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Too often the process of commissioning a piece of new music is an empty charade. A composer is paid to write a short occasional piece for some organization. Constraints limit the composer to fill the time with a generalized score in the prevailing style. The piece is played once or only a few times and vanishes into oblivion where the audience and musicians wish it had stayed in the first place. The commissioner and performers chalk up brownie points for supporting The Arts and no one is satisfied. They do things differently at Reynolda House. To commemorate the opening of the museum's new Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing, they commissioned "Sonata-Fantasy," a large-scale score for solo piano from Kenneth Frazelle. With the composer at the keyboard, the work was the centerpiece of a gala concert in the new auditorium May 7. Folding chairs had to be added to seat the enthusiastic audience – the house was packed. A lavish after-concert spread rewarded the active engagement of listeners and performers alike.
Frazelle is a challenging composer whose music has depth and substance that repay repeated hearings. Some music that is called "challenging" merely vexes the listener – it's all squeaks and pops with all the heart and soul a logarithm table, read backwards. "Real" challenging music grabs the listener's attention on first hearing. It's new, and sometimes you hardly know how to weigh its elements, but something within resonates. Frazelle's "Sonata-Fantasy" is such a work. His concise program note states "...I chose to reconfigure the traditional three-movement sonata format…; there is a tradition of composers... varying the architecture of the classical sonata." He applies fantasy elements and unexpected forms to aspects of the sonata's traditional structure.
The most challenging movement is the first, marked "Maestoso e brillante; allegro ritmico." Described as being "akin to a Baroque Overture," it begins with an energetic and rising surge of sound. This movement and much of the rest of the work consist of "cells" of rapid and complex rhythmic patterns. Together they seem to imply a larger structure but I would need repeated hearings to confirm that supposition. The second movement is the most radical departure from sonata form and the most immediately appealing. It consists of ten witty miniatures characterizing native plants of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The "Flame Azalea" is limned by a tango"; dark rumbling bass notes sketch "Indian Pipes"; a lullaby suggests "Deptford Pink"; and what the composer calls a "rip-roaring rap" sears a sonic portrait of the "Viper's Bugloss." I can imagine recitalists filching all of these miniatures – or selections from them – for gems to decorate their programs. The composer describes the last movement, marked "Epilogue: Molto adagio," as "a hymn-like motive (that) emerges from a quiet undulating texture." Frazelle played this work with extraordinary stamina, refined control of rhythms, and a wide palette of tone color and dynamics. Much of the piece came across as bright, complex, bell-like waves of sound set against occasional sepulchral rumblings. It will repay many repeated hearings and is clearly a work of major quality.
Soprano Marilyn Taylor joined Frazelle for a moving performance of From the Song of Songs (2002). Frazelle's Barlow Prize (2001) resulted in a commission for this song cycle, written for soprano Erie Mills and pianist Jeffrey Peterson, who gave the premiere at Brigham Young University. He used both the King James and Revised Standard versions of the Bible with some modifications. According to his brief program note, "The first seven songs are passages generally believed to be the Woman speaking in the Song of Songs. The final section describes the Woman's dance and is sung in both English and Hebrew."
Taylor's performance was breathtaking – every word was clear and expressed with appropriate nuances. Her intonation was secure whether the music was soft or loud, low or high. Frazelle's phrasing of the texts took some unexpected twists and turns. All the songs are sensual, but none more so than the third, "I Am the Rose of Sharon." With the piano lid on its short stick, the composer deftly supported Taylor's lines without ever covering them.
After tumultuous applause, Frazelle and Taylor choose an apt encore, the eighth song in the composer's Appalachian Songbook, "Bonnie Blue Eyes." The opening word is "Goodbye," and it is a lovely ballad.
Frazelle, a native of Jacksonville, NC, attended high school at the NCSA, where he studied composition with Robert Ward. He was also a pupil of Roger Sessions, at the Juilliard School, from which he was graduated in 1978 and where he received the Gretchaninov Award for High Achievement in Composition. He has an impressive list of quality commissioned works and serves as a role model for his students at the NCSA.
Taylor teaches voice at the NCSA. CVNC has reviewed many promising singers from her studio and several of her own fine concerts and recitals throughout the Piedmont.