Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An interview with Dr. Sara Doncaster

The following interview was conducted via e-mail with Dr. Sara Doncaster, world premiere commission composer for the 2007 Made in Vermont Music Festival statewide tour. Her piece, "Rush Patrick's Vision," will be performed at nine venues across the state during the tour beginning next week on September 27. For dates and venues, see the sidebar or visit The final question comes from our audience survey that patrons will find in their program book at each concert. The completed survey will serve as your entry into a drawing for a Cabot gift basket valued at $100.

Was it a natural choice for you to write music about your family's farm? Do you find that nature and/or Vermont themes pervade other music that you write?

Nature is often the inspiration behind my music. Rhapsody (1998), Song ofNature (2005) and several early works from my undergraduate years stem directly from perceptions of nature. I wrote a short flute and harp piece a long time ago based on a James Hayford poem "Ring of Hills." I also wrote a woodwind quintet this summer with the same name (based on themes from "Rush Patrick's Vision"). However, I consider "Rush Patrick's Vision" the first major work directly inspired by the farm. Rush Patrick would have been as old as my great-grandfather. He was a farmer who lived on a high hill farm on my parents' property. The Patrick family moved off the hill about 100 years ago. The land was purchased by the Ware family and made part of their property, which my father purchased about 50 years ago.

What elements of nature did you incorporate into the music? If we closed our eyes, could we hear anything that we might in the woods or on the top of a mountain?

"Rush Patrick's Vision" is primarily conceived as a journey through emotional states I imagined Rush Patrick might have experienced while working the land. There is a certain rustic quality to some of the melodies and woodwind doublings that are edgy, quirky, humorous and robust. I'm not sure if that is a depiction of the Patrick Family or my own! These sections were a great pleasure to work out. Even though there is no pictorial program, there are a number of times where I had an image of nature in my ear when I was writing the piece. The view is expansive and panoramic from the old farmsite. It's peaceful, but teeming with many sounds, in layers, all working together. Some specific sound images you could hear might be the hum of insects, the rhythm of haying equipment (not really a sound of nature but definitely a sound you'd hear on a farm), gusting wind. If the bright sunlight of late summer were a sound, it would be in my piece. The end of "Rush Patrick's Vision" represents the culmination of that hilltop view. The concluding harmonic progression is fairly static. Repeating patterns and melodies are played over and over, and they seem to phase in and out of the texture, sometimes recognizable, sometimes not. The final section represents the mountains in the distance, the sky, clouds and the wind blowing through the trees.

What was your favorite part of composing the piece? The worst part?

My favorite part of composing "Rush Patrick's Vision" was letting go and allowing myself to experiment. I loved writing some of the non-melodic rhythmic sections, because I was thinking in a way that I normally do not when I compose. I think the worst part of the process was proofreading -- making sure all of the phrasing, staccatos, accents, dynamics, notespellings and the like were all consistent and correct. I could lose myself for hours creating the music, but it seemed to me that the nuts and bolts aspect of the work took forever.

What's life like for a composer in Vermont? Do you think your life as a composer would be different if you were in a bustling city? Is it hard to make a living?

I love living in Vermont. I enjoy the quiet, small-town life. Irasburg is quite different than living in Burlington or other locations in central Vermont. Here in the northeast Kingdom musical events and performers are not so close by. There are wonderful concerts here in Vermont, but Montpelier and Burlington are often too far for me to drive, given my schedule and the often questionable winter driving. I do miss the city in several important respects. I miss the concert season. I lived in Boston for 18 years, an exciting center for new music, and there was always an exciting musical event to attend. I miss hanging out with other composers, and I also don't have access to performers that I can show my works in progress to. I think it's hard to make a living as a composer no matter where you might live. I am a music teacher in three public schools, so that's the way I earn my living. My commissions, grants and prize money that I win from time to time supplement my income nicely. Composing time is short, and it's often hard to write much after a full day of teaching. I have to jam a lot of work into the summers and school vacations. I have no complaints about any aspect of my career. Yes, my life as a composer would be different in a bustling city -- perhaps more performances and commissions, but I don't think my nerves would have held out. I enjoy and need solitude and quiet -- perhaps that's why I became a band teacher. :-)

Do you think that new/concert/contemporary music will gain footing with the traditional audience? Why do you think some people are turned off by this type of music?

