At Chico State University, 170 miles to the North, the opera workshop, under the direction of Marin County soprano Gwen Curatilo, gave the world premiere of a three-act piece by Bay Area composer Ron McFarland. Based on George Keithley’s prize-winning epic poem, The Donner party, depicting the long journey of the pioneers west.
The premiere took place on November 16, with a preview performance scheduled before an invited audience two days previously. The work was warmly received.
McFarland’s music has fresh and original features. The score is presented as a series of formal procedures divided into fifteen scenessonata, rondo, theme and variation, prelude and fugue, passacaglia.
His music is often lovely and not hard two follow in its formal patterns. He states his stylistic position with ironic clarity: "I fall between two stools. The modernists think my music is too diatonic: the conservatives think it is too atonal." The best scenes in the opera, not surprisingly, have the strongest music. The pioneers reach the top of the Wasatch Mountains to a glorious upwelling in the orchestra, worthy of Bartok. The passacaglia theme in Act 2 imprints itself vividly on the ear. The final duet is beautifully lyrical.
Thanks to Curatilo’s grit, a small miracle took place in Chico last weekend. New music by a living composer was brought to life.
THE DONNER PARTY HAS WORLD PREMIERE IN CHICO
Mark Thalman, music critic, CHICO NEWS & REVIEWS
Something exciting happened in Chico this past weekend: a world premiere, the Donner Party, a truly American opera presented in Laxson Auditorium to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.
The opera opened with an orchestral prelude combining both melodic and atonal passages: the first to embrace the optimism with which the group embarked on their journey, and the latter to foreshadow the tragedy and hardship to come.
THE SQUAW VALLEY CREATIVE ARTS SOCIETY FESTIVAL
‘IN PERFORMANCE’ AT FOREST MEADOWS
Richard Pontzious, Music Critic, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
The program was a model of diversity. Most accessible of five pieces were Larry Barnes’ ethereal "Behind the Golden Door, for solo piano and tape, and Ron McFarland’s amusingly schizophrenic scena ed aria Molly Bloom, a hypothetical audition piece that toys with Mozart and comes awfully close to being a hip saloon piece.
Charles Shere, Music Critic, THE OAKLAND TRIBUNE
A few Bay Area composers banded together earlier this season as Composers, Inc. to promote their own music. There seems to be no aesthetic party platform, though conservatism does run through most of their styles, divergent as they are.
A fine audience greeted an appealing and accomplished program of contemporary music. The five works proved that modern music need not punish the ears, but can be tuneful, dramatic and funny.
Alexander String Quartet: Respect for Audience, Composers
Allan Ulrich, Music Critic, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
The Alexander String Quartet is one of those estimable groups who treat both composers and audiences with uncommon respect. The feeling was mutual Tuesday evening at the Veterans Building Green Room, when the Alexandrines came to town for a generally enlightening program under the auspices of Composers, Inc., the five-member consortium whose concerts are rapidly proving among the more satisfying new music experiences in the Bay Area.
The concert opened with Copland’s Three Pieces for String Quartet and String Quartets by David Sheinfeld, Ron McFarland and George Crumb…McFarland, one of the founding members of Composers Inc., fashioned the first six notes of his quartet from his opera Pegasus, but his structure remains linear, his material quickly identifiable and assimilable, his invention fluid and attractive. The second movement Serenade scores for lyricism; the succeeding Variations take the prize for ingenuity.
Quartet Up to Contemporary Challenge
Joshua Kosman, Music critic, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
An enthusiastic crowd packed the Veteran’s Building Green Room Tuesday night for a program of contemporary music presented by the new music co-operative Composers, Inc. The well-planned program included some intriguing scores…Pegasus, a quartet by Composers, Inc., co-founder Ron McFarland, proved a well-crafted and conservative work in four movements. McFarland writes shapely, easily grasped melodies with a firmly tonal context, and exploits the polyphonic possibilities of the quartet well, and (as an example of) traditional music, this is a fine example.
Modern composer has his say
Michael Walsh, Music Critic, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
ONE HEARS A LOT these days about the plight of the contemporary composermostly from the composers themselvesso it is refreshing to see a composer take matters into his own hands and actually do something about getting performances. Last night at the Community Congregational Church in Tiburon, local composer Ron McFarland presented an evening of his own music that gave a listener previously unfamiliar with his work a good idea of his methods and expressive intent.
Fittingly, the most successful piece was the newest, “Windows.” A suite of four songs (as movements) set to poems by the 2oth century Alexandrian poet, Cavafy. It is a tightly organized, affecting work, with the songs (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 in D minor (up to this point, the triadic harmonies had been more effectively disguised). The final song, “Ode and Elegy of the Roads,” restores some of the harmonic ambiguity with a diminished chord based on D.
Not the least of the music’s virtues is a sincerity and expressiveness that increases in proportion to the composer’s harmonic adventurousness. The Quartet, No 1 (Pegasus) has two beautiful movements in its Andante sentimentale and Moderato. Here, one is conscious not of the act of composition, but of writing music.
