Local Modern Classics
Several classical composers make the State of Jefferson their home, building successful careers that defy conventional wisdom.
At first glance, it would seem unlikely that even one "art music" composer could find success in a region as remote and sparsely populated as the State of Jefferson, especially when less than two percent of the populace prefers classical music. This is, however, an uncommon state. At least half a dozen serious composers work here, beating the odds daily. Most amazing of all, these composers are managing to get their music performed in local concert halls. Who are these composers, and how have they found success? Each has a fascinating history.
Coming up this January is the world premiere of Todd Barton's Shadow Teachings with the Rogue Valley Symphony. He calls his short suite for string orchestra "an intimately personal piece that explores the interior dance between light and shadow." Conductor Arthur Shaw calls it "intensely romantic and evocative."
Barton's career as composer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is unique in the United States. He caught his first over-the-fence glimpse of the theater when he visited Ashland with his college roommate in 1968. Enchanted by the Green Show, he immediately sent off his application. He and his recorder got the job, and today he is the only full-time resident theater composer he knows of in this country.
The big question is, when does he sleep? Full-time at OSF means just that, but it accounts for only seventy percent of his composing hours. Half of the rest goes to fulfilling commissions, most recently from the Oregon Symphony, the Kronos Quartet, Cavani String Quartet, and violist Karen Elaine. The other half goes to "looking at the moment." Shadow Teachings came from one of these moments, as did his latest CD, The New Music Daily. For a solid month, he-who-never-sleeps was up and at 'em by 5:00 a.m. to compose a finished piece on "whatever I felt like in the morning. It made a great audio journal." The style? "Call it neo-pseudo-ethnic."
When he writes for the theater, style is the first consideration: the director may want original Barton that sounds so Mozartean audiences can't tell the difference. Writing for himself, however, "Expression comes first. I don't think style. I just start writing. The structure develops itself during the process. My own music tends to deal with textures and timbres, with sensual, soaring lines, and passionate dissonances. Sometimes the instrumentation is driven by a commission, but there's a lot of freedom within that. The best commissions let you go. They just tell you to say what you have to say."
The moments he's looking at right now are mainly vocal. His remarkable synthesizer collaboration with soprano Christine Williams knocked the socks off the audience at the Arts Council of Southern Oregon awards dinner last October.
Charles R. Cassey
Last month the Rogue Valley Chorale premiered Visions by Charles R. Cassey. A newcomer to the area, Cassey wrote his Christmas cantata for large chorus, narrator, and orchestra, with Biblical text on the birth of Christ. Its sister work, an Easter cantata, is already waiting in the wings. Cassey chose "quasi-Classical" style for both pieces. "There's some dissonance in the orchestra, but the choral parts are strictly Classical. That's because I wanted the audience to feel comfortable and I wanted the music to be singable."
He knows about "singable" from years of performing operatic source music (the voice behind the star's face) for television, and from arranging "somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000" popular songs for school choral groups. Like Barton, he can write with equal ease in many styles. For 20 years in New York and 20 more in Los Angeles, he composed scores for movies and television. "The music literally leans on the picture, and you write in whatever style the picture calls for. I've done it all except rap! Because the transitions are so fast, you write without any key signature and include all the accidentals."
Disgusted by the giant traffic jam that is L.A. today, Cassey opted for "a contiguous state" a year and a half ago. "I don't like the desert, so I looked at the map, found Ashland, called the Chamber of Commerce, and decided that a town with a college, a Shakespeare Festival, and I-5 had to be OK." He commutes once or twice a month to do the music for Dick Van Dyke's current show, Diagnosis Murder, and he's in the sketch stage of a full-orchestra James Bond movie score that will be performed by the London Philharmonic.
I-5 brought another operatic tenor, the indomitable Peter Sacco, to the Rogue Valley twelve years ago after an arsonist burned his California retirement home to the ground, along with a lifetime of original scores. Wending their way back from the trip they took to recuperate from disaster, he and his wife stopped in Ashland for dinner with an old friend. One music friend quickly led to another. Within weeks they had found a new home and, he says, "I was busy, busy, busy with music." And gardening. The steep scrub hillside that came with the house is now a blooming marvel.
Creativity pops from every pore of this lively man who has worked all his life in classical music--singing, teaching, and composing. So far, he's written well over 300 serious musical works, 16 of them for orchestra, and many in jazz idiom. Last June the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra played his Introduction and Divertimento for solo bassoon and string orchestra at their annual concert in OSF's Elizabethan Theatre. Sacco had heard the orchestra the year before, and the idea for the music blossomed that night. He wrote to the conductor, received a cordial go-ahead, and voilà, another premiere. The day we talked, he had just received a CD by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra which includes two of his pieces, Four Sketches on Emerson Essays and Flying Saucer Overture.
Fred Palmer & Glenn Matthews
Long-time residents Glenn Matthews and Fred Palmer are better known as conductors and teachers than as composers, but they cast very tall shadows in music circles. An oboist, Matthews taught band, voice, and orchestra at what was then Southern Oregon State College for 50 years. Palmer was the college's first resident string instructor. Between them, they grew the Rogue Valley Symphony.
Soon after he arrived here in 1946, Matthews became conductor, arranger, and inspiration for the college's Little Symphony of Southern Oregon, an ensemble of about 35 musicians who played concerts in Ashland. Twenty years later, it was Palmer who brought the orchestra up to full size, formed the non-profit Rogue Valley Symphony Association, got funding, and extended performances to Medford and Grants Pass.
In retirement, Palmer has gotten downright serious about his composing. He writes for the music education market, as well as for himself. Three years ago, the Rogue Valley Symphony Winds premiered his Quintet in F-minor for Winds. "I'm always composing," says Matthews. His best-known piece, Citation, made its debut at the American Band College. He's working now on an overture and suite for concert band.
The new kid on the block is Mark Jacobs, trombonist for the Rogue Valley Symphony. In 1995 he was one of ten composers invited to participate in the Ernest Bloch Composer's Symposium, where his piece Zephyr received its premiere. The next year, the Rogue Valley Symphony premiered Mandala, the first commission in the history of the orchestra.
For Jacobs, who calls himself an abstractionist, the tie between mathematics and music is an intimate driving force. Mandala, for instance, juxtaposes "time as a linear process and time as a cyclical process. It was written on the basis of four proportions of duration: those of 3, 4, 5, and 7. These numbers come to play in various aspects of the piece, including rhythm."
These composers form an uncommon group. Despite their individuality they have many things in common. For example, they're all expert instrumentalists, classically trained. Four of them have doctorates. And none of them work with an instrument at hand--scratch the image of Beethoven sitting at the piano working out the notes. Barton, Cassey, Matthews, and Sacco work "straight to paper" with an old-fashioned pencil, while Jacobs and Palmer write straight to computer. For them it's a powerful ally that Beethoven could never have imagined.
In the creative recesses of the State of Jefferson, there may be more classical composers poised for success in the State of Jefferson. Perhaps a year from now we can report on six more--and who knows, maybe they'll all be women!
The Jefferson Monthly is published by the Jefferson Public Radio Listeners Guild as a service to its members.