by Kris Dinnison
In a quiet corner of Eastern Washington University is one of the best kept secrets of this area's college music departments: the Composition Program led by Dr. Jonathan Middleton, the program's coordinator, and professor of music theory and composition. But in late May, the program is raising a ruckus by hosting a weekend of events with WILLIAM KRAFT, one of the United States' best known composers and percussionists.
"Bill Kraft is famous worldwide," says Middleton. "He's played all over the world... Beijing... Europe... we're incredibly lucky to have him."
Middleton's program is unique in many ways. "We have a program that covers both undergraduate and graduate students," he explains. "We have 17 composition students. It's quite large compared to other schools." Size is not the only thing that sets this program apart. "We began with six to seven women composition students, but now we have a pretty good gender balance," Middleton says. "That's also quite unusual. There are usually more male composers than female composers. I'm not sure why."
Part of Middleton's philosophy about educating neophyte composers is that they should get a chance to work with people who are doing this for a living. "In addition to trying to build a creative environment where students can learn from me and from each other, I have made an effort to bring in world-renowned composers," Middleton explains. "This way, the students gain experience from people who are successful in their field."
In the fall, students spent the weekend working with Frederic Rzewski, a Belgian composer who specializes in electronic improvisation. William Kraft comes to EWU May 25 and 26.
Bringing composers in to work with area students and performers also solves one of the great dilemmas of performing other people's work: What was the composer's intention?
"It's a great way to collaborate," Middleton says. "The problem with new music is it's so hard to interpret sometimes, and with the composer there you can turn to him and ask, 'What did you mean here?' "
Middleton points out that with much of the repertoire we no longer have that luxury. "If Beethoven were around, there are so many questions I'd ask him," he says.
The weekend, which is open to the public, will include a colloquium, a composer's workshop, a performance master class and a concert all centered around Kraft, who, in addition to being an acclaimed composer and conductor, is at the top of the field of percussionists.
A concert in honor of the composer's art would of course include music by the composer in question. "Encounters 7," "French Suite" and "Suite for Percussion" by Kraft are on board for the concert, as is a traditional Chinese piece called "The Golden Pheasant," "Credo in Us" by John Cage and a new work by Jonathan Middleton called "China Song."
For Middleton, the weekend is part of a larger mission to keep music and composition a vital part of our society. "I'm trying to create a composition program that's really dynamic," he says. "I'm hoping this event will add to that for educational purposes, but also for promoting new music in the classical tradition. It's a celebration... It's a means for discovery, like a new frontier."
William Kraft leads a percussion master class on Friday, May 25,
from 9-11 am in Room 143 (or the Recital Hall if need be) of the
Music Building at EWU, followed by a colloquium in the Recital Hall
from noon-2 pm and a composer's workshop in the Recital Hall from
3-5 pm. On Saturday, May 26, Kraft leads open rehearsal in the
Recital Hall at 10 am, with a concert, again in the Recital Hall at 3 pm. All events are free and open to the public. Call: 359-2241.
Full Steam Ahead
Verne Windham is another local musician who is wishing he had a chance to have a chat with Beethoven this month. Windham will be conducting Beethoven's 5th Symphony with THE COEUR D'ALENE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA on May 5 and 6 in their "Celebrate the Orchestra" concert.
The Coeur d'Alene Symphony could use a chance to celebrate right now; it has been a difficult spring for the group, whose former conductor, Todd Snyder, was arrested several weeks ago on sexual abuse charges involving a 14-year-old boy. The incident forced the orchestra to abruptly cancel a concert.
But now Windham has stepped up to the plate to help the orchestra finish what has been a very successful year musically. "They called me up to see if I could finish their season for them," explains Windham. "It seemed like the thing to do, and I suspected it would be fun. There's no relief like getting together and playing music. These people are so attentive and respectful."
Windham has really admired the way the organization has used the disruption in its season to strengthen its mission and commitment to the orchestra.
"They've taken this opportunity to take their destiny into their own hands," says Windham. "They've formed an Orchestra Committee for the first time. Out of that they are really creating their own identity."
