MORAVEC: Tempest Fantasy / Mood Swings / B.A.S.S. Variations
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Paul Moravec (b. 1957)
Tempest Fantasy Mood Swings B.A.S.S. Variations Scherzo
Paul Moravec lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, two blocks north of me, and whenever I bump into him on the street, I say, "Is that a Pulitzer laureate I see strolling down the sidewalk?" He always laughs and looks embarrassed -- but pleased, too, as well he should be. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for music, as Paul did in 2004 for Tempest Fantasy, is no small thing. Not only did it get his name into every major newspaper in the United States, but it also gave him permanent entrée to a club whose other members include Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, George Rochberg, and John Corigliano. That's fast company.
I was especially gratified by Paul's Pulitzer because I'd been writing with passionate enthusiasm about his elegant, soaringly melodic compositions for the better part of a decade. In the lexicon of criticism, the word "great" is the reddest of flags: only time can tell whether a work of art is great, and when you use the word to describe a living composer, or a brand-new piece, you're leading with your chin. Still, there's something about great art that makes itself manifest on the spot, a commingling of immediacy and elusiveness that causes you to want to re-experience it as soon as possible. That's how I felt when I first heard Paul's music.
One of the reasons why Tempest Fantasy and Mood Swings hit me so hard was that they acknowledged the eternal verity articulated a half-century ago by Paul Hindemith: "Music, as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colours, or the architect his three dimensions". For Paul, triadically based harmony, the tonal language of all Western music from Bach to rock, was a given -- yet he used it with a freshness and individuality that made it sound as current as the morning paper. When I met him, I discovered that he is also an exceptionally articulate spokesman for his art, one whose comments on music reveal a deeply philosophical turn of mind. "Musically, I say what I mean and mean what I say," he said when I interviewed him for Time in 2000. "The irony in my music is not glibly postmodern but, rather, the essence of making audible the human experience of ambiguity."
What Paul meant by that subtle remark is demonstrated by the music on this album. I'll leave him to describe it in his own words, but I do want to add that despite the considerable, at times formidable complexity of these tough-minded works, which are anything but "easy" in the way they translate experience and emotion into the realm of sound, their complexities are never gratuitous. To put it another way, they make sense. Their harmonies are lucid and logical, their melodies indelibly noble. They are, literally, eloquent, the painstakingly wrought, powerfully moving utterances of an artist who believes with all his heart in the possibility of beauty. I know no other music written today that moves me more.
Paul's music cuts sharply against the grain of trendiness, and for a long time I wondered whether the rest of the world would ever catch up with him. Then came the Pulitzer, and all at once performers and audiences began to embrace his work with fast-growing enthusiasm. Since its première in New York in 2003, Tempest Fantasy has been performed in Atlanta, Aspen, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Portland, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and numerous other cities in America and Europe. It is also heard frequently on radio and was choreographed by Robert Weiss for Carolina Ballet in 2006. Now comes this CD, on which you can hear Tempest Fantasy, Mood Swings, and two shorter pieces performed by the superlative musicians for whom they were written.
An hour or so after the Pulitzers for 2004 were announced, I got an overseas telephone call from Paul, who was vacationing in Sicily. He was clearly thrilled by the news, but reacted with his usual sense of humor.
"Do you realize that I'm going to be in the World Almanac next year?" he asked me.
"And every other year--from now on," I replied.
Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary and the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal. He also blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com. He is currently writing Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong.
Tempest Fantasy is a musical meditation on characters, moods, situations, and lines of text from my favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest. Rather than depicting these elements in literally programmatic terms, I have used them instead as points of departure for flights of purely musical fancy. The first three movements spring from the nature and selected speeches of the three characters after whom they are named. The fourth movement was inspired by Caliban's uncharacteristically elegant third-act speech: " Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. " The finale, the most "fantastic" flight of all, elaborates on the various musical elements of the earlier movements and draws them together into a convivial finale.
I began composing Tempest Fantasy at the MacDowell Colony in the summer of 2001 and finished it the following summer at Yaddo. It is dedicated with great admiration and affection to the clarinetist David Krakauer and the members of Trio Solisti, Maria Bachmann, Alexis Pia Gerlach, and Jon Klibonoff, who gave its première at New York City 's Morgan Library in 2003.
Mood Swings, a single-movement piano trio composed in 1999, is a series of variations on the thematic and harmonic materials presented at the outset. As my intention was to make musically audible the workings of the central nervous system, the title refers to the comprehensive range of moods and psychological states through which this rather mercurial composition proceeds. The word "swings" also refers to the rhythmically charged elements characteristic especially of the finale. Mood Swings is dedicated to Trio Solisti, which commissioned and gave the première in New York.
B.A.S.S. Variations was composed in 1999 at the Bass Garden Studio of the American Academy in Rome, and is dedicated to Mercedes and Sid Bass. It is a set of variations on the letters of their name, B-A-S-S, which in German notation come out as B flat - A - E flat- E flat. Scherzo was written in 2002 for Trio Solisti in response to their request for a compact, energetic encore-type work.
I am thoroughly indebted to the musicians of this incomparable ensemble, especially Maria Bachmann. I am also deeply indebted to the loving support and encouragement of my wife, Wendy Lamb. If not for the particular efforts of these women, the compositions on this CD would never have come into being.