Happy New Year!

1/8/20183 min read

Since my last blog, I've been happily busy with three projects. Dominic Desautels, who performed so magnificently in the Opera Nova Scotia production of 'I will fly like a bird,' did me the honour of commissioning a sonata for clarinet and piano. Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea stories have haunted and enchanted me for the last forty years or so, so perhaps it was inevitable that they would find their way into my music. Dominic, in addition to being principal clarinet of Symphony Nova Scotia, is now occupying the same post for the Canadian Opera Company. It was he who traced Violetta's breaking heart as she writes her farewell letter in La traviata; it was he who traced the contours of the human heart so plangently etched by Wagner throughout Götterdämmerung... Not the least of Mozart's gifts to humanity was making the clarinet an indispensable part of the operatic orchestra.

Well, a sonata for clarinet and piano can hardly claim to be an opera - but operatic ambitions seem to insinuate themselves into everything I write these days, and in this case I was aided and abetted by Dominic's breathtaking expressive virtuosity, and by the insightful and atmospheric piano of Tina Chong. Dominic is artist-in-residence with Cecilia Concerts in Halifax this year; he and Tina gave the work its premiere on November 25, performing it magnificently, and receiving a standing ovation from a full house.

And speaking of exuberant virtuosity, the saxophonist William Chien from Taiwan, one of the co-commissioners of 'Faustus: a SaxOpera' wrote to me to ask if it would be possible to create a version for saxophone, acoustic guitar and piano, to be performed at the World Saxophone Congress in Croatia this summer. Never having written for guitar, I promptly bought myself a second-hand one, and immersed myself in the literature, discovering works by such masters as Leo Brouwer, Nikita Koshkin (both new to me, and both wonderful), Ginastera, Henze, and so many others. I was encouraged to learn that Julian Bream particularly relished learning guitar works by non-guitarists, that in his experience the challenge of writing for an unfamiliar instrument (like that of writing in an unfamiliar language) often resulted in something unanticipatedly rich and strange. I hope this is the case in my 'Faustus' Suite.

My current project is a work for the percussion-piano duo of Marie Josée Simard and Louise Bessette - both renowned, fabulous musicians - to be entitled 'Echoes from the Odyssey.' Marie-Josée Simard and I have wanted to collaborate on an artistic project for a long time, and have been engaged in active discussions over the last four years as to the form such a project might take. Her desire for a new work with a narrative component corresponds well with my lifelong operatic obsession, and the choice of subject reflects my abiding interest in Homer and in classical Greek poetry.

Through the percussionists' arsenal of instruments, and the piano's wide range of expressive and technical resources, they will incarnate, successively, the lovely goddess Calypso, the Cyclops, Circe, the angry god Poseidon, Penelope, and Odysseus himself; while also shaping the extraordinary universe within which these characters trace the course of their destiny. The quest of a wanderer to find a safe and welcoming harbour in a dangerous and often hostile world takes on particular poignance in today's world. The opportunity to work with this splendid percussionist, and with the distinguished pianist Louise Bessette, is an inestimable gift. I cannot help reflecting on how lucky I have been with performers throughout my musical life!

Which brings me to saxophonist Jennifer Bill, who did me the honour of traveling to Middlebury College to perform 'A deep clear breath of life' with me on the occasion of my class reunion in June. It was the first time I've ever played the piano part, and I was a bit daunted by the cohort of superb pianists who've played it before me, but Jennifer's inspired performance seems to have brought out the best in me. Peter Kovner, who commissioned this piece, was in the audience; he came onstage to introduce the work in his own inimitable manner. Thanks to my classmate Charlie Tilford, you can watch this performance (though not, alas, Peter's introduction) on YouTube, under the 'Links' heading of this website.

I'd like to conclude with my heartiest wishes for a joyful and prosperous New Year to all, with a particularly fervent shout out to all you performers and listeners, so indispensable to the life of music!