By Michel Norris, Pentagram Assistant Editor
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - The Army Strings, an element of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s The U.S. Army Band, will perform the works of six contemporary classical composers April 14 at 4 p.m. in a concert at the Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Va.
Three living composers on the program will travel from across the country to attend the performance, including: California’s Michael Abels, who wrote “Delights and Dances;” Ohio’s Rick Sowash, composer of “Fantasia on ‘Shendandoah’;” and Massachusetts’ Elena Ruehr, the author of “Shimmer.”
In addition, the 20-member Army Strings will perform Ernest Bloch’s “Concerto Grosso No. 1,” Howard Hanson’s “Summer Seascape II,” and Russell Peck’s “Signs of Life.”
Dispelling the notion that some modern classical music can be thorny or challenging listening, Maj. Tod Addison, director of the Army Strings, emphasized that all the pieces in the Sunday program are tuneful, easy-listening and accessible works, with some blending popular musical idioms into the mix.
Addison described Ruehr’s composition as being in the minimalist vein, with Abels working snatches of folk, bluegrass and blues into his work, and Sowash using the traditional song “Shenandoah” as a touchstone in his piece.
According to a biography of Abels on the Kennedy Center website, the composer “gained widespread recognition for his orchestral pieces, ‘Global Warming’ and ‘Frederick’s Fables,’ [the latter] a piece he narrated at the Kennedy Center for the National Symphony Orchestra.” Additionally, “ ‘Global Warming’ … was one of the first works by a black composer to be performed by the National Symphony of South Africa after President Mandela was elected.”
Despite its title, Addison said “Global Warming” has nothing to do with climate change. He said the piece instead refers to the warmth engendered by different world musical genres coming together.
Ruehr is a composer on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work “Shimmer” was commissioned by the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra and was the title piece on its 1996 album. It was also used in a condensed version by the Rebecca Rice Dance troupe, a video of which appears on YouTube.
“I wanted to write a piece that called forth the history of string orchestras, and was inspired by the idea of Vivaldi traveling through time,” Ruehr said of “Shimmer.” “It’s built in a very modern way, so it isn’t a copy, but instead a modern reinvention of an older thing, with the energy of something young and new. The name refers to the shimmering texture that is created through bowing, trilling and ornamentation.”
“My philosophy about music is that I want to write music that makes sense and is beautiful on a first hearing, but has something deeper that makes one go back to it,” she explained. “This is how I feel about the great masters, and it's what I try to do: simple on the surface, complex in design. I often think about how great political speeches are just like this - a story that people connect with immediately, but with a metaphor that shows a sophisticated understanding of philosophy and history. This is my ideal and it's what I strive for.”
Sowash said he is particularly excited about the April 14 performance because it will be the world premiere of a piece he wrote 23 years ago.
“I wrote my ‘Fantasia on Shenandoah’ for four cellos, and then string orchestra in 1990,” he said. “Later I made a version of it for string quartet. That version has been played and recorded, but never, until now, the string orchestra version, which I prefer because the sound will be more full and lush.”
Sowash said he’s been a fan of the folk song “Shenandoah” ever since hearing it at age 12 when he saw the film “How the West Was Won.”
At 23 he hiked the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, and at 32, he and his wife named their first-born daughter Shenandoah.
Still later, he added, the couple learned the meaning of the Native American word Shenandoah: Clear-eyed daughter of the stars.
“It was only a matter of time before I wrote a piece paying homage to this most beautiful of all American folk songs, ” Sowash said. The composition appears on a recording by the Shelburne Quartet.
Addison said the Army Strings don’t usually do their own arrangements for concerts. “All of the material we perform, with very, very few exceptions, is original, as is, from the composer,” he said.
In winnowing selections down for an ensemble program, the ensemble director said he sometimes surfs the internet to find material for the group, often encountering more dross than gold.
“For every composer like Michael Abels, whose work on this program was a new discovery, I go through about five to 10 composers [where] nothing at all resonates, or the work is not of a professional caliber for the Army Strings.”
The goal is “to educate as well as inspire with performances,” said Sgt. 1st Class Krista Smith, Army Strings concertmaster and first violin.
Learning new material can also be a learning process for musicians. Smith said the work she most enjoyed preparing for was “Shimmer,” a composition which grew on her through rehearsals. “It’s a piece you don’t always enjoy right away,” she said.
“It’s hard to find good music,” Addison said, explaining how you want to program music that an audience isn’t over familiar with, but at the same time, is something they’ll want to hear again after being exposed to it.
The Sunday concert is free. The 500-seat Vienna Presbyterian Church is located at 124 Park St NE, Vienna, Va. For more information and a list of additional concerts, visit The U.S. Army Band website at www.usarmyband.com