Is it really true that modern music is not accepted by traditional audiences? I hope that isn't an issue. After all, we are in the 21st century! I am not against traditional programs, because my training as a composer began with Renaissance counterpoint and went chronologically from there. I have learned so much about my craft from writing in the style of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. However, it's important that we give equal or even more time to modern masterworks and newly composed music. From my perspective, contemporary music has gained a tremendous amount of footing, and will continue to gain even more footing as this new century unfolds. As long as presenters are willing to program modern music and audiences are willing to develop new listening strategies and are open to new ideas, new works will be heard more and more in the concert hall. There are so many exciting new works and new voices to get to know. I've been fortunate enough to see firsthand how well-received modern music can be as Director of the Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival. For 15 summers, we had a jam-packed weekend of concerts and lectures of American Music with an emphasis on music written since 1945. I was not afraid of giving our audiences the most edgy and progressive programs I could, yet well-balanced and diverse - that's important. The concerts had a steady following and we always saw new faces every year. It’s an exciting time now for presenters -- I know first hand that audiences are ready for something new.

If you were the Big Cheese at Cabot and could create and name a new flavor, what would it be and why?

I love Cabot Cheese. The milk from the beautiful Jersey cows on Hillandale Farm, who graze on the meadows of Rush Patrick's old hill farm, goes into Cabot Cheese. With fond memories of hot apple pie, homemade vanilla ice cream and sharp cheddar cheese, I'd like to see an "Apple Cheddar" developed. Keep reading!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Serenade for Strings

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was written in the early autumn of 1880, during the same period in which he composed his overture The Year 1812. “The overture will be very loud and noisy,” he wrote in a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, “but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merit in it. I composed the serenade from inner conviction. It is a heartfelt piece and so, I dare to think, is not lacking in real qualities.”

Within Tchaikovsky’s pantheon of musical gods, Mozart stood above all others, and the serenade affectionately evokes Mozart’s style, albeit through the prism of late 19th-century Romanticism. The forms and phrases are clear and symmetrical. Simple melody with accompaniment is the primary expressive vehicle, balanced by passages in a contrapuntal style, the textures alternating between Classic lucidity and Romantic lushness.

Like Mozart, Tchaikovsky’s style was musically eclectic, as the serenade demonstrates. The waltz music of the first and second movements are prime examples of his unsurpassed skill in writing music for this European dance-form. The beginning of the third movement recalls the chorales of Russian church music before yielding to a full-throated operatic aria. The finale is based on two Russian folk tunes which are treated both in the traditional Russian-nationalist manner (continuous repetitions with varying accompaniments) and the European style (characterized by development and elaboration of melodic material).

As with Mozart, Tchaikovsky blends these diverse elements to create music that is at once entertaining (in the best sense) and emotionally compelling.
-- Anthony Princiotti

Keep reading!

Rush Patrick's Vision

Sara Doncaster (1964 - )

“The music of what happens,” said great Fionn, “that is the finest music in the world.”
--James Stephens, Irish Fairy Stories

"Rush Patrick’s Vision" was inspired by the view around me while sitting at the foundation of an old farm on a high pasture on my family's farm in Irasburg. The first half of the piece is restless and turbulent, somewhat fragmented, suggesting the starkness, severity and isolation often prevalent living on a high mountain farm. The second half of the piece begins with lyrical, introspective lines, inspired by the hills, the sky and the wind from the high mountain vista. This slower music introduces a contrapuntal section based on a long, ascending theme accompanied by several countersubjects. Rush Patrick’s Vision culminates with an intense stretto then ends peacefully, symbolizing the mystical healing power of the land and the spiritual strength gained from the work accomplished there. Rush Patrick was an earlier settler of the land my father purchased years later which is now part of Hillandale Farm, owned by the Doncaster Family.

-- Sara Doncaster
Keep reading!

