Heidelberg Retirement Recital | Program Notes: October 3, 2021
Doug McConnell, composer
October 3, 2021
Video Connection: Heidelberg School of Music and Theatre Facebook
Pablo’s Waltz (2015)
Over the years, I have enjoyed providing incidental music for a number of plays produced by the Department of Theater at Heidelberg. Pablo’s Waltz was created for a production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by Steve Martin. Written in 1993, Martin’s play takes place in the famous Lapin Agile in Paris, where a young Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein muse on the nature of creative genius, among other lofty topics. My score was designed for solo accordion and performed live each evening.
Picasso needed some proper entrance music at a particular moment in the play; for inspiration, I turned to one of Picasso’s contemporaries, composer Igor Stravinsky. If you listen carefully, you will hear motives from all three of Stravinsky’s early ballets (in order of presentation: The Rite of Spring, Firebird, Petrushka). All of this is brought together in a French café style. Most of the music that you will hear was used in the production; a final section was added to create this solo version. My thanks to director Chris Tucci, who gave me the opportunity to work with a combined cast from Heidelberg and the Tiffin Community Players, and for also allowing me to play my score from the rafters above the actors instead of on the set! (Doug McConnell, accordion)
Well, you see, it’s like this……. I completed this four movement piece for oboe and piano, called Four States of Mind; everything seemed to be going okay….. something was missing, though and so I thought about this, again and again….. perhaps one more movement was needed to round out the set; good plan! I thought about it and then thought about it some more…….
Suddenly, a chord progression came to mind, one that I had originally jotted down for a vocal project…I listened to it, and thought about it, letting that chord progression run through my mind, again and again….the vocal piece and the chord progression didn’t seem like such a good match anymore, but perhaps it would work a whole lot better for the oboe project….. now I liked it!
But somehow, this new theme didn’t quite fit with the mood and style of the earlier oboe suite. No worries, just keep going…..work it some more, play with it again……..a melody for the oboe emerged: this plan might have potential after all! True, it didn’t exactly fit with the previous set of four pieces, but let’s keep thinking about it, and let the material evolve…..all of this ruminating kept intruding into the music, producing repeated chord progressions, returning melodies and motives, prominent jazz and blues inflections. There was just no stopping this train now; sometimes, you just gotta go with the flow, for better or worse…….. (Jeremiah Quarles, oboe; Jeff Manchur, piano)
Perhaps Five States of Mind was not intended to be…I just keep thinking about it and pondering this gig again and again……
Simple Songs (2016-2020)
This afternoon’s program will present five selections from a growing set of songs based on the poetry of William Reyer, Professor Emeritus of English at Heidelberg. Bill and I first worked together on a choral piece, Elijah and the Raven, written for the Heidelberg Choir’s European tour in 2008. As I became more familiar with Dr. Reyer’s inspired work, I turned to the medium of solo song. Some of these pieces were first performed by Bill himself, in a couple of informal voice recitals that we presented together. Today, we are pleased to have Seth Innis and Cynthia Ramsdell to bring their considerable talents to the stage. Bill will also be onstage to read the poem before you hear my musical setting. (Seth Innis, baritone; Cynthia Ramsdell, piano; Bill Reyer, poet/reader)
Haiku: a quiet, meditative piece. Close your eyes, sit calmly and listen for the soft breeze,
the sweet bird song. Concentrate; leave your world behind……it may also be helpful to contemplate a gentle, repetitive B flat pedal tone, present in just about every measure of this song…….(First Performance)
Summer Lizard: Meet one of God’s creatures, pleased and proud to present himself, of course!
Our reptilian protagonist has elected to perform this brief number in a Neo-Baroque style with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan.
I Can’t Breathe: Bill wrote the powerful text of this song in response to the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. After an intense opening section, the song prays for George to rest
in “peace and power.” (First performance)
Your Lullaby: Words to a Newborn: Gentle ostinato figures from the piano welcome a newborn soul to this world. Motives and accompaniment figures from the famous lullaby by Brahms appear throughout the song. The key statement/refrain for Your Lullaby is stated in Latin: “Amor vincit Omnia” (“Love conquers all”).
Still the Same: It’s a perfect night to sing and enjoy life at your favorite bar! Be prepared to notice tunes and styles that you have heard before……but. please don’t blink, they come and go fairly quickly here….. L’chaim!
A Shining Synergy (2021)
The Heidelberg School of Music and Theatre was proud to add the tremendous talents of saxophonist Josh Heaney to our faculty, starting in January 2021. As it turns out, Josh is one of the most successful students of Dr. Gail Levinsky, my good friend and colleague. Gail has performed on our Heidelberg stage on a number of occasions in the past and is here today to help celebrate my work. It only seemed natural to write a duet for teacher and student to play on this program.
This short piece alternates between slower, more lyric sections, and other livelier accounts which feature a variety of scales, from octatonic to blues, among other pitch collections. The opening motive is stolen from my incidental music for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, presented by the Heidelberg Theater several years ago. There is nothing wrong with a little “recycling,” as long as it helps to get things rolling….. (Josh Heaney, soprano saxophone; Gail Levinsky, alto saxophone)
Nocturne, Invention (1995)
Joel Harrison, Director of the American Pianists Association in Indianapolis, commissioned these solo piano works while we were both faculty members at Mississippi State University. He asked me to write a series of piano pieces where hymn tunes would be featured in some unique fashion. These are not chorale preludes for piano; in both cases, I have borrowed a specific piano genre and found ways to incorporate hymn tunes in a way that is more organic.
