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ClassicsOnline Home » MORAVEC, P.: Chamber Symphony / Cool Fire / Autumn Song
Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2004, the prolific American composer Paul Moravec writes in a musical idiom that offers an underlying romanticism tempered by distinctively modern discipline, qualities evident in the three works collected here. Chamber Symphony was commissioned for the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival’s twentieth-anniversary season in 2003 and is dedicated, writes the composer, ‘with admiration to its wonderful artists’. Autumn Song is a gentle song without words while Cool Fire, also commissioned by Marya Martin and the Bridgehampton Festival, is a chamber concerto unusually scored for flute and piano quintet.
By Robert R Riley
Paul Moravec (b. 1957)
Chamber Symphony • Cool Fire • Autumn Song
If you want to learn about a composer’s music from the inside out, write an opera with him. Paul Moravec and I are writing one together, and the experience has taught me more than I could ever have learned on my own about the musical language that he has forged for himself in the course of his busy quarter-century as a professional composer.
I already knew, for instance, that Paul’s music was deeply lyrical, but to watch him at work was to discover how central the lyrical impulse is to his style. Even when he is writing for instruments alone, his music sings, and the long arcs of melody sketched by his pen are as perfectly poised as any I know. He is, above all, a musical idealist—which is not to say that he turns his face from the uncomfortable realities of the world around us. Though Paul’s music is fundamentally tonal, it is energized by a dissonant chromaticism whose jolting complexities evoke all the harshness and angularity of modern life. Yet in the end, his pieces rarely fail to find their way through a musical labyrinth that leads the listener from ambiguous uncertainty to radiant major-key hope.
Our opera, as it happens, will be uncharacteristic in that last respect, for it is a tragedy that ends, as most operas do, in disaster and despair. “Well, what did you expect in an opera—a happy ending?” Bugs Bunny asks at the end of What’s Opera, Doc? Not so the three pieces on this CD. They are pure Moravec from first bar to last, full of heart-lifting melodies and enlivened by the proliferating rhythmic energy which propels the light-footed, almost Mendelssohnian scherzi that are to be found in most of Paul’s multi-movement works. Note, too, the ingeniously wrought small-scale instrumentation of Chamber Symphony and Cool Fire, whose luminous transparency reminds me at times of Ravel.
Both of these pieces, interestingly, employ formal structures that are not often encountered in chamber music. To be sure, other composers have written chamber symphonies—Schoenberg wrote two—but the only precedent I can recall for Cool Fire, a concerted work for flute, piano, and string quartet, is Ernest Chausson’s comparatively little-known Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet. Here Paul’s school-of-Paris instrumental palette comes decisively to the fore, especially in the passionate yet tautly controlled slow movement. Critics who would rather label a piece than listen to it have been known to dismiss Paul’s music as “neo-romantic,” but that bald, uninformative epithet cannot begin to suggest the lucidity and elegance of a piece like Cool Fire, whose underlying romanticism is held in check by a discipline that is distinctively modern in its implications.
Yet the romanticism is there as well, chastened by the demands of modernity but still very much at the heart of Paul Moravec’s approach to composition. As I wrote on another occasion, Paul “believes with all his heart in the possibility of beauty,” though I should have added that he also believes in the necessity of beauty. He once told me that his goal was “to compose beautiful things,” and he said it without a trace of the life-denying irony that is the curse of postmodernism. “I have no time for any music,” Miklós Rózsa once remarked, “which does not stimulate pleasure in life, and, even more importantly, pride in life.” When I first ran across those words in Rózsa’s autobiography, I thought at once of Paul. Listening to Chamber Symphony, Autumn Song, and Cool Fire gives me the greatest of pleasure—and it also makes me proud to live in a world where such pleasure is possible.
Drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary
Some time ago, over drinks with an old friend, one of the more esteemed singers of the twentieth century, I casually asked, “Looking back over your long and distinguished career, what would you say music is about?”
He replied, “Oh, that’s easy. Music is about love.”
The Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival embodies that idea, personally and professionally, more thoroughly than any musical institution I know. It was an absolute joy for me to work on the creation, performance, and recording of the works on this disc under the generous and convivial leadership of Marya Martin. Over the years, Marya and her expansive circle of friends have created a cultural community of the highest professional standards, all of whose members are amazing virtuosi dedicated to the unparalleled pleasure of making music together.
Chamber Symphony was commissioned for the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival’s twentieth-anniversary season in 2003 and is dedicated with admiration to its wonderful artists. My technical modus operandi was to create a sense of organic unity across the four movements by deriving much of the thematic and harmonic material from the opening motive in the first movement, and my hope is that this integrated approach will guide the listener intelligibly through the piece’s considerable diversity of moods and ideas.
Autumn Song is a gentle song without words. It features the incomparably lyrical qualities of the flute, which starts out a cappella and is then joined by the piano, which serves alternately as supporting accompanist and equal partner. The premiere concert performance was given at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY in September, 2000 by Linda Wetherill and Pablo Fromer.
Cool Fire is a three-movement chamber concerto for flute and piano quintet commissioned by Marya Martin and the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival for premiere in August of 2001. I associate the title with a passage from William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads: “Poetry … takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” I view the creative process itself as a matter of achieving a fine balance between emotion and intellect, passion and control, heart and mind. Musical expression is a comprehensive embodiment of these “opposites”, deriving much of its energy and peculiar magic from their integration into a formal aesthetic unity. The result may in turn have a comparably integrating effect in the imagination of the listener.
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