The program, chosen by collaboration between Windham and the orchestra, will span several centuries and styles of orchestral music. "They felt the best way to celebrate the orchestra was to play the entire Beethoven's 5th," Windham explains. "It's just about everybody's favorite piece of symphonic music."
Windham is trying to conduct the piece as if it is not one of the most familiar works in public consciousness. "I'm following the Gunther Schuller path," he says. "It analyzes the piece completely and tries to find the meaning in the music itself, regardless of 200 years of performance. I'm trying to find the power Beethoven put in it."
The usual form for concerts of this type is to put the larger work in the second half of the concert, and lead with shorter pieces, but Windham has turned the tables. "It's kind of different because we're doing the Beethoven symphony as the first half," says Windham. "The second half has a little more of a pops feel."
Judging from Windham's enthusiasm, the Coeur d'Alene Symphony could not have chosen a better advocate to lead them through the end of their season. "They have a lot of uncertainty ahead. This concert is a chance to emphasize the institution of the orchestra in general, and the Coeur d'Alene Symphony in particular," Windham says. "They are really eager to just play beautifully."
The Coeur d'Alene Symphony presents "Celebrate the Orchestra"
with guest conductor Verne Windham at NIC's Schuler Auditorium
on Saturday, May 5, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, May 6, at 2 pm.
Tickets: $7; $5 seniors; $3 juniors (18 and under). Call: (208) 769-7780.
Another group that is ending its season with the help of other local artists is THE SPOKANE STRING QUARTET. Its May 13 concert at The Met brings back two of the area's native sons as guest artists: Pianist Archie Chen and violinist Jason Moody.
Chen began studying piano at age 6 and gave his first concert at age 11. He is now in his early 20s, and performs all over the world. Violinist Kelly Farris is pleased to have him performing with the Quartet.
"For the quartet, it's a pleasure," Farris says. "We all play in the symphony, and Archie has played with the symphony (as a soloist)." Chen will be performing Chopin's "Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21."
"It's orchestration and arrangement done by Chopin himself," explains Farris. "I think it's a wonderful way to do the Chopin. The orchestra parts are very spare."
Jason Moody, a Sandpoint native who studied violin with Farris for six years, has also soloed with the Spokane Symphony, in addition to national radio appearances on NPR's From the Top and A Prairie Home Companion. He won the Young Artist award at the Spokane Music and Allied Arts Festival just a couple years ago. "It's a great chance for people who know him to see how he's doing," says Farris.
Don't let the youth of either of these performers lead you to think you will be hearing anything but the finest music at this Mother's Day event.
"These are two unusually gifted people." explains Farris. "They're real artists. Even though they're young, they are not students. You don't have to make any allowances for them in that sense. They're first class players."
The Spokane String Quartet, with Archie Chen and
Jason Moody, performs at The Met on Sunday, May 13, at 3 pm.
Tickets: $15; $12 seniors; $6 students. Call: 325-SEAT.
Not to be Missed
Virtuoso fiddle player MARK O'CONNOR joins the Spokane Symphony Saturday night in an event that symphony marketing director Annie Matlow calls "our biggest superstar this year." In a season that has included Sandy Duncan, the "Carmina Burana" concert and the tribute to the Beatles, that's saying something.
"He's a country fiddler who has more than 500 recordings, he's a Grammy winner and he's played and recorded with Yo-Yo Ma," says Matlow. "He's just amazing."
The Seattle native has made a name for himself as a lightning fast fiddler, one whose bow harmonics have been likened to electric guitar. In the same breath, he is just as much a classical violinist, having written caprices in honor of the great Paganini. Mentored by great Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, O'Connor's folk roots and high-energy delivery represent a rich hybrid of two distinctly American styles. He is perhaps best known for "Appalachia Waltz," which he wrote, and then recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and doublebassist Edgar Meyer.
Mark O'Connor performs with the Spokane Symphony at the Opera House on Saturday, May 5, at 8 pm. Tickets: $16-$35. Call: 624-1200.