Nocturne: this traditional character piece reflects upon the nighttime hours in some
fashion. My setting honors the beautiful nocturnes of the past, from Frederic Chopin to Samuel Barber, using a slightly more contemporary harmonic language at times. Cast in a modified ABA form, with an introduction and coda, the piece uses phrases from the Welsh song, Ad Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) during the second half. In years past, this tune was sometimes paired with a Christmas text, but it is also known to some for its use with another hymn text: “Go My Children, With My Blessing.”
Invention: J.S. Bach made this keyboard genre his own, writing a series of Inventions for two voices and Sinfonias for three voices. My composition hearkens back to this tradition for its basic construction and tonality; it also looks more to the present in terms of its more provocative use of silence and octave register. Can silence be used as a significant compositional element in a given piece, like any other theme or motive? This is my attempt…..
North German Lutheran chorale tunes make cameo appearances throughout the invention, a reflection of Bach’s musical world. Here are two examples to listen for: Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word, used in the middle development section of the piece (this section does sound like a chorale prelude,) and A Mighty Fortress is Our God, right before the intermission!
My thanks to Dr. Margarita Denenburg, who returns to Heidelberg for the first time since her appointment at the University of Texas at Austin. The pandemic never allowed Margarita to have a proper leave-taking from Heidelberg; I am so very pleased that she can be with us today. (Margarita Denenburg, piano)
The Teasdale Project (2019-21)
In the past, I have encouraged my composition students to set the poems of American poet Sara Teasdale (1994-1933). Her straightforward, lyric style presents clear, inviting imagery that is perfect for composers who are learning their craft. Teasdale’s work is also a favorite of soprano Carol Dusdieker; when we discussed a new project for a collaboration, it seemed like the right time for me to set some of Teasdale’s poems myself. To date, there are eleven Teasdale songs; we will present a sampling of them this afternoon. Each song reflects various aspects of Sara’s poetry; there is something here for everyone. Composers from Mozart to Schoenberg are referenced; there are love songs, serious songs and a salute to Broadway, spiced with a bit of humor here and there. (Carol Dusdieker, soprano; Jeff Manchur, piano)
A Minuet of Mozart’s: A salute to Mozart and his graceful style. Listen for quotes taken from
the Minuet and Trio from Symphony No. 40; they appear in both the voice and the piano.
In a Cuban Garden: This is a dance-like setting of one of Sara’s more colorful love poems. Passion and rhythm work together to set the tone!
Faces: We see people on the street and pass them by; what do we really know about them; do we care?.......There are two McConnell settings of this powerful text; I couldn’t decide which road to travel on, so I completed both versions. This afternoon, we will present the first of the two options, one that is dramatic and rather dissonant at times, in service of the text.
Pierrot: Columbine dreams of her lover, Pierrot in this short love poem……the spirit of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire permeates this song, combined with my own harmonic language.
Broadway: a bluesy, romantic salute to Broadway during that quiet time when the curtain has gone up inside the theater, while the streets outside take on a special quality of their own.
The Kiss: Not all romances work out as we once dreamed…….
Happy Endings (2011-2012)
Kurt Weill (1900-1959) is one of the important musical influences in my own musical development; his ability to reach larger audiences while maintaining his own integrity as a composer has always impressed me. Weill could take the didactic, political leanings of a Bertolt Brecht and bring great humanity to the proceedings with his music. When he came to America, he adopted his musical style to fit the American music theater tradition, continuing to write significant works. My suite, Happy Endings, is a salute to this unique composer, especially his Berlin-based scores such as The Threepenny Opera and Happy End, both collaborations with Brecht. Commissioned by Gail Levinsky, the suite has four movements; two will be presented this afternoon. (Gail Levinsky, tenor saxophone; Jackie Edwards Henry, piano)
Novelty Song: Weill’s music could take on an innocent and nostalgic tone as the situation demanded; Novelty Song remembers this side of the composer’s nature. The Bilbao Song, (Happy End,) where two men try without success to remember a song they once knew, provided the inspiration for much of this movement.
Torch Song: The Threepenny Opera presents the story of the notorious Mack the Knife, murderer, thief and womanizer. Three women in the play can reflect on Mackie’s intimate experiences with them; none of these stories are especially romantic. Torch Song’s dark and sorrowful mood hearkens back to these women and their sometimes jaded view of love, a reflection of a phrase coined by Bertolt Brecht and set to music by Weill: “for love will endure or not endure, regardless of where we are……”
My special thanks to Jackie Edwards Henry and Gail Levinsky for returning to the Heidelberg stage for this special occasion. Over the last thirty years, we have combined on many projects together, including my Langston’s Lot song cycles heard on our Heidelberg stage a few years back. Happy Endings was premiered by Gail at a national meeting of the North American Saxophone Association. On this occasion, the collaborative pianist was Chi-Chen Wu, who you heard yesterday afternoon with the Helios Trio. Chi-Chen also played the complete suite here at Heidelberg.
Toccata and Polka in D Minor (2001)
My classical education began not on the piano, but with the accordion, as some of you know. This instrument provided my first introduction to the music of Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and others, in the form of solos, duets, quartets and even accordion orchestras, if you can imagine such a thing! At the same time, I was also learning how to play traditional polkas, waltzes, tangos, drinking songs and other popular genres that are more often associated with this particular keyboard instrument.
This seemingly crazy-quilt approach to musical development was bound to produce some highly questionable results; the finale of this afternoon’s program offers an example of this! Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is the primary inspiration for this piece, but if you listen carefully, you will also hear pronounced popular influences. This performance is dedicated to the memory of Bill Fahrenbruck, who always seemed to know the right moment to request The Beer Barrell Polka! (Doug McConnell, accordion)