American Masters

By Mark Mandarano

Melinda Wagner
Born February 25, 1957, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion
Composed in 1998
Premiered on May 30, 1998 in Purchase, New York New York at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College by Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Mandarano with soloist Paul Lustig Dunkel, flute.
Performance Time: Approximately 23

Instruments for this performance: timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, crotales, xylophone, triangle, finger cymbal, castanets, vibraphone, chimes, tam-tam, high bongo, 5 tom-toms, temple blocks, suspended cymbal, sizzle cymbal, marimba, tambourine, bell tree, bass drum, snare drum, chimes), 1 harp, piano, celesta, 18 violins, 6 violas, 4 cellos, 2 double-basses, and solo flute

A native of Philadelphia, Melinda Wagner pursued studies in upstate New York and at the University of Chicago (with Shulamit Ran) before returning to Philadelphia to study at the University of Pennsylvania where she received training from George Crumb and Richard Wernick. Eventually she settled in the New York area with her husband, percussionist James Saporito and embarked on her composing career. In the mid-1990s, an early work for orchestra, Falling Angels, came to the attention of Paul Dunkel, flutist and conductor of the American Composers Orchestra, who approached Ms. Wagner about the idea of writing a concerto for him and his orchestra in Westchester County which was approaching its 15th anniversary season. Over two terribly hot, humid nights at the end of May 1998 in the auditorium at SUNY Purchase, the Westchester Philharmonic with Dunkel as soloist and Mark Mandarano as conductor gave the world premiere performances of a work that would surprise the world by going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, the Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion. Another performance was given at Carnegie Hall in September with the American Composers Orchestra. In many ways the hero of the story is Mr. Dunkel, a supremely gifted flutist and an advocate for new music whose passion, foresight and stubborn insistence created the circumstances that made this work possible. 

Wagner has said of this work: “From the outset, I had a strong desire to write a truly serious work for the flute” in which the flute’s role would be “to participate fully in the compositional and formal rigor––not as a ‘hero’ beating the odds, but as an artistic beacon, or navigator.” In devising the soundworld of the work, the choice to eliminate other winds from the accompaniment effectively places the spotlight on the flute’s versatile timbre, from wounded, lamenting lows to a plaintive and lyrical midrange, to brilliant, vivacious, frolicking highs and mad swoops between them all. In the orchestra, the strings sustain harmonies, amplify rhythms and add athleticism, while the chiming percussion lend an other-worldly mystery, with tingling, metallic unknowns and rumblings in the lower depths. Keyboard instruments such as piano and celesta echo and race in combination with the other sonorities. Handing down its recommendation, the jury of the Pulitzer committee wrote: “Her concerto is brilliantly virtuosic not only in the solo flute part but in the superbly integrated orchestra accompaniment. At times passionate, at others poignantly lyric, the work’s kaleidoscopic textures and instrumental colors keep the listener completely engrossed.” The Concerto is cast in a fairly traditional three-movement structure. The first movement springs into action with an attention-grabbing announcement for the flute alone that launches the piece into a floating gallop. Lightning-quick forward charges gradually expand into slower cascading sighs. These two moods maintain a dialogue throughout the movement. After hearing the opening of this work, one is left deeply impressed with Wagner’s ear for matching harmony and gesture to the precisely apt combinations of timbre. Although the expressive intentions range widely, the music always retains a sonic tapestry that’s attractive and ripening from one moment to the next, at times beguiling, seductive, shimmering, quixotic, or propulsive. 

The second movement is a true jewel, multi-layered with slow-motion, spacious arches of melody in high strings, orbiting pings of bells and oscillating keyboards, all surrounding an emotionally restless solo flute that roves through the music’s empty spaces craving resolution and solace. The final movement features a more mechanical rhythmic pulse (note the rare use of the snare drum) that frequently breaks down into contemplation, only to start up on its forward march once again. Highlights of the work include: in the first movement, when the blustering activity winds down to a brief halt and then is revved back into gear via a gesture borrowed from the scherzo of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; the inexplicable logic of the final measures of the slow movement, where a procession of rising chords comes to rest and fades in a glimmering vision where sensuous musicality coalesces with a spiritual discovery; and, in the finale, the way the flute’s valiant cadenza leads back to the opening fanfare and concludes with the first movement superimposed on the finale in a mad rush to the end. 


