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Grand Canyon Vast and Personal, in 11 Pieces


Thursday last, March 10, we attended a cello recital given by Rhonda Rider at Boston Conservatory in its (Great) Seully Hall. The program was entitled “Pieces Inspired by the Grand Canyon National Park in Celebration of it’s [sic] 92nd Anniversary,” with Rhonda Rider, ‘cello. And our readers thought that we had the penchant for the prolix.

This program coupled somehow with Grand Canyon National Park, an innocent might have assumed that “Rhonda Rider” was some sort of C&W star. Actually, she is a member of the ‘cello faculty at BoCo (that’s cool for Boston Conservatory), and currently serves as its distinguished chairman of chamber music. She was a founding member of the Lydian Quartet and currently performs with her piano trio, Triple Helix; the credits go on and on.

This remarkable event was the fruit of two weeks this past February, which Rider spent as Artist-in-Residence at Grand Canyon National Park. Evidently, our ‘cellist packed herself off to the Verkamp Visitor Center armed with eleven new pieces for solo cello, all solicited by herself from friendly composers, and all meant to evoke some aspect of our national treasure. (We are speaking here of the Canyon, to the exclusion of our innumerable other communal treasures).

So there she was, as she entertainingly reports in a program note, sitting “in the living room of the cozy apartment above” the visitor center, looking “out on a snowstorm that has started earlier than predicted. The canyon … completely hidden by horizontally blowing snow bursts….” Ah Solitude. Ah Wilderness. Oh thou Blessèd. Oh we Envious. Until, that is, she adds jarringly that New Age music and “cowboy crooner” CDs seeped through the un-insulated floorboards. Not that we, ourselves, have anything against those genres. But everything in its place.

Well, minus the auditory distractions, Rider wished her composers to capture, and her performance to re-create, the Canyon’s strange and disarming mix of vast and personal. A healthy helping of astonishment would not be misapplied as we consider Rider’s accomplishment. For starters, to herd eleven cats (that’s cool for composers) into this project and force them to produce on time is a wonder. Then, one boggles at the amount of work involved in preparing all these pieces. We don’t quite see how she (may we call you Rhonda?) got any time to walk the canyon. The yawning vastness was stacked up on her music stand.

Enough background.

Rider is a very fine musician. Visually, she presided over this solo tour de force with aplomb. Picture her center stage, cherubic face framed by a tight, no-nonsense, salt-and-pepper coif. She radiates a matronly, nurturing beneficence, projecting her own calm enjoyments and satisfactions onto us as she performs. Her intonation is exceeding good, her technique sure, and all this with a sensitive musicality. She wore an gauzy, loose and fluid blouse/throw which was appropriately West or even Southwest in color and pattern. But not, thankfully, TexMex. Got the picture?

Eleven pieces by eleven composers must needs force on us some unwonted pithiness. As an overview, Rider presumably knows all the invited composers as colleagues and friends. Unsurprisingly, they produced music largely in the “Contemporary Classical,” or even, shall we say, the “Academic” voice, since they are largely composers from the academy, with Brandeis and hosting Boston Conservatory prominently represented.

Hearing the buzzwords “contemporary” or “academic,” the seasoned concertgoer will reasonably brace for a music of ploinks, grumpfffz, glerks, snaps, taps, twerbles, zoinks, urpffcz, scrapes, and other hermetic profundities — “compositional gestures” and effects enough to burst a cartoon balloon. Nor were we entirely deprived of such delights.

Luccicare, by David Rakowski, does not refer to a revised national health care system, either for ourselves for some poor devil named Lucci. Rather, and happily, the composer makes use of the poetic Italian verb referring to the play of light. Specifically, Rakowski intends to depict light playing on rivulets as they descend into the Sturm of canyon currents and then return to their glinty sources. Effective in its impressionistic depiction of scintillating swirls and ripples, the piece did not proceed, as we expected, into the full flow of the “torrents” Rakowski cites, before returning to the subtly eddying source. So, no Moldau here. One was not sure if frequent caesuras in this performance, as well as in a number of other pieces, were the result of awkward page turns or were compositional intentions. If the former, then more care in score preparation, or, a double music stand is in order.

