Comment and Concert Reviews
Views and reviews of a few works
by Michael Colgrass
* A Flute in the Kingdom of Drums and Bells
"Colgrass has created a number of fancifully titled works that defy classification
and that are much less difficult to listen to than to describe. In his work, the
differences that conventionally distinguish "program music," which is related
in some way to extra-musical subject matter, from "absolute music," in
which the music itself is the subject, blend and disappear. It is sometimes tempting
to apply to his music the concepts of "concrete" and "abstract"
or "fiction" and "non-fiction," or even to call them history,
biography or poetry."
"Some of the best moments in this work were the inventive timbral juxtapositions,
which Colgrass, a former percussionist, used to characterize the flute. This was
noteworthy in the opening moments, where the alto flute in its low register awakens
in a beautiful confusion of oddly similar timbres with the low tones of the marimba,
and again in the next section where the flute sound seemed to sit in the hollow of
John Wyre's perfectly pitched African drum, in an apt metaphor for Wyre's role of
`guardian' at this point in the piece.
"In `Arctic Dreams' Colgrass combines his own experiences living above
the Arctic Circle with an Inuit family with images from a book by Barry Lopez to
produce a tone poem of great sweep and expressive power. After a trombone solo suggesting
the vastness of the Arctic landscape, we hear a series of tone images depicting a
variety of experiences, including laughter-inducing throat singing and the majesty
of the aurora borealis. Colgrass is an inventive composer and his orchestration is
always surprising and convincing. The Wind Ensemble and chorus of the New England
Conservatory perform the often difficult music with style and apparent ease. Centaur's
sound is clear and warm."
"Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas had music stands in several locations
as he strolled and observed the urban scene, altering the balance and character of
his sound somewhat, as the happy, often chirpy, always jazz tinted music went it
unbridled, outgoing way.
Despite its modernist idiom, `As Quiet As' is based on a centuries-old concept: tone-painting. The composer built his ideas from children's responses when their teacher asked them to complete a sentence which began, `Let's be as quiet as...' The seven responses he chose were A Leaf Turning Colors; An Uninhabited Creek; An Ant Walking; Children sleeping; Time Passing; A Soft Rainfall; and The First Star Coming Out. Essentially, then, Mr. Colgrass' representations are not of actual noises, but imagined sounds; and his imaginations are quite acceptable.
"The large orchestra and extensive percussion are used very sparingly, so the volume rises but once to a forte, and then only momentarily. In the `leaf' and `star' sections the sounds are closely-hewn and sustained, moving gradually through registers and timbres and producing evolved-image effects. The creek gurgles in the woodwinds, the rainfall patters over gently-plucked strings and ants skip about in random rhythm through strings and percussion. The `children' and `'time' sections are combined into a single dream sequence in which a Beethoven piano sonatina emerges from the mist and is transmuted through progressive idioms from Haydn to Webern - an image of passing time in an accelerated musical history.
"The biggest objection one could raise about Mr.Colgrass' work is that
it is too much disposed to charm, to entertain, and that once the novelty wears off
little may be left. But this is not entirely true; the work shows organization through
its symmetry of sectional arrangement, expertise in handling material (the Beethoven
fragment) and resourcefulness (and restraint) in orchestration. I hope we hear from
this composer again."
(text by Colgrass)
"Colgrass' work is a well-written, interestingly scored, evocative piece that effectively reflects the musical and social history of America. A quiet, mysterioso opening becomes an Indian mother's lullaby. Distantly at first, and then with increasing power, church hymns displace her song. These, in turn, give way to a plaintive cowboy tune, which is followed in collage technique by the typical song styles of the diverse peoples that moved west.
"A hauntingly beautiful requiem for the civil War dead is understood as a universal cry for peace. In collage technique again, the growing influence of Black music and the social movement reaches a confrontation between the Black and White choruses. "Swiftly our attention is drawn to the materialistic, computer-oriented, party-loving life-style of our own day. Yet another strikingly haunting tune, this one in folk-style, confronts us with the shallowness of this life-style.
"Then, like a plain-chant, the solo voice intones the final lines from
Thoreau's Walden, reaffirming the possibilities yet before us. The Indian mother's
song returns, suggesting that it never really was gone and the work ends as quietly
as it began."