Serenade for Winds, Cello, and Bass

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

Dvorak’s composing career was given a huge boost in 1877 when Johannes Brahms recommended to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, that he would do well to look into the young composer’s Moravian Duets. Once the duets were published, it also helped that the German critic Max Schutz weighed in as follows: “Only a master writes like this; only a poet by God’s grace has such inspiration.”

The Serenade for Winds was written in 1878 in just two weeks! During that same year Dvorak also wrote his famous Slavonic Dances (which brought him immediate international success), several orchestra works, five folk choruses, two songs, and various piano works. The Serenade was well received, and garnered another glowing review--from Hermann Krigar, who wrote “What fine artistic expression, what compelling melodies and touching harmonic progressions the composer has at his disposal.” Brahms himself expressed delight in the piece to his violinist friend Joseph Joachim, saying “It would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant and charming creative talent. It must be a pleasure for the musicians to play!”

Amply endowed with the spirit of Czech folk music, the piece begins with a tongue-in-cheek homage to the serenades of Mozart. The second movement includes two Czech folk dances: the sousedska (neighbor’s dance) and a furiant. A lovely melody graces the third movement, while the finale bubbles with high spirits. A reminiscence of the opening march theme brings the work to a jubilant close.
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Italian Serenade

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)

Adapted by Anthony Princiotti

Although Schubert is certainly a strong contestant, many would assert that Hugo Wolf was the greatest composer of art songs, or lieder, of all time. If a tragic life is a requirement, Wolf had that going for him for sure. He was a manic depressive and (like Schubert) suffered from syphilis (looking for love in all the wrong places). Towards the end of his life he became quite mad, insisting that he rather than Gustav Mahler was the director of the Vienna State Opera. Who knows what gems he might have composed had he not hastened his own demise?!

Born in Windischgraz, Austria, he studied music with his father, who was not a musician but a leather tradesman. He attended the Vienna Conservatory but was expelled for “breach of discipline” in 1877. He became a piano teacher, barely scraping by financially. His first compositions were orchestral: a string quartet and a symphonic poem. They did not meet with critical approval, so he began to compose songs instead, building on the expressive and dramatic musical innovations of Richard Wagner. In 1882 he wrote the Italian Serenade, which became quite popular, and is now considered to be one of the first works of his mature style. He originally wrote it for string quartet, then later orchestrated it. The solo viola parts were at first shared with solo English horn, but in his final revision the English horn lost out.

By 1894, Berlin had set up a Hugo Wolf Society! Although his fiery temperament (he was known as “Wild Wolf”) got him into trouble periodically, his musical gifts and his personal charm earned him attention and patronage. He was a great admirer of Franck and Liszt, although he felt much of Liszt’s music was too academic, whereas he strove at all times for color and passion in his writing. Certainly Wolf’s place in history is assured by his huge outpouring of lieder, but there is a little spot reserved for this marvelous instrumental piece as well.

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The VSO hits the road in time for foliage season.

Made in Vermont Music Festival to Serenade Audiences Statewide.

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra will bring a musical harvest to towns across Vermont this autumn with its annual "Made in Vermont Music Festival." The popular series will travel across the state from Thursday, September 27 to Sunday, October 7.

The VSO will serenade audiences in nine locations. Its bounty this fall includes a quartet of serenades: two exuberant works for winds and strings by Dvorak and Tchaikovsky; a world premiere by Irasburg composer Sara Doncaster called "Rush Patrick's Vision;" and a special adaptation by Anthony Princiotti of Hugo Wolf's lighthearted Italian Serenade. Dr. Doncaster, Director of the Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival, was commissioned to write her piece by the VSO. All performances will be led under the baton of Anthony Princiotti.

Concert venues and dates are listed in the right-hand column.

Tickets can be purchased at a variety of outlets. Outlet information can be found at our website, Tickets for a majority of the concerts can be purchased through the Flynn Regional Box Office at (802) 86-FLYNN or by visiting their website, Special discounts are available for seniors and students.

Tourwide support is generously provided by Vermont State Colleges and Chittenden Bank.
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