Openers

A collection of shorter orchestral works by Glenn Stallcop

Orchestra Openers 3COVER

The album Openers features a collection of overtures and tone poems written by Glenn Stallcop over the last forty years. Stallcop, who retired in 2019 after forty-six years as a double bassist with the Phoenix Symphony, wrote three of these works for the Phoenix Symphony. Two of the remaining works were commissioned for youth symphonies in Arizona, and one of the works is new. The Phoenix Symphony has also performed two of his feature length works, Millennial Opening, and City Music (twice), and three of his works featuring string orchestra.

Stallcop, whose orchestral music has covered a lot of ground stylistically over his career, tends to think of his music as post-modern yet performer-centric. He considers the performance experience as paramount, and is intent on creating music that is fun and moving to perform.

Also represented in his compositions is his experience of what amounts to a parallel career as an improvisational pianist. Music from his many albums of solo piano improvisation has found its way into his orchestral compositions, especially his later works. He often uses a transcribed piano improvisation as an initial sketch for his written compositions. This technique was used in two of the latter pieces, Five Bells and Aperitif, but is also used (for the first time) in one of the earlier pieces, Couplet for a Desert Summer.

As the album title suggests, all the works here are meant to be the first piece on an orchestral program. Calypso Round, In Apprehension of Spring, and Sunscape are traditional overtures. Aperitif and Five Bells are opening tone poems such as R. Strauss’s Don Juan or Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Couplet for a Desert Summer is a fifteen-minute two-movement work that could possibly occupy a different place on a program, but works nicely as a concert opener.

Calypso Round. This driving Latin-tinged eight-minute tour de force hints at minimalism while displaying nearly continuous canonic writing. Originally a mixed quintet for flute, horn, marimba, harp, and double bass written in 1980, it was orchestrated for large orchestra in 2000 for a performance by the Phoenix Symphony, conducted by Robert Moody. [Full article]

Aperitif. This is an, as yet, unperformed ten-minute tone poem for chamber orchestra written in the summer of 2019. It is meant to describe in reunion of old friends for dinner and displays their personalities and interactions. The work also features prominent parts for piano, harp, and marimba. [Full article]

Five Bells. This is a tone poem commissioned by the Arizona Band and Orchestra Teachers Association for the 2010 Arizona All-State Orchestra. It was performed in the spring of 2011 with John Roscigno conducting. It is a musical impression of a haunting elegiac poem of the same name by the Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor. The work is dramatic and features somewhat a ironic reference to R. Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration in the coda. [Full article]

Couplet for a Desert Summer. This is a fifteen-minute two-movement work depicting the two most active times of the day in the desert, dawn and dusk. The work, which was written from 1980-82, is scored for a Classical-era type chamber orchestra plus the addition of metal percussion and piano. The work features characteristic solo wind writing and a prominent piano part. A somewhat fragmented opening to Dawn settles into a long spirited section, a lengthy flute solo ushers in a section representing the rising sun. The movement closes with the mirages beginning to appear as the heat intensifies. Dusk opens with a call in the piano and passed throughout the orchestra. A piano solo ushers the sun to the horizon as the desert becomes alive. The music turns reverent as sunset colors flood the sky, and the music builds as the sky is set ablaze. As the light fades, the music becomes tired and goes to sleep. The works was first performed in Feb. 1984 by the Phoenix Symphony, Clark Suttle, conducting. [Full article]

In Apprehension of Spring. This is an overture commissioned by the Metropolitan Youth Symphony (Mesa, AZ) in 1985 and performed later that year with Wayne Roederer conducting. The work was written for an orchestra entirely under the age of 15, and is written not only for them, but also about them. It is a four-minute pedal-to-the-metal romp. [Full article]

Sunscape. Commissioned by the Arizona Diamond Jubilee Commission for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Arizona’s Statehood, this work was first performed in Nov. 1987 by the Phoenix Symphony with Harold Weller conducting. The work is a celebration of the majestic grandeur of the Grand Canyon State, its dramatic topography and silk-screen horizons. The varied landforms and ecosystems are all dominated by a solar presence that is essential to its character. Sweeping lines and multiple contrapuntal levels blend together to create a eleven-minute flyby of spectacular scenery. [Full article]

All music is published by American Composers Alliance (BMI) and realized through the use of the software NotePerformer.

