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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

So Sousa Me

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Wish I’d actually seen this concert. The description is enticing enough (at least to my taste) that I must have had a severe scheduling conflict. Here’s a trip back in time to more than 20 years ago, for a look at some all-American musical fare.

                                                                                        

ST. CECILIA ORCHESTRA CO-FOUNDER Robert Taylor, like all violinists, has watched his instrument’s repertory fall prey to the transcriptionists as flutes, guitars, trumpets and others crowd the territory. “But now we’re getting even,” he says, “for all those Canadian Brass arrangements of string music.” Brass band territory doesn’t get much more sacred than in the realm of John Philip Sousa’s many marches, but the St. Cecilia Orchestra plunders that territory during this weekend’s concerts, with four Sousa marches on the program – arranged for strings.

John Philip Sousa
The arrangments are by Troy-based composer and professor William Carragan, who is more often found working with the likes of Bruckner and Schubert – he has finished both of their unfinished symphonies – than in the concert band. But he shares with Taylor an appreciation of Sousa’s talent, and was pleased with the challenge of achieving a band-like tonal color working only with strings.

Like Sousa, Carragan studied both string and brass instruments. He stayed with French horn, studying with Boston Symphony member Ralph Pottle, “who is a great all around musician. He taught me music as well as the horn.” As a Bruckner scholar, Carragan is in constant demand to write and lecture about the composer, so it may come as a shock to those who move in such rarefied circles to find Carragan working with such seeming trifles as the Sousa marches.

But they’re not trifles, he insists, and his work with them is very serious. “I want to emphasize that my arrangements are in no way satirical,” says Carragan. “Sousa was an American Johann Strauss. He wrote over 130 marches and I haven’t found a bad one yet.” He selected familiar and lesser-known marches for the set of four. “‘Nobles of the Mystic Shrine’ was written for a Shriners gathering, where a combination of bands made it possible to have some interesting sound effects. They had regimental trumpets, for example, which are straight, valveless instruments. My challenge is to create the same emotional effect. There’s also a part for a glockenspiel, so to produce an effect that would be the equivalent of that bell sound, I have the violins play pizzicato except for the first desk players, who use their bows.”

The other marches on the program are “Fairest of the Fair,” “The Liberty Bell” – known to Monty Python fans as the theme to the group’s television program – and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Carragan says that his fondness for Sousa’s works “comes from an appreciation of musical gesture. When you look closely at what he accomplishes in those marches, you can see that it’s not simple.” You may think the familiar ones sound so right because they’re familiar, but, adds Carragan, “Even the marches you don’t know sound right, too.”

Three of these marches were first heard in string arrangements during a 1988 Fourth of July Hudson River sponsored by the St. Cecilia Orchestra. Carragan defers credit for the idea to Taylor, who nevertheless says that “Bill ran with it in directions you’d never expect.” And Carragan says it made the trip “very exciting. It was a good patriotic touch.”

Music by other American composers is on the program for this weekend’s concerts: David Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra, based on old American fiddle tunes, and George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, which Taylor likens to Samuel Barber’s well-known Adagio.

Three English composers are also represented, with works that have become staples of the string orchestra repertory. Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Grosso, Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro were written earlier in this century, drawing inspiration from older stylings but helping to define a 20th-century English sound. And parallelling Diamond’s work, Holst drew from English folk tunes and Irish fiddle tunes for his piece.

The St. Cecilia Orchestra will be conducted by Kenneth Kiesler, and the concerts take place at 8 PM tonight (Thursday) at the Canfield Casino in Saratoga Springs, at 8 PM Saturday at Chancellor’s Hall in Albany, and at 7 PM Sunday at the Union College Memorial Chapel in Schenectady. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for students. And you’re invited to show up 45 minutes before each concert for “concert comments,” in which conductor and players – and, for at least one of the concerts, Carragan – will discuss the event.

Metroland Magazine, 28 April 1994

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