"He has written a fascinating concerto in the form of a chaconne: theme,
twenty-three variations and a coda. He blends styles of three centuries so skillfully
that the piece is coherent and consistent; when a jazzy variation appears late in
this mostly serious work, it does not seem out of place. A large orchestra is used
sparingly; accompaniment to each variation tends to be just one section, or a few
instruments, with light percussion added to many. One variation leads smoothly into
another, building to an occasional climax, which suggests the idea of conventional
movements: the first five variations add up to one such section; slow variations
follow, but break points are less obvious from there on. A continuous subtle intensity
gives the whole an incandescent feeling. After a half dozen hearings, I am ever more
drawn to this work and am almost ready to proclaim it a masterpiece."
"A little more than 2O minutes in length, `Concertmasters' is a wonderfully
strong construction. The effect is of a mass of carefully balanced variations - something
like a chaconne, which, in point of fact, it is not. But the `feel' of a chaconne
is there, with the orchestra making extensive use of concertante scoring; three violins
supported by strings and harp, three violins supported only by percussion."
" Not every composer of a new work at the Boston Symphony Orchestra can expect the kind of ovation Michael Colgrass got Thursday night after the premiere of ‘Crossworlds.’ When the elfin 69-year-old composer appeared onstage, he was greeted with cheers. He deserved them, because ‘Crossworlds’ is such a warmhearted piece, the product of an unerring ear and of a well-stocked mind that embraces many kinds of music with affection.
There’s a scenario behind this double concerto for flute and piano. Loosely speaking, the piano represents the Western musical tradition, from Baroque counterpoint to beetle-browed 12-tone composition. The flute represents various Eastern traditions. The two instruments interact, playfully try to speak each other’s languages, or decline to. Each can do things the other can’t. The flute can’t play counterpoint, the piano can’t bend notes. Each learns a little something from the other, and the piece ends in a quick game of hide-and-seek.
Colgrass wrote the work for two friends, flutist Marina
Piccinini and her husband, pianist Andreas Haefliger. It suits their
technical strengths and interactive musical personalities; each part
is in some measure a portrait of the person playing it. What one
carries away from ‘Crossworlds’ is the sheer glistening sound of
it. The music is full of marvels.
About the Canadian premiere on December 13-14 2002 the Winnipeg Free Press wrote:
"Composer Michael Colgrass was in the spotlight at Friday night's Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert. His Crossworlds, Concerto for Flute and Piano, received its Canadian premiere and was brilliantly played by soloists Marina Piccinini and Andreas Haefliger, to whom the work is dedicated. Guest conductor Matthias Bamert was on the podium.
"Colgrass' piece proved a mint-fresh balance sheet of all three elements, never flagging and full of interest.
"As Colgrass explained from the stage, the work is about identities--the flute's Eastern oriental genesis, the piano's Western atonalism, though not always. Conflicts arise and resolve, cultures cross (a cool commingling of Rachmaninov, Ravel and even Bach), arguments emerge and retreat, all within a beautifully regulated command of colour in an approachable orchestral setting that often surprises and always engages.
"Percussion is usually kingly in Colgrass' music. He's
had a long career as a performer and writes with due sympathy for
the variety and expressive possibilities of "the kitchen."
Here was no exception, yet inside was a dramatic element ruling the
many splashes of colour instead of merely serving them. That's what
made it work."
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. It won Colgrass the 1978 Pulitzer Prize.
" the music felt -
and you do feel Colgrass’ music - gorgeous, dramatic,
compelling. ‘Dream Dancer’ issues a promissory note for an even
more exciting century for this exciting medium. Colgrass uses
tradition as a basis for creating a future."
"The work is as fanciful as the title, which refers to a fictional letter the composer claims to have received from the Viennese master, exhorting Colgrass to write a work using a Mozart-like theme. Musically, Colgrass creates a kaleidoscope effect by embedding a straightforward eight-bar theme on a constantly shifting aural background. The theme passes from piano to viola to woodwind, but never in its entirety, and always mocked by the orchestra with frigid sustained chords in the strings, or the virulent sound of an oompah band, or a sudden explosion of accordion.
"The effect is like watching a Federico Fellini movie set in a freak carnival,
faces leering in and out of focus in the camera, the feral sound of a calliope and
human screeches penetrating your ears. Colgrass deliberately creates an unstable
listening experience, so complex it take two conductors to lead various instrumental
groups in simultaneous but slightly out of kilter tempos. A delightful contemporary
"Mr. Colgrass is something of a maverick. He has been part of the avant-garde movement, but in recent years has been turning to what can best be described as The New Eclecticism. He will use serial textures, but will mix them with jazz, or outright romanticism, or dissonance a la Ives. He also has evolved a distinct sort of miniature style that is extremely personal and poetic.
