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ClassicsOnline Home » Chamber Music (American) - LARSEN, L. / LIEUWEN, P. / SCHICKELE, P. / COPLAND, A. (Gulfstream) (enhake)
Libby Larsen’s Rodeo Queen of Heaven takes its inspiration from religious iconography given a contemporary twist—a painting of a Madonna with gun—in a rhythmically vivacious tableau. Peter Lieuwen presents an aural portrait of the Gulfstream, fusing grace with melodic fragments in a nature depiction rich in depth. Peter Schickele’s Quartet is profuse in syncopation, jazz, folk music and a melancholy that only heightens the brilliance of the finale’s off-kilter dynamism. Copland’s Sextet began life as his Second Symphony but, pared down, proves utterly idiomatic, vital, melodically exciting and bracing.
By Maria Nockin
By Brian Reinhart
By Laurence Vittes
Libby Larsen (b. 1950): Rodeo Queen of Heaven
Libby Larsen’s wide-ranging compositions include everything from intimate chamber music to grandiose orchestral pieces and operas. Larsen is an outspoken exponent of women in music; her works frequently investigate feminine perspectives through depictions of female historical figures and fictional characters. Larsen was the first female resident composer with a major orchestra and has held residencies at several major orchestras and conservatories. She is a prominent advocate for composers and co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composers Forum. Among Larsen’s many awards are a GRAMMY® Award, NEA fellowship, and George Peabody Medal.
On a visit to the Denver Art Museum, Larsen was captivated by Arthur Lopez’s Rodeo Reina del Cielo (Rodeo Queen of Heaven), a painted wooden Santo of the Madonna and Child ironically dressed in Rodeo regalia. The figures’ serenity contrasts their colorful, outlandish attire; a gun is slung on the Madonna’s hip, and the holy Child is clad in chaps and crowned with a cowboy hat. Lopez’s juxtaposition of Southwestern American culture with traditional Mexican religious iconography struck Larsen as an important statement about “who we are and what we are becoming.”
Larsen’s own Rodeo Queen of Heaven (2010) similarly transforms religious imagery through a modern lens. Drawing on In Festus Beatae Mariae Virginis, a medieval Mass familiar to Larsen from her childhood days attending Christ the King School in Minneapolis, Rodeo Queen of Heaven transmutes solemn chant into a boisterous dialogue. Borrowing liberally from the Mass, modal chant melodies are both presented in flowing sobriety and enlivened with arresting rhythms and strident harmony. A reverent clarinet solo brings pause to the frenzied motion, but a jazzy cello riff sends the instruments back into clamorous dialogue. The contrasts of timbre and register that pervade the piece eventually give way to a rhythmic unison flourish. Rodeo Queen of Heaven was commissioned by enhakē and premiered at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on 3 May 2010.
Peter Lieuwen (b. 1953): Gulfstream
Peter Lieuwen was born in Utrecht in The Netherlands, but spent his childhood in New Mexico. His music is often inspired by nature and legend, and highlights rhythmic elements drawing on jazz, non-western music, and minimalism. Lieuwen’s compositions have been performed and recorded throughout North America and Europe. Lieuwen has garnered awards from Musicians Accord, The Contemporary Record Society, The League of Composers - ISCM, and Meet the Composer, as well as several honors from the Arts Council of Wales. Lieuwen is currently a member of the faculty at Texas A&M University.
Written to celebrate the Olivier Messiaen centennial in 2008, Gulfstream (2007) is scored for the same instruments as Messiaen’s landmark Quartet for the End of Time: clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Like other of Lieuwen’s nature-based pieces, Gulfstream reacts to his aural impression of the Gulfstream current, a warm ocean current that travels from the Gulf of Mexico to Northwestern Europe. High-profile discussions of the current’s role in climate conditions and global warming piqued Lieuwen’s interest and inspired the work’s composition. Gulfstream is dedicated to enhakē.
