RHAPSODY CONCERTANTE
For Chamber Orchestra with Soprano (Text by Catullus)

by Christopher Fulkerson

The front of the program on which the
Rhapsody Concertante was first performed.

 

This piece was begun while I was living in Stockton, California and travelling over the mountains every few weeks to take lessons with Andrew Imbrie, who was to become my principal teacher at U.C. Berkeley when I later enrolled there (he later lost interest in me, and made me find another advisor when it came time for me to do my dissertation). I was trying to get closer to Roger Sessions's music, and blending this with a melodism that is a flexible version of periodicity. I remember thinking that I was discovering a kind of periodic athematicism. I was still working on the piece when I got to Berkeley, where I finished it. To get into Richard Felciano's composition seminar, I had to show him something I had written; when I showed him this, he said "You're on your way!"

The piece was first performed under my baton at a Noon Concerts recital at UCB on May 24, 1978, as part of Richard Felciano's Composition Seminar. Aside from the encouragement I got from the players, and the soloist, who was in fact the excellent Marlene Rozofsky, I had never conducted anything this large and complex before, and was further grateful to the University Symphony conductor Michael Senturia for his tips on conducting, most especially how to give a new tempo's "click" before its coming downbeat, something I desperately needed to know at the time. Michael had stood off to the side watching my efforts to rehearse the group on stage, a benevolent observer in the darkness between the double doors of the entrance, and though we had not yet met he came forward with some encouragement which was wonderful for being so pertinent. As he walked up I was nervous - in a state of absolute panic - about whatever it was it looked like he was going to say but he is one of those people who genuinely just wants to help others. He was very popular with the students at Cal. He is of course a quite expert conductor, more important to modern music than most people at large suspect (for example, he gave the world premiere of Sessions's WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM'D,) very knowledgable about all matters of conducting and musical construction and was in fact the resident Schenker expert. I later studied Schenker with him, as well as conducting. In my first conducting lesson or two with him he got me reading scores from strange clefs, singing in solfege while playing with one hand while reading with the other, conducting or playing with either hand while singing from all kinds of strange clefs. He always seemed very reasonable in his requests, which were always motivated one after another in a very logical way. "All right, if you can do that, let's see how you do with this." Eventually I could not do all the things, one after another, that he kept asking of me. I reached a point of gaping, stalled confusion and just sat there at the piano unable to think, my mind swimming in all I was trying to do and the implications of all I had to learn and do. The enormity of the task of being a proper conductor seemed all around me. He then said, "Good, this is where we begin to teach you." He then explained that his method of finding a student's skill level was to simply ask for more until he broke down. I had thought I was incompetent; he was just trying to figure out what my real strengths and weaknesses were. In fact, he had been reasonably pleased with how I had done. He explained the differences between the two basic philosophies of conducting, essentially those of Scherchen and Szell, and I began to think in terms of myself as a follower of the Scherchen shool of musicianship and score reading, rather than of the Szell school of proof through piano playing (Boulez is both Scherchen- and Szell-capable). Michael Senturia's wholly courteous, systematic and professional lessons, which concentrated on musicianship and baton skills, made me able to later withstand the shouted and utterly hostile, angry "teaching" of baton technique and marketable photogenic choreography that Harold Farberman gave me at the Conductor's Institute. If I am not all that marketable, it is not Farberman's fault. He and I eventually reached a working detente.

I was planning this piece to be a Concertino for Chamber Orchestra but realized that the style and expression were not as concise as I prefer concerted pieces to be. Therefore I call the piece a Rhapsody, with "Concerted" as a necessary adjective. Overall it has an expressive shape similar to the Mahler Fourth Symphony, in that it is basically an instrumental work that goes through various changes, but opens at the end into vocal melodism. I knew the Mahler by this time reasonably well, so it is possible I was thinking of it when I wrote this piece, though I do not remember having thought about it. The Catullus text was chosen primarily because it has the character of an "opening up" such as an invocation of spring has. The piece is nine minutes long.

The three movements are:

I. Movementato
II. Adagio, Tranquillo
III. Allegro aperto

The Soprano sings the first eight lines of the Catullus poem 46, a typical greeting to the return of spring, modeled after older Greek sources. Nicaea was the capital of the Roman province of Bithynia. This translation is by Guy Lee.

Iam uer egelidos refert tepores,
iam caeli furor aequinoctialis
iucundus Zephyri silescit auries.
linquantur Phrygii, Catulle, campi
Nicaeaque ager uber aestuosae.
ad claras Asiae uolemus urbes.
iam mens praetrepidans auet uagari,
iam laeti studio pedes uigescunt.

Now spring brings back unfrozen warmth,
Now the sky's equinoctial fury
Is hushed by Zephyr's welcome airs.
Take leave of Phriygian plains, Catullus,
And sweltering Nicaea's lush fields.
Let's fly to Asia's famous cities.
Excited thoughts now long to travel,
Glad feet now tap in expectation.

I have withdrawn the score for revision but do not forsee it will change its character all that much. Some things in the score were utterly wrong, such as the number of harp pedalings I expected the player to make in quick succession. (The harp part was played by the well-known Randall Wong, who of course later made his name not as a harpist, but as a sopranist. He diligently attempted to play the part but finally let me know just how much I was asking of any harpist. I knew he was right and we found some compromise to accomplish the Premiere, but there is at least one passage that needs to be rethought.)

 

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