Shakespearean sorcerers often call on mischievous spirits to assist them with their magic. Classical composers, on the other hand, just need fiddle players.
About a decade ago, the American composer Paul Moravec received a commission that reminded him of his favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest. "The violinist Maria Bachmann asked me to write her a piece, and that got me thinking about the relationship between Prospero and Ariel in The Tempest," says Moravec, on the phone last week from his home in New York City. "Prospero could dream up all sorts of magical ideas, but he needed the spirit Ariel to help him carry them out. As a composer, I can dream up all sorts of ideas as well, but I need musicians to carry them out."
Moravec's music will be working its magic in Nashville on Tuesday, courtesy of the musicians of the Alias Chamber Ensemble. A quartet of Alias musicians will perform Moravec's Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy at the Blair School of Music's Turner Recital Hall.
Alias will be lavishing attention on Moravec this year. In early May, Alias will join forces with Portara Vocal Ensemble to perform two Moravec works — Sacred Love Songs and Amorisms. Later that month, Alias and Portara will perform all three Moravec works as part of Nashville Ballet's adventurous Emergence series. Alias and Portara will then record the pieces for an all-Moravec disc on the Delos label.
Tempest Fantasy remains Moravec's best-known work. Initially, he set out to write a short one-movement piece for Bachmann called "Ariel," but he soon found himself wanting to write more. Over time, he sketched out an additional four movements, creating a substantial 30-minute masterwork under the collective title Tempest Fantasy. The first three movements get their names — and their musical personalities — from The Tempest's principal characters. In the opening movement, "Ariel," Moravec expertly suggests a creature of the air with music that is fast, frenetic and floating. "Prospero," the second movement, is slow and plaintive, with the clarinet and strings weaving back and forth in an elegant counterpoint. The music for "Caliban" suggests a lumbering beast that is easily agitated.
Moravec titled the fourth movement "Sweet Airs" after Caliban's surprisingly sensitive third-act speech: "Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." As you might expect, this movement is filled with soothing, sensuous, long-breathed melodies. The last movement, "Fantasia," is a virtuosic flight of fancy.
The instrumentation for Tempest Fantasy — clarinet, violin, cello and piano — is worth mentioning, if for no other reason than it has been among the most successful instrumental combos in the history of Western music. The great 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen used this combination to create what is arguably the greatest chamber work of the past hundred years — Quartet for the End of Time. Composers as diverse as Paul Hindemith and Peter Schickele have also composed works for this grouping.
Moravec says his use of the instrumentation was a happy accident. "I wasn't trying to follow in Messiaen's footsteps," he says. "I was simply writing a piece for Maria Bachmann's ensemble, Trio Solisti, to play with the clarinetist David Krakauer."
Nevertheless, the instrumentation caught Alias clarinetist Lee Levine's eye shortly after the piece won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. "Lee brought Tempest Fantasy to our attention right away, and we all thought it was great," says Alias cellist and composer Matt Walker. "So we flew Paul Moravec down to Nashville and played his piece in concert the same year it won the Pulitzer. Alias was just in its third season back then, but we were already looking to collaborate with major contemporary composers."
Moravec won't be the only contemporary composer represented on Alias' program Tuesday. The ensemble will also perform Piotr Szewczyk's Twisted Dances. Alias artistic director Zeneba Bowers met Szewczyk while visiting Florida's New World Symphony.
"He's one of those contemporary composers who has incorporated rock, jazz, funk and blues into his music," says Walker. "He's also a fantastic violinist, so his writing for that instrument is extremely fun and challenging."
Twisted Dances offers a radical — one might even say delightfully heretical — take on familiar dance forms. The piece opens with a "Polytonal Polka" and continues with a "12 Tone-al Waltz" and a "Jig With a Twist." The fantastical finale is called (you've got to love it) "Effin' Tarantella."
The rest of Tuesday's program is a bit more conventional. Alias will perform Debussy's Trio for flute, viola and harp (1915) along with Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 10 in A flat, Op. 119 (1964). Don't expect these classics to sound old-fashioned. As anyone who has attended an Alias concert will tell you, the classics of the repertoire always sound brand-new when played alongside contemporary works. Proceeds from Alias' concerts go to a nonprofit partner. Tuesday's performance will benefit The Contributor newspaper.
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