In 1981, I had just finished the short score of my Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I was called by the Boston Symphony to write a piece for the new conductor of the Boston Pops, John Williams. Six years before, my wife Joan Morris and I had performed with the Pops under Arthur Fiedler and the atmosphere of the concert was like a baseball game, with people eating, drinking, and practically throwing food, all talking happily; thus I decided on a heavy percussion part in the new commission to try to top the crowd noise.
In Ragomania's first percussion-drenched rehearsal, John Williams turned
to me: "This piece sounds like World War III!" whereupon I
explained why I'd made it so loud. By 1982, however, the Boston Pops
crowd atmosphere had changed. Instead of hot dogs and beer, the audience
was discreetly consuming white wine and coq-au-vin, and the ambience
in Symphony Hall was far more sedate.
CONCERTO FOR CLARINET AND ORCHESTRA
In the 1970s, the New York Philharmonic commissioned a number of composers to write concertos for the principals in each section, and I had been asked by my friend, first trumpeter Gerard Schwarz, to write one for him. He then quit the orchestra to begin his career as a full-time conductor, thus disqualifying himself for the commission, and it was another decade before principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker would request a concerto. This was premiered on January 3, 4 and 7, 1992 by Mr. Drucker and conductor Leonard Slatkin with the New York Philharmonic.
Many years before, the late clarinetist and producer David Oppenheim
had tried to arrange a commission for me from Benny Goodman which never
took place, but many "Benny-isms" crop up throughout the Concerto.
The first movement is in roughly Sonata-Allegro form and has a strong
Goodman nuance, as does the slow 12-beat-to-the-bar second movement.
The last movement alternates a Brazilian chorinho with an ebullient
THE DUKE, SWEE'PEA AND ME.
The Duke, Swee'Pea and Me was created for me by the great composer, arranger and pianist Clare Fischer in 1985. For years, I had been inspired by his beautiful harmonic language and the lyric quality of his improvisations, which always maintain sensual grooves. I asked Clare to take some of his favorite tunes of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, nicknamed "Swee'Pea", and turn them into a symphonic tone poem for the clarinet. And so, Clare composed this beautiful tribute transcending the tunes themselves; the eponymous "me" is, of course, Clare Fischer.
A magical beginning of pure Fischer fantasy leads to descending clarinet
arpeggios ending in the first theme Mood Indigo. One hears immediately
Clare's delight in orchestral colors and especially his love of the
woodwinds, which includes the burnished bass and double bass clarinets.
His Sophisticated Lady is indeed a woman of clever chord progressions,
suave harmonies and intriguing instrumentation. After a fleeting reference
to Don't Get Around Much Anymore, Clare dresses up his Satin Doll in
bursts of brass and shrieks of French Horns. Then, the clarinet disappears
into the darkest region of the chalumeau to set the stage for I'm Beginning
to See the Light. That light turns out to be the haunting Day Dream.
It seems the dream is about a man, Johnny Come Lately, who struts his
stuff with the marimba and clarinet duo and bopping bassoons. Then,
Clare lets a pedal tone D (for Duke?) pervade a coda that includes throbbing
timpani and improvisation for the clarinet and concludes with a final
shout and wail for soloist and for orchestra.
COMMEDIA for (almost) 18th-century orchestra
In 1971, I was asked by Sydney Hodkinson, composer and conductor of the newly-formed St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, to write a piece for his fledgling organization. The unusual disposition of the orchestra - one flute, two oboes, one clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, a keyboard and a small complement of strings (timpani were added later) - suggested an 18th-century ensemble, thus the subtitle "for (almost) 18th-century orchestra."
I've always been fascinated by the commedia dell'arte with its stock characters Harlequin, Columbine and Punchinello who, given a plot, would improvise a play in character. Commedia's Italianate atmosphere is intensified by the tarantella that is central to the piece. While writing the program note for the first performance of Commedia in Minneapolis in 1972, I happened by pure coincidence upon this apposite quote:
"...but after being bitten by the Tarantula, there was, according to popular opinion, no way of saving lives except by music...Those who were bitten generally fell into a state of melancholy and appeared to be stupefied...This condition was, in many cases, united with so great a sensibility to music that, at the very first tones of their favorite melodies, they sprang up, shouting for joy, and danced on without intermission, until they sank to the ground exhausted...The number of those affected by it increased beyond all belief, for who ever had...even fancied that he had been bitten by a poisonous spider...made his appearance annually whenever the merry notes of the Tarantella resounded." (Dancing Mania in the Middle Ages, J.F.C. Hecker, M.D., 1837)
By far my most-played orchestral work, Commedia has been performed
well over a thousand times. It was first recorded by the St. Paul Chamber
Orchestra in 1975 under Dennis Russell Davies.