In his program note, the distinguished author and composer Jan Swafford first of all provided an articulate and moving account of his own life experiences in the Canyon, especially remote Yuma Point. We second his regret, that the internal combustion engine (besides that dagnabbit incessant New Age muzak — qui vide supra) scourges the once pristine Canyon silence. In his case, the problem is helicopters! And, Swafford wryly states he wishes to evoke the silent austerity of the lone trek — without them. Apparently they now swarm the canyon like wasps. Absent helicopters, the score is a fragmentary, pointillistic haiku. Or, maybe a chain of haiku. It opens with the song of the Canyon Wren, which haunts and then closes the piece. A quick dash to YouTube allows us to confirm that Swafford’s rendition is indeed accurate; and as this correspondent suffers an inexplicable, emotional enthusiasm for birdsong in music, and for birdsong in nature, we can only add: Bully for you. One felt at times as if we were on some very isolated, un-traveled Canyon path. We felt a sparse astringent intensity. A modified gliss was employed that we took, or mistook, for hot wind in grasses. One cannot be sure. Unsure, in fact, of the specificity of the allusions, we thought that this type of score might be more effective coupled with a photo montage or film. Just a thought.

Laura Kaminsky meditated in The Great Unconformity on the mysterious gap of geological history in the canyon’s sedimentary record. The music opened with confident dynamic linearity, employed a number of gestures and effects (which could certainly be understood as analogs of the geological enigma) and was controlled and concise.

John Kennedy’s Even the Stones Breathe is a title that had us diffidently holding our own. But, au contraire, it is an unabashedly diatonic work, generating its theme by building sequentially on a sequence of intervals and then restating the achieved line by compressing the notes into an arpeggiated chord. Simple and intriguing, this lyrical piece had considerable effect. Nice.

Marti Epstein announced that she had reviewed all the great solo ‘cello literature before tackling So Near, So Far (in six movements). This labor was evident in her exploitation of the full diapason of the instrument. Each movement was short and haiku-like. The generation of the material from initial harmonic progressions was quite clear and contributed greatly to the piece’s coherence. One cautionary note: the concluding chords were evidently intended to vanish (a sfumatura), but are in such a high and tenuous range that they fade into sounds we can only imagine. Maybe the composer intended this?

Rio del Tizon by Yu-Hui Chang convincingly conjured some mysterious, indigenous pre-history in the canyon, just as the composer intended. Chang has a unique authorial voice, and her work is particularly distinguished by discipline, economy, and cohesion. All in all, evocative, mysterious and haunting.

Andy Vores, BoCo’s own chair of composition, contributed Near and Far. Noting that Vores hails from Wales and grew up in England, we could not help imagining a threshing floor dance from the Isles of Hardy or Trollope somehow madly merged with a western hoedown. How wrong could we be on this one?

Howard Frazin offered My Grandmother’s Ashes (and a Balloon), a sweet, elegiac, unapologetically tonal lyric. Insubstantial in a good sense, in that one reached out to touch some fleeting fragment of a memory, and then — puff! Being so brief, the piece could be expanded into an ABA work by addition of middle section, but this might be farthest from the composer’s intent.

Dalit Hadass Warshaw introduced her Naissance with notes on the technical derivation of the music which were not wanted. This was akin to an architect burbling about where the screws were placed in the construction scaffold. Warshaw’s music sounded much better than her notes on her manipulation of her note “sets.” And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. (Yes, program editor over there at BoCo, here you use the apostrophe.) On the other hand, the composer’s recounting of the Navajo myth she selected as her narrative was relevant. Movement from yearning, waiting and isolation, to fulfillment and then to birth (i.e., über-fulfillment), the myth clearly provides just the sort of archetypal arch that any composer can love. The piece starts with an extremely effective evocation of the mythic world. Warshaw raises a curtain on Mythos itself. And, remember, all on solo ‘cello. There follows some effective writing we would typify as narrative recit (recitative). It seems to depict the White Bead Girl (the protagonist) in all her longing and isolation. So far so good. But, though the composer outlines the entire work as a progression through two segments — “Passion I” and “Passion II,” and a concluding “Coda: ‘Conception Set’” — our ear failed to detect any of this. If the Holy Being ( “a young man on a dazzling white horse”) shows up, if ecstasy follows abandonment, and if thereafter we witness the throes and triumph of birth, we missed it. And, no, we weren’t nodding.

