David Amram has had what you might call a storied career: With over 100 orchestral and chamber works to his credit, he’s listed as one of BMI’s “Twenty Most Performed Composers of Concert Music in the United States.” But Amram is more than a composerhe’s also an exceptionally talented multi-instrumentalist. A pioneer of the jazz French horn, he has played with Dizzy Gillespie off and on for some 30 years. He’s also played with Jerry Jeff Walker and performed at Farm Aid and the Kerrville Folk Festival. In 1957 he accompanied Jack Kerouac at a poetry reading, while in 1966 he was picked as the New York Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence. Just recently, he joined with Johnny Depp for a Louisville, Ky., performance.
With his varied résumé, it shouldn’t be surprising that Amram has a few ties to Nashville. He’ll be coming to town the weekend of Jan. 17 and 18, when he’ll conduct the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of one of his most recent works. Entitled Kokopelli, after a flute-playing Pueblo spirit, the piece was written in tribute to the late flutist Murray Panitz.
“Murray...was not only a fantastic musical artist, he also encouraged and inspired many young musicians like myself,” Amram explained in a recent phone interview. “And, although each of the movements begins with the flute leading into the music, Murray loved all his fellow musicians, so the piece is like a concerto for orchestra.”
Amram notes that his work also has a sort of country-music connection: “The commission came about when NPR, for my 65th birthday, played my Theme and Variations on “Red River Valley.” Myrna Panitz [the late flutist’s widow] heard it and called me. She said she didn’t want a flute concerto, but an orchestral piece that would capture Murray’s spirit.” As it so happened, the work that piqued Ms. Panitz’s interest was written to honor Luckenbach, Texas, for a Kerrville Folk Festival performance.
The premiere of “Kokopelli” won’t be Amram’s first visit to the Middle Tennessee area; he was in Murfreesboro last fall when an MTSU ensemble performed some of his work. Amram’s Nashville ties also include a long-standing friendship with the NSO’s conductor and music director, Kenneth Schermerhorn. The two first met in 1953 while serving with the army in Germany.
“Kenneth played first trumpet, and I was first horn,” recalls Amram. “After concerts we would play in a brass trio for our German audiences, and we played all kinds of music. When [the orchestra] needed a new conductor, we chose Kenny. Our first piece was the Beethoven Fidelio Overture, and all of us in the orchestra were just hypnotized at the way he conductedwe knew even then that he was very good. It’s a great honor for me to be asked by Kenny to conduct my own work, but what I’m really looking forward to is to be able to sit back and watch Kenny conduct his own orchestra for the rest of the concert.”
While he’s in town, Amram also plans to step into his well known role as a music educator. He hopes to visit a few local schools with some indigenous instruments from his large personal collection and to talk about the cross-pollination between serious composition and popular musics, both folk and composed. In addition, he’s planning a get-together with the members of the Belmont University Camerata Musicale, which played his “American Indian Portraits” at one of its first concerts of the season.
Amram’s devotion to indigenous music is brought to the fore in his new composition: Each movement of Kokopelli pays tribute to the music of a different culture. The first movement, “Lene Tawi” (Hopi for “flute song”) is a round dance based on Hopi models. In this respect, it’s somewhat like his 1976 composition “Trail of Beauty,” which first introduced the composer to Murray Panitz when the piece was chosen by Eugene Ormandy for performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The second movement, “Mizmor Kaduma” (Hebrew for “song of antiquity”) is a lament in the ancient Hebrew style introduced by flute and harp. The Latin American-flavored finale, “Danza del mundo,” is a sprightly “celebration of the life force” that also recalls themes from the first two movements.
It was Gustav Mahler who noted that, for him, writing a symphony was like creating a world. With Amram’s far-ranging musical tastes, he brings the world to his symphonic scores. Nashvillians should get ready for the trip.
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