Downhill

Downhill cover

The theme for the album Downhill evolved over time to be a collection of seemingly small things which trigger a whole series of events. Events flow from the original trigger like water flowing downhill. These series of events are not inevitable, but can only be altered or halted with great effort and purpose. Some of these events, such as Aperitif, are relatively harmless, but others such as lies and arguments are much less so.

The spontaneous nature of my music causes me to ponder the idea of cause and effect quite a bit. There are ideas about cause and effects out there that consider an act and its response as one single event. Sometimes, what we would normally consider a whole series of responses are taken as just one event, a natural tendency to want to even balance things out to achieve a state of hypothetical equilibrium.

I read once an explanation that claimed that the way we normally look at cause and effect was like looking at the world through a cardboard tube. If a horse walks past our field of vision, we would claim that the front of the horse caused the back of the horse, that the head caused the tail. However, in reality, the horse was just a single thing and we happened to see it in sequence rather than all at once. Many series of events are so closely tied to each other that they could really be considered to be one event.

Our modern society is based on competition, and tends to think of only harmful aggression as bad, and sometimes only if it is illegal. But all aggression, whether positive or negative, causes reciprocal behavior, and much of it is spiteful. These are the thoughts upon which I was meditating when I recorded this album. The music is not so much descriptive as it is reflective. There sometimes emerges a feeling of regret and helplessness at the snowballing consequences, but, occasionally, there also is excitement and hope when things turn for the better. Not all consequences are negative, and caution is not your ally when falling in love.

This album was recorded in my home in Phoenix, AZ.

Sunscape

An overture for orchestra

Canyon1When the Arizona Diamond Jubilee Commission awarded me a commission to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Arizona statehood, I had a couple of distinct choices for possible approaches.   Arizona has three large and distinct population groups, Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American, each with a proud heritage in the region. One choice would be to somehow combine those cultural traditions into a musical mix of style and purpose. This approach would not only be difficult, it was fraught with ambiguity and implied meaning. Culture is a very sensitive subject and histories of racism and exploitation make the subject that much more difficult.

However, I was asked to commemorate the anniversary of Arizona as a political entity, not a culture; a political organization with lofty aspirations of freedom and equality for all its citizens without regard to race and culture. These ideals, born of the Enlightenment are Classical to the core! In response to this challenge, I decided to write probably my most archetypically Classical work. The style is a modal-tinged Neo-Classicism. The form is textbook sonata-allegro. The texture is woven from continuously dovetailed contrapuntal gestures. Paintings of Arizona are often done by silkscreen; it is a land of multiple horizons. The counterpoint of landforms is represented in the music by a counterpoint of musical ideas of different shapes and size; some sharp and angular, and some broad and sweeping.

Canyon2Furthermore, the one thing all of the people in Arizona share is a love of the spectacular landscape that dominates the Southwest. Sunscape is a portrait of the sweeping grandeur that is the Grand Canyon State. And despite the diversity of landforms and ecosystems, all life in the state is dominated by an intense solar presence that is absolutely fundamental to its character. Each vision of Arizona, whether desert, mountain, canyon, or lake, is a sunscape.

The work was commissioned by the Arizona Diamond Jubilee Commission for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Arizona statehood. It was first performed in November of 1987 by the Phoenix Symphony, with Harold Weller conducting

Sunscape

In Apprehension of Spring

Of the works I have written for orchestra, three were written for youth orchestras. City Music was written for the Seattle Youth Symphony, and to say I did not hold anything back is almost an understatement. Five Bells was a commission for the Arizona All-State High School Orchestra, and though I did not do much to accommodate their youth, I did keep in mind that they would only have two days of rehearsal to put it together. In Apprehension of Spring, on the other hand, was written for an orchestra all under the age of 15. Though they had some impressive facility for their age, I still made some accommodations.

