Portland represents the third work written as part of a larger, national initiative I started in 2013 called “America By: A Symphonic Tour.” My goal for this initiative is to collaborate with orchestras from around the country, writing pieces that express the nuanced attributes of their own town, culture, and people. The works spawned from these collaborations will eventually create a musical montage that lends listeners a glimpse into the rich history and culture of the United States.
The music of Portland taps into the history and current day of the American city it represents. Even though there were many possibilities to consider, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Upper Chinook Native Americans (Portland’s prior inhabitants), and the excitement of life in a city surrounded by a mountain range and an ocean not far away, ultimately served as sources of inspiration for this work. The music flows like a film score, evoking the imagery Lewis and Clark took in as they ventured through Portland en route to their final destination (Fort Clatsop).
Listeners can also hear intermittent drumming and the repeating chant-like motive at the end (played by the low brass and strings with timpani) that emulate the sound of the native American chants. Throughout the piece, the music alternates between tranquil and energetic moments, which I hoped would portray the mood of this unique West Coast city. — Erich Stem
Though the title of Bonzai Down (2017) was initially intended as a working title only, the name stuck. Bonzai is one of three works for large orchestra based on images from the Mid-Willamette Valley. Each image is of a specific place, facing a specific direction. The image behind Bonzai Down is the Bonzai Trail in McDonald Forest outside of Corvallis. The trail is straight down and steep—on a mountain bike, potentially break-neck fast and relentless. The piece uses the form of a Rondo, and the refrain of the rondo is inspired by the feeling you get from riding that trail...down.
On top of a fabric of various folk music harmonies and asymmetric rhythmic cycles is a commitment to vernacular melodic structure. The effect is downright folksy.
— Bill Whitley
A Letter from Camp
This work for soprano and chamber orchestra is based on a poem by Walt Whitman, sometimes found under the alternate title “Come up from the fields, Father,” originally published as part of Drum Taps in 1865. Whitman had visited many American Civil War hospitals as a poet/observer; these visits moved him deeply, inspiring many poems with this one being among them.
A Letter from Camp is a war-inspired work, but one that is devoid of patriotism. Rather, the work focuses on those affected by war–in this case, a family on a farm whose oldest son is the one engaged in battle far away–and the loss war brings upon families.
The setting alternates between narrator, mother, and daughter while the musical fabric of the piece shifts between fragments of chaotic dissonances, picturesque scenes of the rural landscape, and the inner feelings of anxiety by the mother. Throughout the work there are also fragments of the Bach chorale “Alle Menschen müssen sterben” which foreshadow the son’s fate.
While this poem was originally inspired by events from the Civil War in the United States, the feelings of pain and loss felt by the family transcend nationality and time and are the byproducts of any war in any era. — Brian T Field
“A Letter from Camp” (aka, “Come Up from the Fields, Father”)
by Walt Whitman
Come up from the fields father, here’s a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door mother, here’s a letter from thy dear son.
Lo, ’tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees, deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio’s villages with leaves fluttering in the moderate wind,
Where apples ripe in the orchards hang and grapes on the trellis’d vines,
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vines?
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)
Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent after the rain, and with wondrous clouds,
Below too, all calm, all vital and beautiful, and the farm prospers well.
Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come father, come at the daughter’s call,
And come to the entry mother, to the front door come right away.
Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous, her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor adjust her cap.
Open the envelope quickly,
O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d,
O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she catches the main words only,
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.
Ah now the single figure to me,
Amid all teeming and wealthy Ohio with all its cities and farms,
Sickly white in the face and dull in the head, very faint,
By the jamb of a door leans.
Grieve not so, dear mother, (the just-grown daughter speaks through her sobs,
The little sisters huddle around speechless and dismay’d,)
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.
Alas poor boy, he will never be better, (nor may-be needs to be better, that brave and simple soul,)
While they stand at home at the door he is dead already,
The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch’d, then at night fitfully sleeping, often waking,
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.
Concerto #2 for guitar and orchestra, “In Somnis Veritas”
The Concerto #2 was written from 2008 to 2010. This work was originally conceived as a single movement with 5 sections. However, the music had a different idea, and eventually I realized the composition would work better in 3 movements. The subtitle, “In Somnis Veritas,” means, “in dreams there is truth.” It is my belief that many people refuse to acknowledge what is true when they are conscious, but can’t escape from what they know to be true in their subconscious when sleeping. These things manifest themselves in dreams. Our subconscious will cobble things together in all kinds of strange scenarios. The music tries to depict these cobblings.
I’m not entirely sure if the soloist is symbolic of anyone, including myself. There is no specific storyline to the work. The music is intended to be experienced the way one would experience a dream or series of dreams. Maybe the soloist is you, the listener, and what you experience through the music.
The tempo of the first movement is slow, which sets the stage as our “dreamer” drifts off to sleep and begins to dream. The opening triplet motif represents breathing. These are gentle dreams filled with longing and nostalgia. This movement is set in a kind of arch form.
The tempo of the second movement is faster. We hear motifs from the first movement in a different context; a context where things change rapidly. The form of this movement is ternary. The middle section is slower than the two outer sections and is scored for guitar alone. This section is somewhat more romantic and song-like. Its romance fades back into the chaos of the opening section. The coda moves back and forth between fragments of the opening and middle sections.
The third movement is faster still. The opening section is full of action, rhythmic energy and unusual rhythmic groupings that keep changing. This section is interrupted, like the second movement, by a slower middle section. However, the music here is not romantic, but rather surreal. The percussion section plays unusual instruments: a toy piano, a ratchet, and a toy train whistle. Fragments of the theme from the opening section are heard here and there. The guitar returns to the movement’s opening material alone and at a slower tempo. This forms a transition into the opening material at its original tempo. This time the section is truncated. We hear, again, a fragment of the romantic theme from the second movement played by the guitar before proceeding to a wild ending.
This work was written specifically for Jimmy Turner (guitar), Wayne Linehan (music director), and the Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra of Jackson MS. This is the fourth composition of mine they have played and the first specifically written for them. — Mark Francis
Imagine that you are walking down the street on a sunny summer day. On the sidewalk you hear a couple of guys drumming on metal cans while a trumpet and a trombone improvise on top of that. Here you have it written out for full symphony orchestra.
Street Music started its life as the fourth movement of my Symphony for Brass and Percussion. The original version was first performed in Ottawa in 2012 by Capital BrassWorks directed by Angus Armstrong. The conductor requested a symphonic version of it for a Canada 150 concert to be given by the Parkdale United Church Orchestra, which he also conducted. They performed the new orchestral version in Ottawa in 2017, the year of the country’s 150th anniversary.
The piece opens with two percussionists playing cowbells and bongos. If one thinks of the orchestra as a boat, then the percussion players are the outboard motor that propels it forward. Brass predominates throughout, which is not surprising considering the roots of the piece. — Jan Järvlepp
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