Richard Wernick
Born January 16, 1934, in Boston, Massachusetts

Viola Concerto (“Do not go gentle…”)
Composed in 1986
Premiered on May 8, 1987 in Annandaleon-Hudson, New York at Bard College Chapel by Hudson Valley Chamber Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein with soloist Walter Trampler, viola.
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

Instruments for this performance: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (crotales, vibraphone, glockenspiel, xylophone, suspended cymbal, tam tam, tambourine, bass drum), 1 harp, 18 violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, 5 double-basses, and solo viola 

Born in 1934, Richard Wernick is the eldest of the composers represented on this program. As a professor for many years at the University of Pennsylvania, he was a mentor to Melinda Wagner among many others. He served as a consultant for new music to the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director, Riccardo Muti from 1983- 1993 – in other words, during the period when the Symphony by Shulamit Ran was commissioned and performed. Thus, he forms the nexus around which much of this program is built. The world premiere performances of Wernick’s Viola Concerto took place in 1987 at Bard and Vassar colleges. The soloist at the premiere was Walter Trampler, with Leon Botstein conducting the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. 

This concerto is unusual in several respects. For example, its subtitle is far more than an airy literary allusion. The score is inscribed with the complete text of the defiant villanelle by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that goodnight,” and each of the two movements is titled with words from half of the title of the poem. While this type of poetic association may not quite be unique, it is out of the ordinary. An earlier parallel can be found in “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan-Williams for solo violin and orchestra, based on lines from a poem by George Meredith. Mr. Wernick interprets Thomas’s image of the dying light as a symbol for impending blindness, whereas, in his own musical work, he has stated that his music refers “to a darkness that is considerably deeper.” 

Another aspect of this work that sets it apart is its orchestration, which calls for a string orchestra plus a string quintet, a woodwind quintet, a brass quintet and percussion. In the texture of the music, the presence of this polyphony of chamber groups creates a unique sonic landscape where the solo viola forms alliances and breaks away to discover its individuality. One further part of the work that stands out is the nature of its construction, in that the soloist doesn’t stand apart from the rest of the group or steal the spotlight for soliloquies and complete paragraphs, but rather the soloist acts as a member of the ensemble, a first among equals, perhaps, exchanging thoughts and engaged in discourse within a community of musicians. 

The work begins with a terse gesture, perhaps symbolizing the “rage” and resistance in the poem, constructed of a sequence of two half-steps, one full-step apart. This motive, which is woven throughout the work, happens to be a retrograde version of the B-A-C-H motive employed by J. S. Bach himself as a kind of musical signature, most famously in the final fugue of his magnum opus The Art of Fugue. This connection might be dismissed as a coincidence were it not for the fact that this fugue was left unfinished because of Bach’s blindness (after attempted cataract surgery) and subsequent death just a few months later – perhaps forming a connection between the subject of the poem and the “deeper darkness” alluded to by Mr. Wernick. In any case, these short outbursts alternate with moments of stasis where quietly sustained sonorities are held in alert stillness. In more romantic music, such as Wagner’s Lohengrin or Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, such moments of suspended animation evoked a vision of the heavens or the hushed wonder of the mountain air, but here, they seem to anticipate something far less benevolent. The second movement begins with the gentle but steady insistence of a repeated note on the harp, cleverly played on alternating strings tuned to the same pitch. While the soloist and groups of instruments weave strands of sound around this core, the tolling pitch resounds no less than eighty-five times before finally giving way. The ritualistic nature of a chiming beat reappears periodically throughout the movement. At the very end of the work, the knell beautifully resolves itself with a sense of profound repose –– a sense that is contradicted with chilling humor by fragments of the children’s song “This Old Man” stated briefly in the bassoon. 