Formally, McFarland is a traditionalist, employing fugues, variations, passacaglias, gigues, canons, etc. While his music may be said to be “conservative,” it is very much his own.
ARTS / LEISURE, ENTERTAINING CONCERT
Hugh Palmerston, Music Critic, NOVATO ADVANCE
On the night of June 1, I was privileged to hear the premiere performance of the song cycle “Windows,” four poems by the outstanding modern Greek poet C.P. Cavafy set by the outstanding Bay area composer, Ron McFarland. The poems cover a wide range of feelings and the composer has somehow contrived to let them speak for themselves through his music.
While McFarland is essentially an atonalist (he studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg) he is not so dedicated to that system that he hesitates to use more traditional tonalities where the text calls for them. He has gone is own way, and that is a very good way indeed.
The poem “By the Open Window,” includes the lines Refreshing autumnal spirits come unto me and encircle me, an apt description of the effect of Cavafy’s words as interpreted by McFarland and soprano Marian Marsh.
Allan Ulrich, Music Critic, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
RECORDINGS by Bay Area musicians figure prominently in the recent release list. Let’s skim the cream off the top: McFarland: “Windows,” “Pegasus,” “Les Hommages.”
Sara Ganz, soprano; Eliane Lust, piano; Alexander String Quartet. Con Molto.
Marin-based Ron McFarland writes music that is not ashamed to be beautiful. This generous, 78-minute collection includes “Windows” (to Cavafy poems) for soprano and string quartet, the “Pegasus” quartet and the 24 preludes for piano, “Les Hommages,” clever tributes to the musical legends of yesteryear. Performances are uniformly persuasive.
American Record Guide
Mark Lehman, Record Reviewer
McFarland: Windows; Pegasus; Les Hommages
Sara Ganz, s; Eliane Lust. p; Alexander String Quartet
Ron McFarland was born in California, studied with Schoenberg, and has written operas, symphonies, concertos. chamber music, songs and music for the theater. This disc is the first recording of his large output that I’ve seen. Windows is a song cycle on four poems by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy for soprano and string quartet. Pegasus is a string quartet; and Les Hommages is 24 preludes, each a tribute to and in the style of another composer.
The song cycle and string quartet piece are written in McFarland’s own stylederived, no doubt, from his study with Schoenberg, who (it may surprise some) taught his students to write tonal music in the German tradition. The language of Windows and Pegasus is turn-of-the-century Germanic late-romanticismlike Mahler, Zemlinsky, and early Schoenberg. McFarland uses that language with conviction and skill, and the result is expressive and shapely music that pleased me all the more for being concise and avoiding emotional excess. The opening theme of Schoenberg’s Second quartet appears as an element in the adagio of McFarland’s quartet. I was startled by the rhythmic figure in its finale taken from (or at least identical with) Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from the Peanuts television specials. An in-joke, perhaps?
Listening to Les Hommages is a peculiar experience. McFarland’s mimicry is pretty goodsometimes uncannybut hopping from style to style is unsettling. I admired this piece but don’t recommend swallowing it whole, in one sitting. 32 tracks are listed in the notes but only 30 on the disc. No big deal. If you can’t tell McFarland’s ‘Vivo a Bartok’ from ‘Tempo di Blues a Gershwin’ it won’t matter to you anyway.
Soprano Sara Ganz sings Cavafy’s poignant lyrics very nicely indeed, and both the Alexander Quartet and pianist Elaine Lust acquit themselves well. Recording is clear and natural. Nowcan we get Con Molto to give us some of McFarland’s orchestral stuff?
Stephanie von Buchau, Music Critic, OAKLAND TRIBUNE
McFarland: Chamber Works. Alexander String Quartet; Sara Ganz, soprano; Eliane Lust, piano; (Con Molto Music) Ron McFarland is a Bay Area composer who studied with Schoenberg but has evolved his own, middle-of-the-road style, neither forbidding nor soft-centered. Composer of two operas, he is here represented by excellent performances, recorded at Skywalker Ranch and the SF Conservatory of Music, of his Cavafy song cycle, “Windows,” for soprano and string quartet, his String Quartet, and a thoroughly engaging set of 24 piano preludes called “Les Hommages” because each is wittily crafted in the style of a different composer, from Liszt and Chopin to Joplin and Gershwin.
Don Kaplan, Music Critic, SAN FRANCISCO LIVE
CHAMBER WORKS by Ron McFarland: the Alexander String quartet, others.
Local composer Ron McFarland has written operas, symphonies and music for the American Conservatory Theatre. His discography is small, but fortunately we now have this generously filled disc of chamber works available to introduce us to his music. It includes a string quartet, songs for string quartet and soprano, and 24 “character pieces” for piano that pay homage to some of McFarland’s favorite composers. McFarland has always stayed true to tonal music. Unmistakably modern, yet conservative and often lyrical. If you’re looking for an enjoyable change of pace from the minimalists and post-modernists, this well-crafted music should do the trick. Text included.