About this Recording
8.559287 - WELCHER: Haleakala / Prairie Light / Clarinet Concerto
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Dan Welcher (b.1948)

Born in Rochester, New York, in 1948, composer-conductor Dan Welcher has been gradually creating a body of compositions in almost every imaginable genre including opera, concerto, symphony, vocal literature, solo piano, and various kinds of chamber music. With over one hundred works to his credit, Welcher is one of the most-played composers of his generation. Dan Welcher first trained as a pianist and bassoonist, earning degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. He joined the Louisville Orchestra as its Principal Bassoonist in 1972, and remained there until 1978, concurrently teaching composition and theory at the University of Louisville. He joined the Artist Faculty of the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 1976, teaching bassoon and composition, and remained there for fourteen years. He accepted a position on the faculty at the University of Texas in 1978, creating the New Music Ensemble there and serving as Assistant Conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra from 1980 to 1990. It was in Texas that his career as a conductor began to flourish, and he has led the premières of more than 150 new works. He now holds the Lee Hage Jamail Regents Professorship in Composition at the School of Music at UT/Austin, teaching Composition and serving as Director of the New Music Ensemble. In 1990 he was named Composer in Residence with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra through the Meet the Composer Orchestra Residencies Program. In addition to Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun, he has written a 38-minute Symphony No. 1 for the Honolulu Symphony, which had its première in 1993. More recent commissions have come from the Boston Pops, the Utah Symphony, the Handel and Haydn Society, and the Rochester Philharmonic. A pair of one-act operas on Christmas themes, Della’s Gift and Holy Night, had its première in 2005. Dan Welcher has won numerous awards and prizes from institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation (a Fellowship in 1997), National Endowment for the Arts, The Reader’s Digest/Lila Wallace Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, The Bellagio Center, the American Music Center, and ASCAP. His orchestral music has been performed by more than fifty orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, the St Louis Symphony, and the Atlanta Symphony. Welcher lives in Bastrop, Texas. His music is published by Theodore Presser Company.

Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun (1991) • Prairie Light: Three Texas Watercolors of Georgia O’ Keeffe (1985) • Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1989)