Shulamit Ran
Born October 21, 1949, in Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel

Composed in 1990
Premiered on October 19, 1990 by Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Gary Bertini.
Performance Time: Approximately 34 minutes

Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (Tom-toms, suspended cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, temple blocks, triangle, bell tree, xylophone, vibraphone, orchestra bells, roto toms, crash cymbals, maracas, claves, tam-tam, chimes, wood blocks, tambourine, whip, timbales, bongos, boobams), 18 violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, and 5 double-basses 

The premiere of the Symphony by Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran occurred in 1990, with two performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Gary Bertini. Stylistically, the work is non-tonal, but also not quite strictly serialist; rather it exhibits a clear inheritance from the work of Schoenberg and, more particularly, the intense expressivityof Alban Berg. It follows a three-movement structure, with a highly argumentative first movement that introduces the thematic ideas, followed by a slow movement and a bustling finale. All of the movements share common thematic material, developed in new contexts. When it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, the jury wrote that Ran’s Symphony “embraces extremes of intense introspection and sweeping dramatic eloquence. It is virtuosic in its use of the orchestra and in its command of an advanced contemporary language.” 

The work opens with a kind of motto for solo horn (set into motion by a stroke of the chime). Expressively, it is marked “legato, broad, cantabile” and the melody follows a narrow range, with a clearly delineated rhythm of steady, firm resoluteness. The motto is followed by variants which maintain the general contour and rhythm with widening intervals and some acrobatic melodic leaps. After a high violin solo (yet another variant of the motto), a choir of winds and brass sing out a hymn, marked “majestic.” This theme is heard throughout the remainder of the work, with individual voices accruing into dissonant harmonies and spacious chords. An agitated fanfare in the trumpet answers, followed by a scherzo-like section (trumpet marked “with whimsy”). In the second half of the movement, the chordal hymn is heard in augmentation (i.e. in slower, more sustained rhythmic values) over the trumpet fanfare plus tom-toms and other percussion. The solo horn motto returns in almost its original form, followed by a repetition softly in the flutes as the movement draws to a close. 

The contemplative second movement begins with a calm melody for violins that expands over a wide range, yet remains “hushed, flautando, ethereal.” A response is presented by a fascinating quartet of 2 solo violins, piccolo and clarinet. What follows is virtually a concerto for orchestra, with solos for many individual instruments including quasi-cadenzas for clarinet, bass clarinet, and viola (marked “recitativo”). The opening melody is later transformed, in smaller intervals and smoother rhythms, played by 2nd violins and violas, “extremely gentle, like a hushed prayer.” The oboe joins to extend the passage, echoed by the English Horn in inversion. This form of the melody is eventually played full force in the upper strings. After this impassioned supplication, the piece dissolves into chamber music. 

The finale introduces an element of perpetual motion, dominated by repeated-note triplet figures heard in bassoons. In this movement, aleatoric passages (sections of the music where the strict element of tempo is surrendered in allowing players to improvise freely within written guidelines), which were present in small sections of the first two movements, become more frequent, adding an element of the chaos of nature, perhaps, with chirping passages. Toward the end of the piece, elements from the opening movement return in overtly familiar forms, starting with the agitated fanfare for trumpet and percussion. The hymn theme strides forth several times, interspersed with flourishes from the orchestra. Finally, the horn motto arises once again in unison passages for multiple horns. About the return of previous material, the composer has written: “I find myself progressively more drawn by the idea, and the ramifications, of a formal return in a piece of music yet, at the same time, moving onward. As in life, one can never go back in time. There is no such thing as a real recapitulation. What has happened in the intervening time has altered things irrevocably. Pitted against this reality is an equally compelling statement, namely, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The cyclical versus the inevitability of the flow of time are two major currents at the source of all of life and nature. Music, I believe, has the unique power to reconcile and be expressive of both.”

Written by Mark Mandarano, Artistic Director of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies, Artistic Director of the Sinfonietta of Riverdale and an Associate Professor of Music at Macalester College.