“Windows” is a string quartet with soprano based on four poems by the 20th century Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Cavafy became the ‘darling’ of the English poets of his time. I first read about him as one of the characters in the four novels of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.” The English novelist and the Greek poet have Alexandria, Egypt in commonCavafy born there in 1863, while Durrell lived there in the later years of the poet’s life.
The quartet is a tightly organized work, with the four songs (as movements) sharing common rhythmic and melodic ideas; the third song, “Afternoon Sun,” is practically a combination of the first two, “The Windows” and “By the Open Window,” and ends with the final song, “Ode and Elegy of the Roads.”
Recognition of Cavafy’s greatness has grown steadily since World War 1. He is a master at presenting a theme, an intense feeling or an idea in direct unornamented verse. My songs with his poems were recently heard in Athens, Greece for the C. CAVAFY EXHIBITION, LECTURE and CONCERT, and were praised by the Music Writer and lecturer Thomas Tamvakos in the Greek Music Magazine, Tsar and Jazz.
Gillian Benet, Cincinnati Symphony’s principle harpist, with her family, commissioned a harp piece when she was in her teens. They wanted a work that could be performed both with orchestra and as a trio. And both versions were premiered first with Hugo Rinaldi conducting the Marin Chamber Orchestra and a week later with violin and cello at the Marin Playhouse.
Gillian was young, beautiful and talented. I wrote the work as a musical portrait of the artist, showing off her youth, her beauty and her ability as a harpist. It is a virtuoso work full of youthful exuberance and beautiful melodies, and has been performed by notable harpists including both San Francisco Symphony’s principle harpist Douglas Rioth, and second Karen Gottlieb.
I first corresponded with pianist June Choi Oh in 1997 when she was Director of the Pacific Music Festival at Stanford University. I sent some sketches of a rewrite of the Harp Trio, now using piano, violin and cello. She wrote back that it was too late for the summer performance and suggested it be performed at a later date. That date arrived several years later when she moved to Marin and became director of the Guest Series at Dominican University.
The Serenade opened the 2002-2003 Series with pianist Paul Hersh and members of the San Francisco Symphony. It was then performed at Chamber Music Sundaes with June Choi Oh, piano, Kelly Leon-Pearce, violin and David Goldblatt, cello, and the next season with the Navarro Trio at the Sunday Chamber Series at Sonoma State University.