2 clarinets in Bb (clarinet 2 doubles bass clarinet)
2 horns in F
2 trumpets in Bb
I spent the fall of 2001 in England as a visiting fellow at prestigious Oxford University. I was there for three months to compose a cello concerto amidst the thousand year old ghosts. As it turned out events did not go as planned. Less than a week after I arrived, before I had unpacked, I sat staring at my television as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.
I was numb for weeks. I could not think about composing. And yet somehow a string orchestra elegy appeared on my manuscript paper. I called it A Prayer For Peace. Once this emotional release was behind me the concerto began to take shape.
The first music that emerged was an extended section for woodwinds and cello. I patiently waited for the strings to enter or the brass to get into the act. I wrote on and on, the woodwinds happy to be left to their own devices. When it became apparent that neither the brass nor the strings were going to appear I briefly considered utilizing only woodwinds for the entire composition. I then came upon the idea of having movements in which only one section would accompany the soloist. A brass movement and string movement began to take shape in my mind. With these as the three inner movement, I conceived an Overture and a Finale utilizing the full orchestra.
Before leaving Oxford that December I had completed the three central movements and had a few sketches for the finale. With teaching duties awaiting me in Virginia, I put aside the work, now going under the title Drama for Cello and Orchestra.
The school year came and went. I made a summer trip to Puerto Rico to work with Jesús Morales, the cello soloist for whom I was composing and my long time friend. He played through what I had composed and we exchanged ideas about how the rest of the work should proceed. We stood neck deep in an incredibly gorgeous sea during many of these discussions. And then it was off to Paris for a residency at the Cité des Arts (my third) to complete the composition.
I arrived in the city of lights, city of magic, city of inspiration. Immediately I fell into my old familiar habits of strolling across the Seine, past Notre Dame and the Sorbonne, sitting in parks and cafes and writing everywhere. The Finale was soon progressing and an ending was clearly in sight. The beginning, however, was still missing in action.
I walked many miles of Parisian streets trying to get a handle on a beginning. My mind was continuously examining and discarding idea after idea.
And then it hit me.
Before writing the second, third and fourth movements I had composed a work that by all rights should be a part of this concerto: A Prayer For Peace. The problem was that this was a slow elegy and I felt that the first movement required something more energetic and less somber. But during these walks the Prayer was somehow transformed into a faster lighter alter ego. Once this worked itself out, I wrote notes as fast as my pen could get them on the paper. The Overture became a rondo with material from Prayer as the recurring theme. Voila! (as we say in Paris).
It was in Paris that I decided Drama was too serious of a title for a work that was full of light-hearted energy. After some searching I came upon the idea of a Masque...a party of guests wearing costumes. Full of intrigue and romance...full of possibilities.
The OVERTURE begins with the Prayer theme, tossing it around the orchestra before the solo cello finally presents it fully. The second theme begins after a brief transition with lush brass chords. This section is derived from the fourth movement. The initial rondo theme returns in the solo cello as the flute and clarinet join in fast counterpoint. The third theme gives each of the three orchestral sections a chance to show off a little, foreshadowing the important roles they play in the three central movements. A transition segues back to the rondo theme played by full orchestra before turning it back to the solo cello for the conclusion.
ROMANCE features the soloist playing soaring melodies accompanied by a slow dance-like accompaniment in the pizzicato strings. Like the first movement, Romance is also cast as a five-part rondo. For those who listen for such things, the movement is also a passacaglia with a nine-measure bass, which is transposed up a semi-tone on each recurrence (with some minor interruptions).
The ADVENTURE is a fast moving tour de force for not only the cellist, but for the entire woodwind section. Set in a sonata form, the first theme, heard at the onset, is rhythmic, focusing on a variety of lydian modes. The second theme is more lyrical and appears over a more sustained accompaniment. A development section and recapitulation of the two themes follow before the movement soars to a close.
CONTEMPLATION begins with the lush brass harmonies from the first movement, as the solo trombone dances around the shifting chords. There are duets between the solo cellist and the trombone, followed by an exchange between cello and tuba. A climatic brass section is heard before the movement fades from completely view.
The FINALE begins with a glorious statement of a theme that by this point will be very familiar to the listener. It has appeared in one way or another in each of the movements. This quickly gives way to rhythmic punch chords in the muted brass and the movement is off and running. Throughout the unwinding of this movement various themes from previous movements come and go. And it ends as it should, with the Prayer for Peace theme as it was presented at the very beginning of the Masque.
One of the first records I remember hearing on my father’s hi-fi was Stan Kenton’s "Sketches on Standards." The arranger on this tremendous recording was Bill Russo. I knew even then that there was something different about this music. Something that spoke to me in an amazingly strong way.
I had the good fortune to meet Russo a number of years ago. He proved to be gentleman, scholar and artist. And he became a friend.
Prior to my Oxford fellowship I spent the summer poring over many of the scores that he wrote for the Stan Kenton band. I then spent several days with him in Chicago discussing these compositions and arrangements.
The direct and indirect influence that Russo had on my Masque is profound. This influence is strongest in the 3rd and 4th movements, which were the first two movements that I composed after my in-depth exploration of his music.Bill Russo died in January 2003, two months prior to the premiere of Masque. I was looking forward to sending him a recording of the performance. Now he’ll have a front row seat.
Masque for Cello and Orchestra is dedicated to Bill Russo (1928-2003).