About this Recording
8.559740 - PAULUS, S.: Three Places of Enlightenment / Veil of Tears / Grand Concerto (Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

Stephen Paulus (b. 1949)
Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (Three Places of Enlightenment) • Veil of Tears • Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra


“I am pleased to have been a composer who can satisfy all kinds, somewhat in the fashion of a Benjamin Britten,” Stephen Paulus remarked a few years ago during a retrospective interview on his career by Minnesota Public Radio. The wide range of audiences and performers for whom he has written music is reflected in his remarkably versatile and prolific list of works. It encompasses large-scale orchestral and choral works, operas and chamber works, as well as pieces for community groups and young musicians. Paulus’s complete catalogue tallies more than 450 compositions. Yet along with his own creative work, Paulus has found time to be a powerful advocate for fellow composers. In 1973 he cofounded the American Composers Forum, the largest composer service organization in the world, and he has also served as Concert Music Representative on the ASCAP Board of Directors.

The much sought-after composer has been commissioned by such leading institutions as the New York Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. A significant composer of opera as well, Paulus, who studied with Dominick Argento at the University of Minnesota, has created thirteen works for the stage.

The dramatic sensibility that is central to Paulus’ compositional gift is likewise evident in his concertos for a wide variety of solo configurations. These make use of lively textural contrasts and striking juxtapositions, none more so than Three Places of Enlightenment, which originated from a request by William Preucil, currently concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra. After Paulus had written a violin concerto for him in 1987, Preucil asked for a new piece to feature the former Cleveland Quartet, in which he was then first violinist.

As a concerto for string quartet rather than for a single soloist—a rarity in the concerto repertory—the work presented unusual compositional challenges. “With a string quartet and orchestra,” notes Paulus, “you have to have four instruments operating as a unit, but you also need to find ways to feature each one.” He explains that the conversational intimacy associated with the chamber music format of the quartet must be balanced with the palette of the full orchestral ensemble, which he wanted to involve as more than mere accompaniment. Overall, this is a concerto with multiple layers of interaction: between the four soloists and the orchestra, between the quartet players themselves, and, on a psychological level, between the different modes of perception represented by each of its three movements.

This last point is the basis for the title Three Places of Enlightenment. In each movement Paulus implies distinctive paths toward enlightenment. The first is involved with awareness or some sort of deeper wisdom that comes “from within,” while the second portrays awareness “from afar.” Here the close-up intensity of the first gives way, says the composer, to “seeing the situation from a distance and gaining clarity that allows you to notice things you weren’t aware of before.” The final movement, subtitled From All Around and Radiating Ever Outward, synthesizes the inner and outer perspectives by “looking all around.”

Paulus has remarked that while composing Three Places of Enlightenment, he had in mind an individual listening to the concerto and discovering these three distinctive approaches. This “psychological underpinning” served as a way to derive the essential “musical impetus” for each movement. The first, marked to be played “with fire,” uses gestures of restless perpetual motion, changing meters and powerful, angular accents to create an atmosphere of turmoil, even violence—in keeping with the notion of overcoming internal challenge or conflict. After they enter, the solo quartet players set a pattern of continual interplay, with one instrument passing off material to another.

Twice as long as each of the outer movements, the second movement turns the focus solely to the unaccompanied string quartet in its opening section, as the ominous opening theme segues into the reassuring balm of the American hymn tune Sweet Hour of Prayer. The shadows of the opening return repeatedly, and the movement at times evokes something of the mysterious “night music”—alternately melancholy and ecstatically otherworldly—associated with Bartók. During a climax featuring downward-cascading piano chords, a three-note motif that has figured several times in both the first and second movements is restated in prominent relief, followed by the movement’s quiet ending. The motif returns yet again in the last movement, transformed into a powerful statement.

For the finale, Paulus uses scalar patterns in the strings, accented notes and mixed meters to generate a “rambunctious kinetic energy,” with a good deal of “crosstalk between the ensemble and the quartet.” A sense of activity and momentum drives both outer movements forward, with themes echoing back and forth among different instruments, and with sudden shifts in material when the orchestra takes over from the quartet. In contrast to the volatile emotions of the first movement, here Paulus elicits the zestful, playful energy of this music, eventually channeling it into a concluding passage that seals the concerto with optimistic resolve.

Paulus has ranked both Three Places of Enlightenment and Veil of Tears among the “top five” in his own list of his most significant works. The latter is a brief reflective interlude from To Be Certain of the Dawn, a Holocaust oratorio on a vast scale that has been widely performed since its première in 2005. Set to a libretto by the composer’s frequent collaborator, Michael Dennis Browne, the work is in three parts, with Veil of Tears occurring as the penultimate section of the middle part (“Remembrance”). There it serves two functions, according to the composer. It provides an oasis of instrumental music within the larger choral context, and it also establishes a context for reflection and grieving. During performances of the full oratorio, Paulus has specified that the audience should light candles in remembrance of those who perished.

Written for string orchestra, Veil of Tears can also be played as a stand-alone piece and belongs to a tradition that includes other works used for moments of public mourning, such as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Opening with a unison phrase low in the violins, the music expands harmonically and in register. A climactic chord spread across the full ensemble is followed by a sudden dramatic reduction of volume and a subdued ending in C minor.

Paulus originally wrote his Grand Concerto for organist Bradley Hunter Welch, whose victory in the Dallas International Organ Competition in 2003 led to the Dallas Symphony’s commission of a new concerto featuring the prize-winning musician. The Grand Concerto, explains Paulus, is representative of his overall style in its use of melodic material “sometimes in short strands and at other times in long arches,” in “the interplay of different key juxtapositions and sometimes sudden changes or unusual combinations,” and in its “rhythmic and kinetic energy in forward-moving phrases.”

The work is cast in three movements, titled Vivacious and Spirited, Austere; Foreboding and Jubilant. Paulus penned the following description of the music:

“The title was selected to indicate that the work employs full orchestra and some wide, sweeping gestures and melodic ideas. The movement titles are descriptive of the musical activity within each movement. There is a wide array of mood shifts, with great contrasts [of] texture in each movement.

“In the second movement, towards the end, a portion of the hymn tune Come, Come Ye Saints appears in the organ part. This is a tradition that I have incorporated into almost every organ work that I have written, in honour of my father, who used to improvise on the same tune. In the Mormon musical liturgy, it is known as All Is Well, and it is a tune that the great organist Alexander Schreiner used to improvise during Sunday-morning radio broadcasts from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Both my father and I listened to these broadcasts many, many times.

“In the third and final movement, after a brief orchestral opening, I give centre stage to the organ with a large section of chords oscillating between the right and left hands. Over this is eventually woven a high melody in the violins, which is based on the tune Waly, Waly, also known as The Water Is Wide.”

Thomas May

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