In the fall of 1985, I was asked by composer Grant Fletcher to take over a commission that he felt his other commitments would not allow him to complete on time. Though it was short notice, I was happy to accept the opportunity. The Metropolitan Youth Symphony, a now thriving organization in Mesa, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix), had been established by Wayne Roederer in 1983. They were still a new group in 1985, but they were already making waves in the local music community.

When I went to hear them for the first time back in 1985, I was not only struck by the high quality of the playing, I was moved by the tremendous enthusiasm of the players. I had forgotten what it was like to be an early teenager. So, it evolved that this short overture became a work that was not only for them, but about them as well. The apprehension involved is that of a carnival ride, where you don’t know where you are going, but you are going there fast and having a lot of fun.

The piece is a four-minute romp. I put the piece together more like a rock tune than anything else. A high-energy introduction becomes the main accompaniment pattern for the two verses and chorus. The bridge material in the brass leads to a canonic transition back to the verse. The final chorus brings back the bridge material in the brass and brings it to a rousing close.

In Apprehension of Spring

Couplet for a Desert Summer

A tone poem for chamber orchestra

Couplet for a Desert Summer was my first attempt to derive an orchestral work from a keyboard improvisation. It is not an arrangement but uses the improvisation as an initial sketch. Recording and transcription were a much more time-consuming (and expensive) proposition around 1980 when I started putting together this piece. Analog recording was done on reel-to-reel tape recorders, transcription sometimes having to use slow speed, and replaying a passage over and over to transcribe everything by ear. Though tedious, it was actually a terrific experience, and taught me a great deal about music, especially the fluidity of rhythm!

just add water washMy first sketches (transcriptions) of Couplet for a Desert Summer are from 1980, though I didn’t complete the revisions and orchestration until two years later. It was my first work for chamber orchestra, and it is scored for Classical era instrumentation without trumpets, and with the addition of piano and metal percussion. I tried to take advantage of the solo players, both winds and strings, and also wrote a prominent part for the piano. It was the first time I had used piano in an orchestra work.

Summer in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona is a special time. The piece was written in the summer, and gradually it became a piece about the summer. There is oppressive heat in the summer, of course, but there is also great beauty, dynamic weather (the annual monsoons) and a lot of activity in the natural world. In an essay by Joseph Wood Crutch, the noted nature writer who spent much of his career in the desert outside of Tucson, he lamented that nobody visits the Arizona desert during the summer. The summer is when everything happens. The cactus and ocotillo bloom, the reptiles, birds, insects, and mammals are all active. The Sonoran Desert biome
 is the world’s second most diverse, outside of the rain forest, and it comes alive during the summer, notably at night. In July, the summer monsoon comes to refresh the parched earth and trigger another unique round of activity.

The two movements of Couplet For A Desert Summer describe the two most dynamic moments of every day in the desert, Dawn and Dusk. Dawn starts as the sky begins to brighten; the nighttime activity bleeds into the day. The birds awaken! Sunrise has the coolest temperature of the day and the animal life is at its most active. The music starts haltingly but soon coalesces into an extended lively passage, before a passage for flute and piano announces a section for the rising sun. The movement ends with the mirages beginning to form as the heat starts to build.

The second movement, Dusk, opens with the call to awaken at sunset. A piano solo escorts the sun to the horizon as the wildlife comes out of hiding. A boisterous passage follows for nearly the whole first half of the piece. As the sun begins to set, the music becomes more reverential. The music builds as the sunset colors spread across the sky. At a climatic moment, there is a reference to “Morning” from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg. It is in the wrong movement. Dawn in the desert is nice, but the sunsets are spectacular!

The work is scored for flute, 2 oboes, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, metal percussion, piano, and strings. The work was first performed in Feb. 1984 by the Phoenix Symphony, Clark Suttle conducting.

Couplet for a Desert Summer – 1. Dawn

Couplet for a Desert Summer – 2. Dusk

Five Bells

An orchestral tone poem based on the poem by Kenneth Slessor

Five Bells was written during the summer of 2010 in response to a commission from the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association for the 2011 Arizona All-State Orchestra. The work was intended for talented high school musicians, so I didn’t make too many concessions. I did try not to make the piece too difficult to put together as they only had a couple of days to rehearse. This caused me to stay away from complicated rhythms and intricate ensemble passages. But it never really was a problem, and they did a good job.

ships bellThe title, Five Bells, refers to a haunting poem by the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor. I was already into the piece when I noticed I was planning prominent use of five chime strokes at two different climaxes. So I googled “five bells” and found the poem. I was taken in by the poem’s story and imagery and decided to write the rest of the piece with the poem in mind.

