I’m producing a concert of my music herethis Saturday night. It’s an opportunity for me to realize some long-held ambitions.Most thematic programming drives me crazy. The performers gather a few pieces with some very loose connection that can be expressed in a couple of words, and that’s about as far as it goes. In other words, instead of a coherent artistic experience, we are offered a marketing ploy.

I’ve long felt that composers are in a unique position to shape an audience’s experience over the course of an evening in a way that’s simply beyond anything performers can accomplish. Composers can create a set of complementary works that, when performed together, give the concert experience a compelling form. I first tried this eleven years ago: I treated the evening as an extended sonata form. The first two pieces were in dramatic contrast to one another, just as in a sonata exposition. The third piece — which was in two movements, one before and one after intermission — developed ideas from the first two pieces, intensifying their conflict. The evening concluded with a work that resolved the conflicts between the first two pieces, just as in a sonata recapitulation. Of course, nobody in the audience knew that’s what I was doing – they just heard four independent pieces, one of which was, oddly enough, split by intermission. The point wasn’t to impress them with a novel concept, it was to give them a powerful experience that would make sense in ways they couldn’t quite understand. And you know what? I still get rave comments from people who attended that concert, eleven years later.

Now I’m trying something a little more challenging. All but one of the pieces on my concert this Saturday night were written over the course of this past summer. They were written to complement one another, to give a form to an evening with a clearly functioning beginning, middle and end. The program is called “Telling Tales;” the five pieces are:

 

The framing works, Entrance and Exit, use actors and musicians to tell stories of life before and after the concert, serving as connections between the concert experience and life itself. The next two pieces are very different from one another: What Happened is a three-movement piano quartet, and Still Point is a tender love song. Then comes Dark Circles, which is the meeting point for all of the musics on the rest of the concert – it combines all of the instruments and materials of the other four works into a frenzied, hellacious dance. It’s the longest, loudest, densest work on the program.

The scoring of the evening is designed in similar fashion: Entrance (flute, alto flute, violin, viola, piano) is almost all treble; Exit (trumpet, bari sax, cello, double bass, piano) is almost all bass. What Happened covers a wide range with four instruments; Dark Circles covers an even wider range with nine instruments. Still Point is the only work with a singer, and it creates a point of repose at the center of the concert, just as the title implies.

There are other threads that run through the evening, but this summary gives an idea of how it’s going to work – thematic programming the way it should be, as far as I’m concerned.

Program and program notes follow.

TELLING TALES
Music and Stories by Lawrence DillonSaturday, November 3rd, 2007, 7:30 pm
Watson Chamber Music Hall

PROGRAM

Entrance (2007) PREMIERE

Cinny Strickland Graham, Entrance
Elizabeth Ransom, Flute

Rebecca Nussbaum, Alto Flute

Jacqui Carrasco, Violin

Sheila Browne, Viola

Allison Gagnon, Piano

What Happened (2005)

Gathering
Congregation
Scattering

Kevin Lawrence, Violin
Sheila Browne, Viola

Adele O’Dwyer, Cello

Allison Gagnon, Piano

Still Point (2007) text by Shona Simpson

Janine Hawley, Mezzo
Sheila Browne, Viola

Robert Rocco, Piano

Dark Circles (2007) PREMIERE

Rebecca Nussbaum, Flute
Elizabeth Ransom, Flute/Piccolo

Taimur Sullivan, Baritone Saxophone

Judith Saxton, Trumpet

Kevin Lawrence, Violin

Sheila Browne, Viola

Adele O’Dwyer, Cello

Paul Sharpe, Bass

Robert Rocco, Piano

Lawrence Dillon, Conductor

Exit (2007) PREMIERE

Robert Beseda, Exit
Taimur Sullivan, Alto Saxophone

Judith Saxton, Trumpet

Adele O’Dwyer, Cello

Paul Sharpe, Bass

Robert Rocco, Piano

TELLING TALES
Music, as we all know, has no trouble standing on its own, but one of its most endearing characteristics is its ability to meld with any other activity. A natural companion for love, work, play, contemplation, conflict, dancing and dining, to name just a few examples, music can enhance everything it touches.

The combination of music and narrative – both epic and lyric — is the subject of this evening’s program, Telling Tales. Two story-telling pieces – Entrance and Exit – frame a Classically structured piano quartet, a tender love song, and a wild work of nightmarish visions.

Entrance is a quiet welcome to the concert experience, using layers of memory to connect present with past. A story gradually unfolds about an audience member whose mind wanders away from the music, drifting back to another time and place. Her memories of that other world are influenced by the music she is hearing, and, in turn, the music responds to the journey of her imagination.

To perform Entrance, actor and musicians must listen closely to one another, responding to cues in the text and music with prescribed gestures and harmonies. In the end, everything we hear belongs to all of us — has shared resonances, however ephemeral, whose impact over time cannot be foreseen.

To read the text of Entrance, visit the “Selected Works“ page of my website and click on “Entrance.”

What Happened is a piano quartet in three movements: Gathering, Congregation and Scattering. Each movement is a different reaction to the shock of bad news. The central movement is headed by this quote from Daniel Defoe (1703):

Wherever God erects a house of prayer
The Devil builds a chapel there
And ’twill be found, upon examination
The latter has the largest congregation

What Happened was completed in November 2004 and premiered by the Atlantic Ensemble at the Maison danoise of the Cité Universitaire in Paris on May 26, 2005.

Commissioned by author Shona Simpson, Still Point is an homage to her husband, Jonathan Burdette. Ms. Simpson’s lovely sonnet, full of vivid, evocative imagery, captures the stability of great love in the whirlwind of daily activity. This musical setting features a prominent viola part, an instrument for which Dr. Burdette has a particular fondness.

Still Point was premiered two weeks ago on the Blüthner Concert Series, which takes place in the Burdette-Simpson home.

The days rush by in fleets like drifts of clouds.
We mean to note them, find their shapes or plot
their known locations, call their names out loud,
but they are here before we know they’re not.

A flock of starlings wheels and turns and dives
as one, the individual birds suppressed
by boundless number; seamlessly they fly
till darkness forces them, like us, to rest.

I’ve heard that when you die your brain reviews
your life, and pauses on the scenes that mean
the most. But what if days, like clouds, refuse
to stop? Like starlings, won’t alight, be seen?

I seek the one still point in all the roiling air.
I close my eyes, and you are there.

Shona Simpson Spring 2007
Dark Circles is the meeting place for all of the other musics on this evening’s program. Combining the instrumentation of the two works that frame this concert, Entrance and Exit. Dark Circles also uses chords, rhythmic figures and fragments of melody from each of the other pieces. The title refers not only to the dark instrumental colors in evidence throughout, but also the way the musical ideas continually circle back on themselves. Despite the dark timbres, however, the title also has a tongue-in-cheek meaning, since dark circles under the eyes are a product of sleeplessness — a topic of some familiarity to the composer.

The evening begins in contemplation and concludes in ebullience: Exit is a quick spin through an entire life cycle, foretelling the future of an audience member as a metaphorical journey from birth to death and beyond. As in Entrance, the text and music are held together through a complex system of cross-cueing between the actor and musicians. It concludes with an exuberant dance in honor of life and death, and everything on either side.

To read the text of Exit, visit the “Selected Works“ page on my website and click on “Exit.”

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