"His new work is set to seven of his own poems - little poems, something like latter-day Emily Dickinson. `I'll buy a hundred shares of A.T.&/T./If someone'll please/Communicate with me.' Or, `Starlings compose.The hit tunes of Spring/And try them out/On morning.' There also are a great number of alienation symbols in his poems, as well as a sardonic sort of wit.
"They are very imaginative, and so is the music. The songs are short,
sometimes haunting, full of a strange kind of tenderness. Mr Colgrass has a lyric
flair in a modern idiom, and of very few composers can that be said."
"Snow Walker, which had its premiere at the Calgary International Organ Festival, takes its title and setting from Inuit legends, the Snow Walker representing an image for death and resurrection. Judging by the music, he can be prankish in the death-defying manner of Richard Strauss 'Till Eulenspiegel. With the assistance of organ and light-metal instruments from the percussion section, Colgrass slowly evokes landscape through the accumulation of shapes, space and light, much as Strauss sneaks up on the Alps in his grandiose symphony. But Colgrass is also open to human experiences, such as the giggles and guffaws in the section called, 'Throat-Singing With Laughter.' The Northern Lights are painted and the monotonous glare of 'Ice and Light' are piercingly depicted. Folk-type drumming is heard in the concluding 'Snow Walker' movement, whose protagonist cavorts and affirms and, through all, survives.
The composition is imposing and fanciful and exotic, drawing a performance of conviction from organist Albinos Prizgintas.
"Each player has his own space on stage, just as each had his own space in the music, with Colgrass introducing them one at a time - the clarinet entering in a declamatory manner, the viola playfully tossing off spiccato sixteenth notes, and the piano articulating soft bass chords.
"Much of the inventiveness of Strangers resides in the way Colgrass plays around with this idea as he examines various moods and styles, in some of which a temporary rapprochement is reached, in others of which the musical ideas have the effect of polarizing the instruments and sending each back to its particular sound world.
"Although the ear isn't aware that each instrument is also involved in
an evolutionary progress through a continual set of variations on three basic themes,
it does pick up recollections of previously used material and this acts subliminally
both to bind the piece together and to give the re-used material an extra resonance."
"Emerging from their drumbeat egg, the Polynesian folklore father and mother of the world create human, animal and plant life. After opening with a rhythmically clean and increasingly insistent drumbeat, the second section was reflective of the fragility and wonder of newly created life forms.
"A `prepared piano,' altered with an amazing array of devices including
hairpins and a bread mixing bowl, and sometimes sounding like a snare drum, conjured
up the satirical tricks of demons. This in turn was succeeded by bright shining sounds
of heaven painted by the vibraphone, cymbals and gongs before the work returned full
cycle to the drums. "Colgrass' evocative, fluent music is filled with imagination
"Colgrass describes the fancifully titled work as a `concerto for orchestra based on Franz Schubert's Kupelwieser Waltz. The title comes from my perception of Schubert as a bird who spent his life singing, surrounded by a circle of others who were attracted by his lyricism and sang with him.' What Colgrass offers is a rich tableau of sustained musical discourse in which instrumental lines take on roles similar to those of characters in a play.
"Running the gamut of emotions, the music consists of various fragmentations, permutations and distortions of the waltz tune, often played several at a time, and woven together in a tapestry of almost perpetual counterpoint. Colgrass thinks of the music as `a stroll through my own fanciful concept of Schubert's subconscious world.' It is an extraordinarily active and busy piece, with a fascinating array of arabesques, colors, timbres and textures all skillfully deployed in kaleidoscopic profusion.
"The element of conflict is basic to the musical thought, and this is
what ultimately gives The Schubert Birds it's poignant, personal quality.
One is inevitably drawn into these conflicts - between major and minor tonalities,
the exuberant and the static, of gaily twittering `birds' perched over a bleak gray
carpet of strings, or a hilarious jazzy duet for solo oboe and contrabassoon in which
the latter tries hopelessly to appear as nimble as the former - and all of these
coalesce into a documentary on life itself, with its disputes, struggles, joys, sorrows,
choices and decisions. Images appear, merge and fade with astonishing suppleness
and variety. When the original waltz is finally heard near the end of the composition
in an unadorned, tonally harmonized presentation, the effect is deeply moving, as
if the conflicts of life had finally been resolved. The Schubert Birds
is ultimately a multi-faceted, thought-provoking, even disturbing work that bears
"`Urban Requiem,' according to Michael Colgrass, `might be described as an urban tale, inspired by a diversity of random impressions. I thought of our urban areas, where the saxophone was spawned, and of the tragedies and struggles that occur in this environment daily. But I was also inspired by the energy and power of our cities and the humor inherent in their conflicts. I feel that the saxophone is particularly well suited to express the variety of emotions required for this idea, because it can be not only highly personal and poignant in character, but also powerful and commanding...In my mind, I heard four saxophones singing in a vocal quartet, a music that was liturgical in nature but with a bluesy overtone, a kind of "after hours" requiem.'
