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Packed House Celebrates NC Composer Ken Frazelle

March 28, 2009 - Wnston-Salem, NC:

The acoustically superb Watson Hall on the campus of the North Carolina School of the Arts was full for a concert entirely devoted to works of Kenneth Frazelle, both a UNCSA faculty member and alumnus. The program included an excerpt from the Appalachian Songbook I, the North Carolina premiere of the recent Piano Trio (2008), and the world premiere of the Appalachian Songbook II. A large town-gown audience was proof of both the wide appeal of Frazelle’s music and the adventurous spirit of the local public.

In the desire for full disclosure, I confess to having known the composer for a quarter of a century and having conducted the premieres of four of his compositions, two of which were commissioned by the Winston-Salem Symphony. The early works, Seascapes and Prisma were difficult works to access on first hearing; rhythmically complex, mostly atonal and written in a form not immediately perceptible to his audience. They were, however, awash with broad colorful musical images evoked by the poetry of A. R. Ammons. Although difficult to play, I enjoyed rehearsing and performing these pieces of youthful exuberance. (In hindsight, it comes as no surprise that the mature Ken Frazelle has developed into quite a good watercolor painter! See http://kennethfrazelle.com )

While discussing the first commission of the Winston-Salem Symphony ("Playing the Miraculous Game," 1987), I had suggested that the more conservative symphony audiences like to be able to recognize the return of a theme and to grasp some formal features. Ken admitted that he had heard enough of “How interesting!” and would love to hear, just once, “I like that!” At our next discussion, Ken asked if it was compromising to include ethnological or folkloric material in art music, and answered his own question with references to Copland, Bartok, Beethoven and many other composers. He and his family members had always been familiar with the rich trove of Appalachian folksongs. Without ever forsaking his predilection for metric modulation, polytonality and color Frazelle had rounded a corner and added this new material to his burgeoning style. Indeed, “Playing the Miraculous Game” refers to a family guessing game – who could guess the folksong with a minimum of notes played on a toy piano. But I digress…

This Music@Watson concert opened with four selections from the 2000 Appalachian Songbook I.  Tenor Steven LaCosse was the soloist, with Mary Ann Bills his able accompanist. Operatically trained, LaCosse has a pleasant natural voice with a lovely vibrato, devoid of artifice. Although he is better known as the Stage Director of the Fletcher Opera Institute, he is clearly a fine musician and lent a particularly keen sense of timing to the songs.

Beginning with “Old Joe Clark,” a modal tune (think “major scale with a flat 7th”) with the simplest of accompaniment, open 5ths and moving through the sad ballade of “Naomi Wise (Omie)” to the humorous “Groundhog” with its effective and tipsy-sounding accompaniment, these are lovely and affecting songs. The set closed somewhat suddenly with the charming “Bonnie Blue Eyes,” “…if you cry you’ll spill your eyes. Goodbye.”

The Piano Trio (2008) was commissioned by music@menlopark and first performed on August 7th, 2008. It is in three movements with the arcane titles, "Of Water," "Unto Dust" and "Toward the Light."  In the first movement, I looked for the catchy opening of the violin, kind of a musical hiccough and only spotted what seemed like an inversion of it in the piano midway through the movement, bringing to mind the old adage that “a river is never the same river from one moment to the next…”  I was also reminded of the style of Frazelle’s early compositions, but found the title, “Of Water” most apt and fitting.

“Unto Dust,” the title of the second movement, (possibly from Genesis: “… for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”) certainly evokes a dirge by its plainsong style, the cello sadly expressive while the vibrato-less violin makes wordless commentary with sighing glissandos. In the middle appears a quaint waltz, as though at a wake, eventually calming to a more subdued saraband. A long passage for solo piano is joined by the cello in duo and finally the violin enters, provoking imitation by the piano. The movement switches to a 4/4 meter and becomes more and more dissonant as it reaches a magnificent climax over shimmering tremolos.

“Into Light” describes the Trio’s only fast movement, which has a strong beat that seems to remain the same throughout the movement, regardless of the actual meter, 5/8 ostinato at the beginning, shifting to a triple meter, but always with the strong first beat, drumming into us. The work ends in a major consonant chord, a surprise after the complex dissonance of the rest of the movement.

The performers, violinist Joseph Genualdi, cellist Brooks Whitehouse and pianist Allison Gagnon, all UNCSA faculty members, played the “bejesus” out of the trio, with passion, power and conviction, and in the quieter moments, tenderness and feeling, a testament to the commitment and dedication they gave to this trio. Bravo, tutti!

The entire second half of the concert was devoted to the premiere performance of Appalachian Songbook II, a collection of eight songs, spanning a range of human emotions from love (“Pretty Saro”) to betrayal (“Our Good Man”) and devotion (“Wondrous Love”) to despair or resignation (“The Cuckoo”). Although the origins of most of the songs are probably traditional, how they are treated and especially how they are accompanied depends on the genius of the composer, Ken Frazelle, who accompanied all the songs at the piano. Several examples will explain.

The opening song, “The Cuckoo,” is a bittersweet reflection comparing love to a meandering cuckoo who sings while she flies and faithfulness to a willow tree. The piano plays a wandering arpeggio accompaniment, not unlike the poetic meanderings of Schumann (Dichterliebe). The piano part to “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” could have been some “ol’ timey fiddlin’,” and the accompaniment to the dramatic “Wondrous Love” recalled nothing so much as a hammer dulcimer.

But my favorite song on this first hearing was “Pretty Saro,” a ballade of nostalgia and longing for the loved one across the ocean. It suited the gorgeous voice of soprano Marilyn Taylor, one of the South East’s great voices. Her voice is rich, warm and impeccably in tune. Moreover, Ms. Taylor sings with great musicality and intelligence, dosing dynamics and controlling pacing to make a cohesive whole of each song. She is also an excellent actress, provoking laughter as she imitated the accent, demeanor and style of a drunken farmer in “Our Good Man,” and again in “Visitation” which is not sung at all, but a conversation, narrated between Ms. Taylor and the piano.

The large audience gave a standing ovation to Marilyn Taylor and Kenneth Frazelle who finally took a solo bow at the end.