About this Recording
8.559606 - FETLER, P.: Violin Concerto No. 2 / Capriccio / 3 Poems by Walt Whitman (Berofsky, Blaske, Ann Arbor Symphony, Lipsky)

Paul Fetler (b. 1920)
Three Poems by Walt Whitman • Capriccio • Violin Concerto No. 2


Renowned among the greatest of American poets, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was a man of exalted ideals in the face of reality, at times uplifting, at times severe. Published in 1855, the first edition of Whitman’s celebrated Leaves of Grass prompted Emerson to write: “…the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom yet contributed by an American.”

With regard to Fetler’s score, it is likely the poet would have approved the idea of a musical rendering of his poetry. He once remarked: “But for opera, I could never have written Leaves of Grass.” The latter serves as the literal source for movements I and III, while the central movement is a musical image of Whitman’s Drum Taps, written in 1865. The evocative lines are derived in part from the author’s work as a volunteer medic near Washington, D.C., where he cared for Civil War soldiers, including his own brother.

Fetler’s settings are cast beautifully for narrator and full orchestra. The nuance of the first movement conveys a nocturnal ambience, following the poetry to its climactic peak, then resolves, retreating into a dark and still quiet. Then suddenly—aggressive, chiseled rhythms and sharp-angled dynamics prepare for “Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!” The words and music conclude with: “…so strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.” The apocalypse of war is unmistakable.

The gentle opening of the third poem is at once hymnal in mode and delicate in texture, featuring an elegant solo violin quasi-cadenza after which is intoned “Ah, from a little child, thou knowest, Soul, how to me all sounds became music…” The phrase is heard again, reflected near the close and carried as if by a distant music box, simulated on-stage by a toy piano.

Written to commemorate the American Bicentennial in 1976, Three Poems by Walt Whitman was given its premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

Fetler’s delightful, one-movement Capriccio was written in 1985. The piece is at once modern, listener-friendly and chock-full of musical mischief, with bright, dance-like rhythms. In fact, the score would serve well as a ballet vignette, where the opening flute solo conjures the image of Pan, who is tempted into a playful dance with forest spirits and sprites, with a brief, afternoon reverie before the game resumes. About Capriccio, Fetler writes:

“When Jay Fishman commissioned me to compose a dedicatory work for the opening concert of the Minneapolis Chamber Symphony, I immediately thought of a composition which would be light-hearted, buoyant and playful. I felt for once that the ‘serious’ contemporary music scene (which I often find to be ‘super-serious’) could stand a bit of contrast. Perhaps the time is ripe to have a few pieces which are less ‘profound’, something with the flair of Rossini to divert the listener from the ‘daily burdens of life.’ Webster defines a “capriccio” as ‘…an instrumental composition in more or less free form, often in a whimsical style.’ The definition suited me perfectly. There is no story behind the Capriccio, but the whimsy and playfulness are intended to suggest a musical caper of a kind. To bring this out, I made primary use of the woodwinds, in particular the flute and piccolo, with their skips, runs and arpeggios. Later on, a brief Adagio serves to contrast the light-hearted mood, with two oboes playing an expressive duet. This is then taken over by the full resonance of the cellos and violins bringing the work to a highpoint of lyric expression. Immediately after this, however, the original buoyancy returns, and leads to a short, concluding Presto, with a surprise piccolo twist at the very end.”

Fetler notes: “When needed, I am not afraid to write the most expressive melody I can think of.” Indeed, this seems to be the modus operandi for his Violin Concerto No. 2, which the composer noted was written in 1980 as a labor of love, without the constraints of a commissioned deadline. This concerto was given its premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, with Lee Foli as the soloist.

Cast in a formal, three movement scheme, the work seems to conjure a flowing rhapsody, in particular through the first two movements, and brightly mirrored in the third. Fetler’s elegant orchestration offers a poetic platform for the solo lines of the violin, which maintains a lyrical presence throughout, with svelte virtuosity on the fly.

Marked Molto espressivo e cantabile, the first movement begins with glimmering strings as a background canvas for a tour of lovely melodies with the intonations of Eastern Europe, including exotic lines in the oboe and other winds. The solo violin traces the air with a tuneful travelogue, as if a memoir of a kind, then blends into a dream-like cadenza before the orchestral colors join as escort to a tender close.

Continuing the rhapsodic tour, the second movement offers impressionist replies from the oboe and horn to complement the violin reverie, with quaint orchestral timbres like enchanted hues under the alluring solo line.

A pastel scamper of orchestral filigree sets off the third movement, where the glowing dash of the solo violin glides from one pensive mood to the next. About midway, an impromptu cadenza accords a reflective moment before the spry energy returns in a blithe scurry to the close.

© Ed Yadzinsky

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