The tone-poem Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun was crafted as both a children’s story and a piece of mature contemporary music, designed to appeal on many levels. The music, using three ancient Hawaiian chant-tunes, many authentic percussion instruments, and six Polynesian scales, is capable of standing alone, and in fact the work can be performed without narration.
The text is a highly evocative and poetic retelling of one of the most famous myths about the Polynesian demigod Maui, known as ‘the trickster.’ We meet Maui by reputation first with the recounting of two earlier legends, and then in the story of Haleakali. Maui finds his mother weeping because the sun moves so quickly that ‘the kapa (tapa cloth) will not dry, and the kalo (taro) and sweet potatoes are withering’. Maui is determined to fix this, and devises a plan to entrap the sun as it enters the chasm at Haleakala, the sacred volcano on the island that now bears Maui’s name. Once all sixteen legs (rays) of the sun have been snared in a vigorous battle, Maui extracts a promise from the sun to go more slowly for six months of the year, creating the winter and summer seasons.
The score is almost cinematic; it assigns motives to the various characters and follows the dramatic moods of the narration without ever resorting to the stop-andgo method commonly found in works with a narrator. In fact, the story proved so fruitful as musical inspiration that I was able to make use of formal devices to illustrate the action: for instance, Maui’s actual snaring of the sixteen-legged sun is set as a quicksilver fugue, in which particular notes are ‘caught’ and held by the brass.
The piece is set as a ritual ceremony. It opens with the blowing of a conch shell and immediately proceeds to a chant-tune played by horns and pahu drums. Following this ‘frame,’ the music follows forms suggested by the narration. Episodic sections describe Maui’s earlier escapades, the sun’s frantic flight over the islands (with evocative cluster-chords in the upper strings suggesting heat and blazing light), and the fantastic trip beneath the ocean in search of the magic elements needed to weave the nooses. Three related interludes called Dreamscales introduce the main sections: Maui’s confrontation with his mother, the trip to Haleakala, and the morning following the battle with the sun. At the end of the story the opening chant returns, completing the ritual frame in a musical circle. Haleakala had its première in September 1991. It was commissioned by the Honolulu Symphony as part of the Meet the Composer Orchestra Residency Program.
Prairie Light is based on three highly unusual watercolors that Georgia O’Keeffe painted during her year of teaching in Canyon, Texas in 1917. O’Keeffe is, of course, well-known for her expressionistic cow skulls and sensual flowers, but these three early works show a naive, almost primitive sensitivity to light and shadow. I chose to place them in the order of sunrise, mid-day and night.
The work begins with Light Coming on the Plains, which follows O’Keeffe’s visual imagery in broad washes of orchestral colour. The painting shows a flat horizon line with outwardly expanding concentric ovals of blue light emerging from the centre, just before sunrise. The music has a static bass line (the horizon), three extended phrases of a constantly growing melodic line, and a sense of expansion and increasing warmth as the sun becomes visible.
The second section, Canyon with Crows, is more solidly grounded. The painting shows the convolutions of the Palo Duro Canyon, with gently rolling green and red-brown hills. Above it, three childlike crows appear, almost pasted onto the sky. The music is bubbling, bouncing and effervescent - staccato chords of brass suggest hopping birds and animals, and the three crows are suggested in solo lines of clarinet, oboe and flute. As the light begins to fade, an extended passage for muted strings accompanies the farewell songs of two of the crows.
Starlight Night has a rather unorthodox (for O’Keeffe) mechanical quality. The stars are arranged in regular rows, and they are squares and rectangles instead of points of light. Otherwise, the painting shows the exact same vantage point as Light Coming on the Plains: the horizon, the oval sky, and the shape of the canyon rim. The music begins with a sweet nighttime flute solo, echoed by high violins. Midway through, the orchestra stops its singing and hovers, while a piano and a xylophone begin a somewhat startling, percussive mantra - the square stars, the regularity of the universe. Over this gamelan-inspired pattern, the orchestra grows until a climax is reached, with the nighttime melody combined with the sunrise melody of the first movement. A 24-hour cycle of light has been experienced, with the evolving colours of nature as seen from a single viewpoint.
Prairie Light was commissioned by the Sherman (Texas) Symphony in celebration of its twentieth anniversary season. It was first performed by that orchestra, with the composer conducting, on 1st March, 1986.
First given by the Honolulu Symphony in October 1989, Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra was commissioned by Bil Jackson. I had known Bil both as a symphonic clarinettist and a jazz player, so the resulting work, while not a ‘jazz concerto’, takes advantage of the checkered history of the clarinet. Cast in two lengthy movements and scored for a rather small orchestra, it is a sort of ‘uptown big brother’to my 1974 Flute Concerto.
The mostly serious first movement is a Fantasia. Beginning with odd-metred fanfares and flourishes, it gradually gives way to an elegiac theme in the high violins, and the clarinet fills in the pauses with the plunging arpeggios at which the instrument excels. Little by little the spectre of ragtime peeks around the corner, but never fully appears. The elegy theme gradually emerges from the dance music, and the orchestra swells back into prominence. The fanfares from the opening reappear, but in a 2/4 metre. The fanfare becomes a repetitive little machine over which the clarinet is allowed to sing two echo-phrases of the elegy before a quick and resolute cadence ends the movement quietly.
The second movement is entitled Blues and Toccata (on the name ‘Benny Goodman’). The first half is a slow 5/4 song with a repeated bass line as an ostinato. A solo trumpet joins the clarinet for some sweet, sad polyphony, and the mood is broken only slightly in a central section of lighter interplay with flute and woodwinds. The notes derived from the name of Benny Goodman form a chord that is quite blue in nature: B flat, E, G, D and A, and by adding a transposed parallel group of five notes, a quite beautiful scale is constructed. The entire movement comes from these materials. The Toccata is another ground-bass ostinato, a jaunty, shifty pattern that is repeated ten times. In the middle of the movement, however, jazz gives way momentarily to a rather polite rock-’n’-roll episode, functioning as a contrasting central ‘trio.’ By the end, the orchestra has been pared down to the components of the jazz quartet: clarinet, vibraphone, bass and drums. A parody of the ‘call and response’ chorus from the 1940s brings the concerto to an amusing, rousing finish.

Dan Welcher


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