In that “must read” for anyone wishing to refresh his grasp of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise, author Alex Ross makes reference to “wise words of John Cage.” (Like Cicero, praetereamus — let us pass over — our astonishment at Ross’s association of Cage with “wise.”) Ross credits Cage with a simile for the music of the latter parts of the past century, to wit: it became a river delta. Where there was, in Century XIX, a grand trunk or main stream, by the latter parts of Century XX, music had split into many rivulets all veining the final effluvial estuary. Think of the Amazon, the Danube, the Mississippi deltas. Not bad. Particularly considering that such deltas are also replete with mudflats, high weeds, false channels, and plenty of low-water stench. And they tend to be populated by the weirdest damned critters you could bleepin’ imagine.

Dogma III (for your correspondent’s first two dogmas, please refer to my review of Candide here): Once at a concert of “current composers” or some such, after one particularly vile excrescence, a dear, dear friend turned to us and sighed: “ Well, wasn’t that something?” To which we replied, “Dear, dear friend, tell us: Would you ever, under any circumstance, in your car, in a concert hall, bugalooing ‘bout your house with the vacuum, in an elevator, an airport, ever, ever willingly choose to listen to this piece of music again?” And that, Dear Friends, is the telling question. That is the touchstone. Which applies to all of this art. And which time will answer, if you’ll just be a little patient.

We would only add that a large and appreciate audience filled Seully almost to capacity and expressed its enthusiasm for the program and Rider’s formidable efforts.

Tony Schemmer is a composer and an Overseer of the New England Conservatory


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A witty piece. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. However, I didn’t intend to point this out, but the author’s own chiding of the program notes for their misuse of the apostrophe means I get a free pass for this bit of pedantry: “cello” really ought to be rendered sans-apostrophe. It’s just downright silly.

    Comment by Bryan — March 16, 2011 at 8:07 am

  2. As editor, I spent only one millisecond deciding that I would leave the citations of the ‘cello (they occur more than once); part of the fun of editing is keeping the “voice” of the reviewer, served so admirably well in this case with ‘cello.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — March 16, 2011 at 10:52 am

  3. And shall we pronounce it “Sello,” as someone I heard of in college did?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 16, 2011 at 10:59 am

  4. I am the artist-in-residence program coordinator for the National Park Service at Grand Canyon National Park. I really enjoyed this piece… having been denied the actual World Premiere at the Grand Canyon in February it was great to hear details of the new works. It was an honor to have Rhonda in-residence and she enjoyed herself… in spite of the drifting and wet horizontal snow that kept her from playing these pieces in a much-anticipated concert.

    Early in her residency, Rhonda presented a short concert to the local elementary and pre- school children, a wiggly yet riveted crowd of 82. Because they live at the Canyon (population 2500), they recognized and were delighted by the sounds of ravens, water in dry gulches, wind through the rock formations, that Rhonda pulled from her cello. Kicking their legs with joy, they sat on the edge of their chairs and engaged with their whole selves.

    Rhonda is such a generous performer, and a woman of great good nature and kindness. She took the last minute cancellation of her concert well, expressing relief because she did not want people out on dangerous roads. I’m pleased to report that Rhonda will return to the Canyon in October and present these works to park visitors and locals on the 5th, in a free concert in our small but fine public venue, Shrine of the Ages.

    The Grand Canyon’s artist-in-residence program is currently accepting applications for the next round of jurying, with a postmark deadline of April 1st. Guidelines can be found at Don’t let the new age and cowboy music deter you from applying!

    Comment by Rene — March 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm

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