About this Recording
8.559201 - HARTKE: Clarinet Concerto / Rose of the Winds / Pacific Rim
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Stephen Hartke (b

Stephen Hartke (b. 1952): Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra

 

Much of Stephen Hartke’s music is concerned with communicating a sense of place, from the cultural mix of Asian and Latin elements in the concert overture Pacific Rim of 1988 to the most recent work on this recording, the Clarinet Concerto “Landscapes with Blues,” a piece that reflects his interest in the rhythms of West Africa, his own New York roots, and the great blues tradition of the Mississippi Delta. By rounding out this disc with the 1998 string octet, The Rose of the Winds, an evocation of the austere beauty of the American Southwest, and the imaginary landscape of Gradu-s (1999), a tantalizing image is formed of one of the most singular voices in American contemporary music.

 

Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1952, Stephen Hartke grew up in Manhattan, where he began his musical career as a professional boy chorister, encountering at an early age much of the music which has shaped his language ever since: the plainchant of medieval liturgical drama, the music of Machaut and Dufay, the great Tudor composers, especially Tallis and Weelkes, as well as the music of Britten and Stravinsky. But equally important to his evolution as a composer, he came of age in the New York of the Uptown/Downtown divide of the late 1960s, in which the structuralist atonality of Carter and Babbitt was pitted against the chance music of Cage and the happenings of Kaprow. While enjoying many aspects of both, Hartke has written that his sense of the expressive limitations inherent in these approaches sharpened his awareness of a “need for variety of effect, not just from piece to piece but within individual pieces, such as one encounters all the time in Beethoven, but never, for example, in the high modernism of Boulez”, and while not alone in reacting against the excesses of the various avant garde movements, Hartke’s response has not been to move in a neo-romantic direction; indeed, as Alex Ross observed in his article in the New Grove on Hartke, “his music tends to avoid the lush textures and cinematic gestures common to many composers of that school.” Rather he has constructed a highly personal language based on an often-stated objective of wanting to write music reflective of his “personal experience as a listener, as a fellow member of the audience.”

 

The earliest of the pieces featured here, Pacific Rim, is, in many respects, one of the best representations of how Hartke’s fascination as a listener to non-Western music has deeply informed one of his most widely performed compositions. Composed in 1988 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary season of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with which he was then the newly appointed composer-in-residence, the work is something of a musical portrait of his adopted city of Los Angeles, where he had moved in 1987 to join the faculty of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. In structure the piece is quite straightforward, a prelude and fugue, but the various musical elements combined within have quite disparate origins. For example, the high opening chord, floating first in the strings, then in the winds, is reminiscent of Japanese gagaku music. The pair of oboes stating the basic melodic idea work with a scale related to that of the Javanese gamelan, while the lively tread of their rhythm seems to breathe the atmosphere of a Chinese New Year procession. Further, the formality of both the verse and refrain structure and the use of the percussion to mark off in an almost ritualistic way the beginnings of phrases, calls to mind many of the various court musics of Asia, but here subsumed into a wholly new sort of sound world which the composer has sometimes described as being “ethnomusicological fiction”. But then the music suddenly turns a corner, and in a soft string interlude crosses back over the Pacific, before ushering in the fugue. It starts, quite arrestingly, with the initial statement of the subject played by a pair of tuned cowbells, clearly drawing its rhythmic energy and layering technique from the music of Latin America. In so doing, Hartke reminds us in but the span of ten minutes of the complex cultural interplay, not only Asian and Latino, but European-American as well, in America’s second city.

 

The string octet, The Rose of the Winds, represents something of a shift away, if perhaps only a temporary one, from the bright colors and exuberance of Pacific Rim. Commissioned for the 1998 Music from Angel Fire chamber music festival, held near Taos, New Mexico, it was composed, as the composer writes, “in anticipation of my first visit to northern New Mexico, a place I had long wanted to see first-hand. While composing it, I kept a beautiful book of photographs of the area propped open near my desk to a wonderful shot of a single desert flower perched at the top of a dune against a bright blue sky”. The piece unfolds then as an evocation of a journey in that imagined landscape, with its quiet spaciousness, moving through ever more animated phases suggesting various sounds of nature: insects, birds, wind and rain. In the end, serenity reigns, with gentle singing and sonorous textures not unlike the tolling of bells.

 

The small chamber sextet, Gradu-s, as with both of the preceding pieces, has a celebrational aspect in that it was written as a gift in honor of the 25th anniversary season of Anthony Korf’s New York-based ensemble, Parnassus. The title makes a gently punning reference to both the dedicatee and the musical treatise Gradu-s ad Parnassum.

 

It also invokes the idea of journey, for Hartke noted that he saw in the piece an “image of a group of friends making their cheerful way up to the abode of the Muses, pausing halfway along to gaze at the summit before continuing on with renewed energy. I took the word gradus, Latin for ‘steps,’ to mean ‘dance-steps’ rather than ‘stairs,’ so my little processional ends up being quite a bit more Dionysian than Apollonian”.

 

The most recent and longest of the works heard here quite possibly makes the longest musical journey as well. The Clarinet Concerto (2001), subtitled Landscape with Blues, was commissioned by the IRIS Chamber Orchestra for Richard Stoltzman. In offering the commission, the orchestra’s Executive Director, Albert Pertalion, asked for a work that might reflect in some way on the heritage of Mississippi Delta Blues. As the composer notes fondly, “he even took me on a whirlwind tour of blues country to get a feel for the birthplace of one of America’s greatest musical traditions. From that trip, I took away an indelible sense of the countryside, the heat and humidity, the purple martens chasing mosquitoes at twilight”. But in its realization, the piece goes much farther afield than that. It starts in the West African nations of Senegal and The Gambia, or “Senegambia” as they are sometimes known, with their great musical story-telling tradition known as griot singing, audibly one of the roots of American blues. These audible links are heard in their repetitive accompaniment patterns and rhythmically free, declamatory vocal melodies that tend to begin high then work themselves down to a lower register. Here, Hartke casts the clarinet solo as the griot, with the woodwinds engaging in a sort of call and response chorus, all built over a repeated five-note bass line.

 

The second movement, entitled Delta Nights recalls Hartke’s impressions of the Delta, but just as importantly owes much to the novel, Train Whistle Guitar, by Albert Murray, about his boyhood in a small African-American community near the Delta during the heyday of the great itinerant bluesmen. Hartke writes: “In Delta Nights, the soloist evokes a blues harmonica wailing away in the night, and even the structure of the movement is loosely related to a series of blues choruses. Moreover, some of the soloist’s turns of phrase are derived from the opening motive of Cool Drink of Water Blues by Tommy Johnson, one of my favorite bluesmen. But the predominant influence here was Murray’s recollection of the excitement which fired his boyhood imagination, hearing the distant sound of blues music drifting across the fields from juke joints that he was too young to visit.”

 

The final movement, Philamayork, takes its title from Albert Murray, a compound word he uses to denote the nearly mythical cities of the North, where blues had gone and become a hard-driving urban music. Here Hartke’s own New York roots are most apparent, and the movement unfolds almost like a nightclub dance-set, starting with a blues, then a faster dance number, a slow torchy ballad and some travelling music at the finish.

 

P.F. Bapp


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