Two inspiring commissions

9/27/20123 min read

During the past week I've completed two very rewarding commissions, which have kept me busy all summer - so much so that I've only just now begun the spring cleaning of our shed. One was for the Talisker Players, a marvelous vocal chamber music ensemble in Toronto whose interests are uncannily like my own: all of their concerts involve singers, and consist of settings of poetry in combination with readings. They had already performed (magnificently) two of my works: the Invocation to Aphrodite and La notte bella, as well as my transcription of Wagner's Wesendonk-Lieder for voice and string quartet. The new piece is a setting of a passionate sonnet by the Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa, mentioned by Rilke in the First Duino Elegy, for mezzo-soprano, violin, viola, cello and piano. The mezzo-soprano is Anita Krause, whose richly coloured voice is equally at home in Mahler and Vivaldi. The concert is on October 30 and November 1.

The other commission , from my dear friend Peter Kovner, was to compose a fantasia for saxophone and piano as a memorial to his beloved sister Kay. In it, I attempted to evoke something of the exuberance and the poignance of her life as I understood it. The music traces a path through the joys, hopes, tribulations and torments of childhood, nostalgia, melancholy, exuberant Dionysian abandon, frenzy, illness; and concludes with a sense of the radiant spirit which survives and which, perhaps, represents her true legacy. Peter expressed the wish that I would at some point pay tribute to my love of vintage Motown, which is why the work includes an homage to Junior Walker. Her sojourn in Rome is evoked by yet another homage, this time to Nino Rota, the composer of the matchless music for most of Fellini's films, including 'La dolce vita.' Neither homage involves any conscious quotation, but I enjoyed the challenge of integrating multiple styles and emotional states within a twelve-minute span. Schnittke's coinage of the word 'polystylistic' seems tailor-made for 'A deep clear breath of life' -(the work's title, taken from a moving e-mail from Peter).

The work is composed for the brilliantly versatile and sensitive saxophonist Dr. Jennifer Bill, who will perform it as part of her Boston University Faculty Recital in February (exact date tba). You can hear this fine artist at (note: and elsewhere on this website!)

This has been a real voyage of discovery for me: I have been enjoying close encounters with many unsuspected masterpieces. It seems that Japanese composers have a particular affinity with the saxophone. My library has been enriched with scores and CDs of works by Takashi Yoshimatsu, Ryo Noda, Fuminori Tanada, William Bolcolm, Christian Lauba, Robert Muczynski, and many others.. not to mention some splendid books, such as Jean-Marie Londeix's indispensable 'Hello Mr. Sax', The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, and Paul Harvey's more traditionally minded introduction to the instrument in the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides series.

ALast night I attended my first concert since the Scotia Festival in May/June - apart from Janice Jackson's magnificent adventure 'Opera from Scratch' - and I can't imagine a more rewarding return. It was a 'Totally Togni' concert, devoted to the work of Peter Togni and featuring the world premiere of his setting of three odes by Pablo Neruda for soprano and string quartet. The setting of Neruda's Ode to My Suit is, I think, nothing less than a masterpiece, gloriously performed by soprano Stacie Dunlop and Blue Engine String Quartet - a work fully worthy of the pulsing, earthy vitality of its source. All the music was richly imagined and deeply felt. A memorable evening!