Program Notes

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.

I had heard George Keithley read from his 254-page poem The Donner Party at a College of Marin poetry symposium, and was immediately impressed with its operatic possibilities. Librettist Maria Woodward and I decided to work together on the project. I remember our sitting together on her deck laughing about the fact that Alban Berg had spent four years writing his opera Wozzeck. Three hours a day and four years later, spent composing the 450-page score for The Donner Party, I was working frantically to meet an October 1st deadline.

The story is of a group of pioneers, both courageous and foolhardy, who headed for Califor-nia with George Donner in 1846. It contains a "Perils of Pauline" kind of excitement in which each scene presents new dangers and obstacles to be overcome —crossing the salt deserts of Utah, climbing the Wasatch Mountains, being attacked by Indians, and tells an inspir-ing love story between Tamsen and George Donner who face death together in the snows of the Sierra and yet sing of a time "after this life."

I felt the music had to be melodious as well as full of the story’s drama. As a teen-ager I had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of the 12-tone system of composition and a refuge from Nazi Germany. Schoenberg taught basics—Bach fugues and inventions—thoroughly before he let his students try anything modern. The experience left me with an abiding love of orderly musical forms—obvious in The Donner Party where each of the fifteen scenes has a formal organization: prelude and fugue, theme and variation, rondo, sonata, passacaglia. There is a personal theme for each of the important characters, and these themes run through the opera. There are duets that combine themes —also solo, choral work and dances.


Tamsen Donner

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 scenes—now called Tamsen Donner—the role sung by Gwen Curatilo who directed the earlier version.

Squaw Valley Theater, below Donner Pass, was the chosen stage for the premiere of the new version. Both the Pass and Party were named for the Donner family whose scandalous tale of misad-venture, death, starvation and can-nibalism became the risky sub-ject for the opera. To quote Bizet, "If you were to suppress adul-tery, fanaticism, crime, evil and the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note of opera."

With cannibalism added to the list, I may have gone too far. Would the audience accept that degree of evil? Seated 4th row cen-ter, I watched as Kent Na-gano, conducting the Berkeley Sym-phony, brought the tragic opera to a close. He dropped his arms to his sides after the final duet of the dying George Donner and his wife Tamsen, who were aban-doned by the wagon train and left behind by the rescue party to face death together in the snow.

Applause and bravos shattered the silence that followed, and the audience rose to its feet. Minute after minute the applause and curtain calls continued as singers, musicians, conductor and composer acknowl-edged the ovation. Afterward, Kent Nagano called me over.
"Ron, this is Doug MacKinnon. He writes for OPERA NEWS and wants to do an article about you and your opera."
"Mr. McFarland, that was the most moving opera I’ve ever heard. You have proven again what a great teacher Schoenberg was—as with other of his students, you have outdone the master.


Song of Pegasus

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.

Pegasus, the rare and beautiful creature who brings the power of poetry and individuality into the cloistered world of the Biblical Ark provokes alarm within Noah, unrest within his son Ham, and wonder among the captive animals. The two conflicting natures of Pegasus and Ham have always seemed to me to be dual aspects of the same being; and within the tumult of God’s flood, they become one. Self-awareness leads inevitably to murder and mayhem among the animals. Pegasus, the instigator, must pay the price with his life. But his spirit prevails. The ark reaches the Promised Land with a new breed of man and beast touched by divine hope and a new awareness of life on earth. Enlightened man emerges from the ark to start life anew.

This marvelous tale has been soaring about in my subconscious for some years now. As early as 1968, I composed a choral work for the San Domenico Singers, which was performed with soprano Marian Marsh as Pegasus. Since then I have written several works around the Pegasus theme—a string quartet, a song cycle and a ballet. These have been incorporated into the present opera Song of Pegasus.


The Audition of Molly Bloom

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 work is in the form of a "scena ed aria" consisting of a recitative (Andante), cavatina (tempo di Valse), and aria (Allegro appassionato).


Photo Gallery

Sonata for Violin and Piano


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.




String Quartet No.1 (Pegasus)


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.




String Quartet No. 2 (Windows)


“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 common—Cavafy 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.




Trio for Harp, Flute and Viola


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.




Serenade for Piano, Violin and Cello (Trio)


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.