Slessor, who was also a journalist, wrote the poem in memory of a colleague, an editorial cartoonist, who drowned after he jumped off a ferry in Sydney Bay and tried to race it to the dock, being swept away by the treacherous currents.   His colleague’s robust life and tragic death still haunted Slessor after nearly a decade. The poem, with its vivid and dramatic imagery, asks “Why do I keep thinking about you?” He has no answer. The five bells refer to marine time, the moment when his friend jumped off the ferry. It becomes a symbol of both the moment of death, and the incessant and indifferent passage of time, as opposed to how we perceive time emotionally.

Besides the chime strokes, the mood of the poem seemed to be sympathetic to the mood of the music, and everything fell into place. Near the end of the piece, there is an oblique but noticeable reference to Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. The reference is from the spot in the Strauss where the subject has died and is beginning his march to Judgment. In the context of the Slessor poem, however, the reference is meant to infer that those who are truly transformed by death are the living.

Slessor’s poem has reached “national treasure” status in Australia. Australian painter John Olsen painted Salute to Five Bells in the rear foyer of the Sydney Opera House, which is built out over Sydney Bay where Slessor’s poem is set.  The poem has also inspired a book of the same name by Gail Jones.  The poem is reproduced on a bannister in Kenneth Slessor Park in a Sydney suburb.

As I was considering whether or not to actually name the piece after the poem, I received word that a good friend of mine had been killed suddenly in a car accident. That event instilled the poem with personal emotional clarity, and convinced me that the title was both appropriate and fitting. It will, correspondingly, haunt me for quite a long time as well.

Glenn Stallcop:  Five Bells

 

Aperitif

A new work for chamber orchestra

Unlike many of the other works I have posted, this work for small orchestra was written within the last couple of months.  Most music I write has a practical purpose of some sort, for a person, group, event, or all of the above, but this piece was started almost on a lark.  The first sessions of working on a piece are always a little mysterious. I have different, sometimes conflicting visions of what I am going to do. For this piece, I let these early ideas also shape the instrumentation, trying to decide what sorts of textures and sounds I wanted to work with.

aperitifI originally thought I was going to write the piece for string orchestra, but I gradually started adding other instruments, until I ended up writing a work for a small chamber orchestra. I was determined to not use un-pitched percussion instruments as I wanted the piece to have a chamber music feel.  The piece has several “swirling” sections and I knew I needed a harp or piano in the mix.  Eventually I decided to use both piano and harp, plus a marimba. I felt I needed to spotlight these instruments to add a special flavor to the piece.  There are no doubles in the winds; they are all playing different instruments. This adds an a la carte character to the piece and heightens the chamber music aspect.

Aperitif is an adaptation of the first track of the piano solo album, Downhill, which will be released later this year (2019).  The album tries to display several examples of a collection of events that seem to flow from an initial trigger.  The series of events seem to flow as easily as a ball rolling downhill. Some triggers, such as an “aperitif,” are relatively harmless, while others, such as lies and arguments, are much less so.  The resulting events can always be slowed or stopped, but not without serious effort and reflection.

The events triggered by Aperitif take the form of social interactions among a group of friends over dinner.  The interactions become more and more personal, sometimes funny, sometimes heartfelt, while at other times being a bit more biting.  The music seems to evolve around certain personalities, one rather facilitating, another stronger and somewhat dismissive, one prone to being a little alarmist, and another one somewhat overly sentimental.  These acquaintances discuss things light-heartedly at first; gradually adding a little more humor and satire until someone becomes a little offended and things become a little uncomfortable. The conversation then begins to dissolve and ends with a promise to get together again.

The work is scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, bass trombone, marimba, piano, harp, and strings.  The work is more of a tone poem than an overture, but nevertheless is, not surprisingly, meant to be a concert opener, hopefully triggering wonderful things to follow.