Reviews

THE DONNER PARTY

OPERA NEWS
Stephanie von Buchau, Music Critic

SAN FRANCISCO

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 scenes—sonata, 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.

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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.

Ron McFarland’s music was a blend reminiscent of Charles Ives’ intertwining, often erupting themes: lots of dissonance, folk tunes (not exactly any one in particular but strongly suggestive of many); spiritual, almost hymn-like melodies as the characters become aware of their ever-deepening relationship with Fate; and at the end, when death lurked near (embodied in an Ingmar Bergman-style character), George and Tamsen Donner were left only with hopes for "after this life," singing a poignant duet.

The aura was that of grandness. We were seeing something important.

Although the story is a tragic one, although its events bring out the worst in human nature (murder and betrayal) as well as the most generous (Tamsen’s selfless commitment to her husband and children), The Donner Party was so beautiful, so rich, and so spiritual; I doubt any of us were reached to the point tears of repulsion. It was an event to be enjoyed, an aesthetic interpretation of history to be appreciated.

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TAMSEN DONNER
Semi-Staged Concert Version

THE SQUAW VALLEY CREATIVE ARTS SOCIETY FESTIVAL
BERKELEY SYMPHONY, Kent Nagano, conductor


AN OPERATIC PREMIERE
Alfred Kay, Bee Reviewer, THE SACRAMENTO BEE


Tamsen Donner is about the Donner Party, a dramatic footnote in American history. Surprisingly neglected until now in the musical idiom.

There were some 8o persons who set out from Illinois is 1846 and there were about that number involved in the Squaw Valley premiere. For if this is not quite grand opera, it is big opera—a big score, a big production, some big intentions and big performances by Kent Nagano and his band of musicians and singers. Tamsen Donner must be taken seriously.

The composer to take seriously is Ron McFarland, once a student of Arnold Schoenberg and already the creator of an opera titled In Noah’s Ark, a theme on a more successful expedition then the Donner Party.

At its best the music is in turn sparse and urgent, lush and touching, and there are few references in it. Certainly, the hand and mind of Schoenberg are not immediately apparent and the score is an appealing one.


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SONG OF PEGASUS

‘IN PERFORMANCE’ AT FOREST MEADOWS
SAN FRANCISCO BALLET ORCHESTRA, Denis de Coteau, conductor

OPERA NEWS
Stephanie von Buchau, Music Critic

SAN FRANCISCO
I first heard of Ron McFarland’s Pegasus song cycle several years ago when Gwen Curatilo sang those lovely, concentrated melodies based on words by Rumer Godden. McFarland had further pursed the legend of the winged horse in a choral work, a string quartet and a ballet. All have been incorporated into the opera-ballet Song of Pegasus, which had its world premiere at Forest meadows last Friday.

McFarland is an assured craftsman and a melodist of modest charm. The songs incorporated from the cycle are lyrical, appealing, even touching—I think especially of "I Am Poetry" and "Little Drops of Water."

Arthur Conrad’s staging of the opera, which tells how the winged horse brings dissension to the animals on Noah’s ark, was deft and charming—particularly the dance like movements for the Dove (Cheryl Weiss), the serpent (Vicki Shahoian), and the Raven (Lionel Williams).

Lee Velta and Margery Tede sang Noah and his wife. One of the Bay Area’s riding young artists, Velta offered a majestic interpretation; his dramatic aria accompanied by brass and cymbal made a strong impression. Jeff Carney sang strongly as the son who learns to be a poet, and Ross Halper gave one of his patented comic turns as the lion. Denis de Coteau conducted the orchestra, and Joseph Hernandez designed the practical set. The project was a labor of love.


PEGASUS’
TAKES FLIGHT
Hugh Palmerston, Advance Correspondent, NOVATO ADVANCE


The summer "In Performance" series at San Rafael’s forest Meadows got off to a flying start Friday night with Ron McFarland’s new ballet and opera Song of Pegasus.

McFarland has a very special gift of writing for the human voice and his excellent score was, for the most part, splendidly performed.

Lee Velta perfectly projected the essence of Noah, the man of righteousness. The ease and clarity both of his diction and his vocal production are reminiscent of the great Golden age baritone, Pasquale Amato.

He was well matched by his wife, played by mezzo-soprano Margery Tede. Their first duet, "Lord Make Me Worthy," was one of the many musical and vocal highlights of the evening. Ham was portrayed with great vitality by the fine tenor, Jeff Carney.