Gulfstream opens with a minimalistic piano ostinato reminiscent of dark, rippling water. Building on the piano’s foundation, melodic fragments layer over one another and eventually grow to a lyrical melody. Exotic scales color the pure, lush harmonies, and the piece’s sections variously swirl in circular patterns, rise to climactic extremes, and turn suddenly. In a particularly peaceful moment, the clarinet floats gracefully over the ethereal, undulating piano. Tenacious repetition interrupts the wandering melodies and then trails off into the ether.
Peter Schickele (b. 1935): Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano
Peter Schickele’s musical career began in his youth, when he wrote and arranged music for his friends and family. Throughout his career, Schickele has forged his own path and resisted categorization. He has written numerous works for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensemble, and voice, as well as for film, television, and theater. Schickele adeptly juxtaposes and blends diverse musical styles in his compositions, which range from serious to satirical (including his “discoveries” of pieces by P.D.Q. Bach). The eclectic taste evident in his music is reflected in the programming on his radio show, Schickele Mix, which was awarded an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.
Schickele’s initial sketches for the Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Violoncello, and Piano (1982) waited in their nascent form for years. Eventually, the clarinet and piano trio instrumentation occurred to Schickele as the way to find their voice, and the first two movements were quickly completed in 1979. The project was then put on hold, and the remaining movements were not written until 1982. The completed work finally premiered on the composer’s birthday, 17 July 1982.
The opening movement’s emphasis on minor thirds colors it with a touch of melancholy. Florid interruptions heighten the tension, but each gives way to the opening themes, which are then conclusively presented in a unified statement. Syncopation, bluesy gestures, and percussive effects provide the second movement’s jazz sound, which is dramatically contrasted by a moment of nostalgic innocence. In the coda, earlier melodies are dismantled into brief motives that repeat insistently until the movement’s flourishing close. The somber, elegiac third movement provides a respite from the fast-paced, constantly shifting earlier movements. The final movement’s dance feel recalls Eastern European folk music in its changing meters and drone-like bass. Stabilizing into a triple meter, off-kilter entrances and sliding pitches in the central section satirically depict “Rum Runners” tipsy from their cargo. The closing section joins the shifting meters of the opening with a virtuosic frenzy as the quartet races to the finish.
Aaron Copland (1900–1990): Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet
Brooklyn native Aaron Copland was internationally renowned as a composer, writer, and conductor. After learning his craft from legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Copland went through several stylistic phases, alternately favoring jazz, complex abstraction, and traditionally-flavored nationalism. A tireless promoter of American music, Copland co-founded the American Music Center and organized the prominent series of Copland-Sessions Concerts and Yaddo Festivals to present American composers and compositions. These activities, along with his substantial contributions to concepts of American musical style, earned him the moniker Dean of American Composers.
The Sextet for Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet (1937) began as Copland’s Second Symphony, nicknamed Short Symphony for its brevity, which Carlos Chávez premiered in Mexico City in 1933. American orchestras did not prove up to the challenge of the symphony’s technical demands, and Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitzky each canceled announced performances. Desperate for more concert presentations of the work, Copland created a pared-down arrangement for sextet. This move proved decisive, for it is the sextet version that is more frequently heard today.
The piece’s first movement is characterized by constantly shifting rhythms with syncopated, irregular accents. Leaping, disjunct melodies and sliding glissandi pair with melodic and harmonic dissonances to create a sense of instability. The second movement’s quiet calm contrasts the first’s turbulent insistence with plaintive, conjunct melodies in lush scoring. A stuttering gesture drives toward the emotional apex before quickly fading away. The closing movement contains a flurry of rhythmic activity as complex rhythms layer over relentless ostinato figures. Broken melodies pass between the instruments in rapid succession, followed by a conjunct melody referencing the second movement. Churning rhythmic passages integrate the conjunct elements into the third movement’s tumult, and the sparse texture of the first movement is likewise recalled before the work’s close.
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