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

Before we conclude our series, let me invite you, if you are in the area, to the Pacific Artist Series concert next Friday, February 24, 2017, at, 7:30 PM in the Ashley Auditorium of Fresno Pacific University, 1717 S. Chestnut Avenue, Fresno, California. I will be performing my Quiltings, a 46-movement work for piano based on my sister-in-law Ann Harwell’s stunning art quilts. I will accompany a magnificent video of 118 of these masterpieces of fabric art created by my sweetheart, Daphne Saul. (Thirty-nine years ago today [yes, on Valentine’s Day] I told her for the first time that I love her.) Hope to see you there. Please call (559) 453-2267 for more information.

Also, CFAMC, on its Listening Page #147, has posted a marvelous work by member Heather Savage, Three Short Pieces for Unaccompanied Saxophone, that were performed in this conference. Please see part III of this blog, released on November 4, 2016, for my review. You may hear the piece at

Now, back to the conference!

Saturday, October 8, 2016, 1:30 PM, Feedback Session

One of the unique things of Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers conferences is the Feedback Session. Composers will simply bring scores and their best recordings of works that, for various reasons, could not be performed live in the other concerts. Thanks to top-notch organization by Benjamin Williams and his wonderful colleagues at Mississippi College, much music did get performed, so we had only one work, Emily Custer’s Seelenruhe, at this year’s Feedback Session.

You may recall that I reviewed Custer’s exquisite arrangement of My Jesus, I Love Thee on November 9, 2016, on Part IV of this series, so it should not be surprising that I would enjoy her new orchestral work. It is difficult even to pronounce the title (“state of calm, peace of mind” according to the composer) without going back into the German Romantic era in its love for nature as an escape from the grit of urban life. And this tone poem is indeed a reflection on Custer’s love of fishing with family in a practically inaccessible central Minnesota lake. It also onomatopoeically depicts the images of the lake through well-chosen musical figures.

The maturity displayed in this work belies the reality that this is her first orchestral work, and that it was finished only four weeks after her initial sketches, literally graphic pictures of the musical shapes she would use in depicting the forest around the lake (strings), the light reflecting off the lake (high winds and brass), the winds blowing the tops of the trees (even higher woodwinds), and other imagery.

One striking feature of the work is a nine-tone ostinato that includes Aleksandr Scriabin’s Mystic Chord which so beautifully depicts the water. In the lively conversation that followed we also mentioned Arnold Schönberg’s “Summer Morning by a Lake/Colors,” Impressionism, and the music of Joseph Schwantner. All of these influences color this wonderfully crafted score, and certainly are great company for Custer to keep. The music was beautifully read by the Toledo Symphony Orchestra in its reading session at Bowling Green State University in November, 2015.

Saturday, October 8, 2016, 2:30 PM, Chamber Concert II

The final concert of the CFAMC National Conference featured four highly contrasting works by Jesse Ayers, myself, Douglas Brown, and Benjamin Williams.

In Part VI which I blogged on December 5, 2016, we discussed Ayers’ dramatic The Passion of John Brown, featuring a stellar narrator up against a huge wind ensemble showcasing this aspect of the Civil War. Now Ayers’ switches to a more intimate ensemble – only two sopranos, a lone violin, and piano – but just as intense drama as before. Beneath Suspicion is, in fact, a mini-opera that tells the story of, in Ayers words, “two bold, 19th century American women who crossed social, racial, and economic barriers to work together, risking their lives to fight against slavery.” Elizabeth Van Lew, also known as “Crazy Bet,” had inherited her wealthy father’s slaves, but freed them all, including the extremely intelligent household servant Mary Bowser, whom she sent to college in Philadelphia. But Bowser returned home to serve Van Lew, and used her photographic memory to transmit the contents of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ writings in code to General Ulysses S. Grant, who regarded them as his best intelligence. Truly a “hidden figure” of her time! I wonder if she did not inspire the three Hidden Figures of the new movie (which, yes, you must see!).

Ayers, with his slender forces on stage, keeps us on the edge of our seats in this drama that, like The Passion of John Brown, features a triumvirate of minor-major seventh chords that circle around each other to darken the mood, which is complemented by ingenious weaving of “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” and “Let My People Go.” The drama is sweetly released by a final quiet solo low on the violin, ably performed by Emily Williams. The stunning sopranos were Desiree Hargrave and Jessica Crowell, and Jessica Kapraly supported all so well at the piano. All three of these fine musicians are students at Malone University, where Ayers teaches.

I then performed my Tapisseries, based on my sister-in-law Ann Harwell’s exquisite quilt art since 2010. There were six short pieces based on the new fabric art works Overreaching for the Stars; Yes, Money Really Does Grow on Trees; Susanna’s Family Tree; Climate Change; Pluto; and Moth Orchid. I think these will soon take their place alongside my major work Quiltings, but will let others speak more about these short pieces!

Yet another “hidden figure” emerges in Thoughts on the Works of Providence, in which Douglas Brown sets a poem by Phillis Wheatley, a slave in Boston who was freed just three years before the American Revolution. This magnificent poem is such a paean of praise to God that Brown requires four very divergent songs to set it. While much of the harmonic language recalls the church modes, there is a gorgeous bitonality in the second song, “Ador’d for ever be the God unseen,” that so beautifully reflects the multi-faceted glory of the Lord. Brown’s wife, Jennifer Brown, capably brought these songs to life and was skillfully accompanied by Tyler Kemp on the piano.

In the Sonata in E, composer Benjamin Williams joined wife, violinist Emily Williams, at the piano for what I will say is a long overdue piece – namely a piece he wrote especially for the two of them! Now, that’s a Valentine’s Day treat to contemplate. Within the traditional sonata cycle, Williams treats us to late German Romantic harmonies, invoking Brahms especially, with wonderful modulations that remind us of Schubert. There is an infectious joy to this lovely composition, especially the ebullient finale, cast in rondo with variations and featuring powerful syncopations. It was a terrific, climactic end to the Conference.

After this, amazingly enough, we then all went downtown and heard the Mississippi Symphony play an all-Berlioz program before our last encounter with the civil rights drama at the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport on our way home. What a rich time to go back in history and face our shortcomings, so we can go truly forward into the future.