Reflections on the National Conference of Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers (CFAMC), October 6-8, 2016, Mississippi College, Clinton, Mississippi, Part VII

Before we get started, let me invite you, if you are in the area, to the Pacific Artist Series concert this Saturday, January 21, 2017, at, 7:30 PM in the McDonald Hall Atrium of Fresno Pacific University. We have a world-class oboist, Rong-Huey Liu, and her sister, pianist Vivian I-Maio Liu, in concert that evening presenting works by Hamilton Harty, Malcolm Arnold, and my Kiev 2014: Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra. That’s right; it is now a full, three-movement concerto, of which the Rhapsody, which Rong-Huey recorded on my Naxos CD Kiev 2014, is now the finale. So this is a new world première of the expanded work! Hope to see you there. Please call (559) 453-2267 for more information.

Now, back to the conference!

Saturday, October 8, 2016, 10:30 AM, Chamber Concert I

The first two works feature a solo instrument with electronic accompaniment. I almost said “tape” at this point, remembering my own struggles with ½” tape and splicing and recording on four channels, etc., but both Frank Felice’s Chants for Peace (with Drones) and Ken Davies’ Dark River use much more up-to-date media and sounds and the entire setup on stage looks much more conventional and uncluttered, showing all of us how the experimental electronic music of the 1970’s and 1980’s has become codified in its substance and presentation. Both of these works let their high-tech components serve the expressive needs of the moment and are fully worthy of the repertories of their respective instruments: electric guitar and alto saxophone.

The Chants for Peace is cast in the Mixolydian mode (a major scale with its 7th step lowered a half step). The electronic component is mostly a 5th-century Gregorian chant “Agnus Dei” which focuses on the closing text “dona nobis pacem,” hence the title. The electric bass comments on the chant in a mostly subdued fashion featuring some exotic harmonics over the tonic and subdominant chords, ably performed by the composer. Alas, the new electric bass for which this work was written needed repairs, so now we await a new performance of the work on this special instrument!

Davies’ Dark River features the alto saxophone, passionately played by Craig Young, taking on an electronic plethora of haunting and downright frightening buzzy passacaglias, marimba-like interruptions, percussive squeals, and electrifying clusters. The sax is absolutely the perfect instrument to complement this electronic tapestry and the work richly unfolds its heart wrenching narrative of southern Mississippian lord: a river emitting strange sustained sounds due to the haunting spirits of, in Davies’ words, “an ancient tribe of Pascagoula Native Americans [who] chose to drown themselves in the river rather than go to war against their neighboring Biloxi tribe.” There are stunning moments in this work that recall the terror of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Jason Bahr’s Paraclete is a welcome triptych on the Holy Spirit, the often overlooked third Person of the Trinity. Kyle Szabo performed the first two movements admirably in this work for solo violin. Because the third and final movement, “Tongues of Fire,” was not performed, it seems appropriate, as was done, to reverse the order of the first two movements, “On the Surface of the Deep” and “Dove.” This resulted in a reflective prelude (“Dove”) featuring ethereal harmonics and rich double stops, preparing us well for the toccata-like “On the Surface of the Deep,” whose many tritones and frequent outbursts recall the string quartet of Ruth Crawford Seeger.

After intermission, Barbara Holm’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major ably recalled the structures and language of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier while in the prelude wonderfully weaving a watery arpeggio motive skillfully amongst the four flutes, played effectively by Sybil Cheesman, Marcia Cochran, Amulet Strange and Cheri Waite. The fugue works quite well amongst the flutes while exploring and exploiting their full range. Holm shows her mastery of modulation here as the fugue explores five keys through seven smooth key changes, culminating in an exciting stretto, where all four flutes state the subject very close to one another. This fine addition to the flute choir repertory was inspired by the Biblical account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well; hence the references to water in the prelude and the surprising turns of tonality in the fugue, recalling the new paths the Samaritan woman took in her life after meeting the Lord, including leading her entire village to Him.

It was fitting that CFAMC’s president of the last five years, Andrew Mark Sauerwein, be represented by two fine works at this conference. The Ciaccona Enigmata, with an elegant performance on marimba by Jason Mathena, has an ingenious ground bass of twelve triads whose roots cover all twelve pitch-classes (note names of all the white and black keys). When the stately, reserved melody grows acerbic, the accompaniment responds with its own irritability and the climax just about shreds the ground bass – but, thankfully, it survives, and the work ends peaceably. In the Interim has a Kurt Weill vibe as it skillfully weaves classical and jazz motives into a touching love song dedicated to his wife. Julia Wolfe, soprano, Jason Mathena, marimba, Lucas Pettey, electric bass, and Owen Rockwell, drum set, brought this eclectic quartet wonderfully to life to close out this program in a festive way.

One more blog coming soon about the final concert – next week.