Among the supporting parts there were several outstanding performances. Lionel Williams was a marvelous misbehavin’ ragtime raven. And tenor Ross Halper made a splendid lion, one part Leo to two parts Lahr.

As to Vicki Shaghoian’s sinuous sexy serpent, she can sell apples on my corner any day in the week.

The productions weakest section was Carlos Carvajal’s ballet. The composer has given Carvajal the opportunity to sore, but he has remained earthbound giving his dancers precious little to work with.

Song of Pegasus is a thoughtful work, and a mighty entertaining one. The music is accessible, the story told with warmth and humor. It is a welcome addition to the American opera scene.


Song of Pegasus—An Evocative Work
George Provo, Music Critic, TWIN CITIES TIMES


It must be considered a musical milestone for Marin to be selected for the world premiere of a new, serious operatic work, buy a teacher and composer of considerable stature, Ron McFarland. McFarland’s Song of Pegasus, a ballet and opera, has already won its place as a finalist in the Samuel Rubin American Opera competition sponsored my New York University.

Carolyn Houser, Brad Bradley Ian Lossler and Bruce Bain preformed the introductory ballet depicting the capture of Pegasus by Bellerophon with precision and considerable grace and beauty.

The evening’s laurels easily went to conductor Denis de Coteau and his approximately 22 hard-working musicians. Maestro de Coteau was in full command throughout. Although not a "grand" score in the sense of Wagner or Berlioz, the work is demanding in its intricate harmonies and sudden changes of mood and tempo. McFarland’s musical imagery ranges from the overture, which was unabashed Scott Joplin, to ethereal ensemble and choral passages evocative of Fauré’s Requiem Mass.


THE AUDITION OF MOLLY BLOOM
Scena ed Aria


COMPOSERS, INC., PROGRAM OFFERS
MODEL OF DIVERSITY

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.

McFarland took charge of the performance of his scena, sharing dialogue with mezzo Margery Tede and supporting her at the piano as she spoke and sang her way through a campy arrangement of a piece from James Joyce’s Ulysses,

CONCERT REVIEW

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.

Tuesday night they gave a second concert in the Green Room of San Francisco’s War Memorial. There were five pieces, the oldest from 1978, the others all from the last two years. Media ranged from piano and tape to contralto and instrumental octet; styles from severe construction to collage dramatic-comedy "scene ed aria."

Ron McFarland’s vaudeville Scene ed Aria drawn from the magnificent closing chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, contented itself with a humorous view of that literary landmark. Soprano Margery Tede was cast as Molly Bloom; the composer, at the piano, played a composer auditioning his singer.

Mozart was in the background—partly through Don Giovanni, which Molly (herself a soprano) recalls in her monologue: partly through an aria from Cosi fan tutte, appropriate to Joyce’s novel and McFarland’s instrumentation (which adds clarinet and viola to the piano); and partly through the unquoted precedent of Mozart’s The Impresario, another buffo piece on the coach-singer situation.

McFarland wisely didn’t push his joke too far and kept the music simple, and Tede sang up a storm—easily portraying both parody and the real article. Robert Calonico was the clarinetist, Ruth Sudmeier the violist—both very supportive.

MUSIC
Stephanie von Buchau, music critic, PACIFIC SUN

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.

Tiburon’s Ron McFarland contributed the most sophisticated piece of the night, the Audition of Molly Bloom. In it, a diva (Margery Tede) auditions for the role of Molly bloom in an opera based on James Joyce’s Ulysses and written by McFarland, who plays the piano. The two exchange witty dialogue ("If you can’t invent, invert") while Tede sings snatches of Mozart and then launches into Molly’s famous monologue. McFarland’s score—for viola and clarinet—is Bergian in style, advanced but singable, with the clarinet commenting amusingly on Molly’s dissertation about love and Leopold.

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STRING QUARTET NO. 1 (PEGASUS)

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.

 

 

STRING QUARTET NO.2 (WINDOWS)

 

Modern composer has his say

Michael Walsh, Music Critic, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

 

ONE HEARS A LOT these days about the plight of the contemporary composer—mostly from the composers themselves—so 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.

 

 

New Recordings, Cream of the crop

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 style—derived, 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-romanticism—like 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 good—sometimes uncanny—but 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. Now—can we get Con Molto to give us some of McFarland’s orchestral stuff?

 

Album reviews

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.

 

recent releases

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.

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