"Soloists David Fernandez, Tom McCormick, Stephen Welsh, and George Weremchuk
- all of the UM Wind Ensemble - turn in wonderfully expressive, virtuosic performances
that bring out the best in `Urban Requiem,' namely its blues-drenched and melancholy
(libretto by Colgrass)
"Virgil is a piano prodigy. His mother, even hungrier for fame than Virgil, buys the spiel of a crazy actuarial-medical firm that offers to insure Virgil's dream. Security is so important to the shaky Virgil that the company works out a recipe for rubato in Chopin concertos: Virgil stays in strict tempo while the orchestra speeds up and slows down.
"He triumphs in the concert hall by not really playing. The audiences, full of moms like Virgil's own, are so moved by the sight of his nervous torment, and his wasted body, that they go into ovations before he is able to strike a key.
"The dream of guaranteed success, of musicless concerts, of eternal child-prodigyhood is materialized - in a pun that went right past the audience - when Virgil returns to dust inside his oxygen suit. The policy has paid off. Mother has money in the bank and Virgil in an embraceable urn.
"Colgrass and the local producer, Peter Sargent, kept the music and story
moving around deftly, intelligently, among the cast of eight. It was a piece for
an audience, remarkably free of the blatancy, mockery and posturing that have tempted
many experimenters in this genre. `Virgil's Dream' has ideas and a shrewd theatrical
sense. Composers ought to study it."
"Michael Colgrass created `Wild riot of the Shaman's Dreams' for Marina
Piccinini. Based on a character in Farley Mowat's `People of the Deer,' the unaccompanied
flute creates vivid sound pictures of a tortured soul in the vast, wind-blown Arctic.
He runs dream-wild and, finally spent, dies. It is haunting and compelling. The technique
required is exhaustive. Every limit of the flute was tested and passed with high
"`Winds of Nagual' is extraordinarily visual, story-telling music in a way that has gone wholly out of fashion since the great Strauss tone poems like `Don Quixote.' `Winds' is a tone poem for wind ensemble based on the books by Carlos Castaneda about his experience with the Indian sorcerer Don Juan. The music is full of the mystery and the matter-of-fact, it has mountains and rivers and bubbles in it, singing and dancing, meditation and the moon, all precisely, colorfully and imaginatively caught. There is even an audible philosophical point about coexistent worlds of spirit and body. Music in the low brasses resembling Wagner's Annunciation of Death becomes instead an affirmation of life - it immediately gives way to a clowning dance only a fool would call `trashy,' although that is it's musical idiom.
"Colgrass says he doesn't expect any listener to follow an exact Castanedian
scenario; this listener couldn't. But the music made consistent enthralling
sense, and the performance under Frank Battisti made its case. The piece has won
three major awards and racked up an significant number of performances."
On being Musician of the Month, High Fidelity
"Whether or not the Pulitzer Prize in Music is a fair index to contemporary cultural trends, it seems worth remarking that Michael Colgrass, this year's recipient, is the first winner in recent memory who has never held a teaching post at a university or conservatory. In fact, he has avoided institutional affiliations of any sort. Even as a percussionist, he never joined an orchestra. As a composer he strives to reach an audience of nonspecialists. Compared to a seemingly diminishing group of American composers whose principles, strictly evolved from European models, are conspicuously cerebral, and whose pronounced locus is the university, Colgrass looks home-grown and self-made:
"`I came from a world of music [jazz] where you improvise, and have close contact with your audience, and the music in not intellectualized. We have been hearing for years that melody is dead,' Colgrass remembers. `And I thought, "I guess that's true," and then all of a sudden I began to ask myself, "Well, why is that true?" Because Pierre Boulez says so?" I'd rather look to Charlie Parker.
"`I'm not trying to pull any tricks or dazzle anybody. I'm trying to make
a music which convinces me, and which is interesting to me. It's as simple as that.'"
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