Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pierre Jalbert and "Autumn Rhapsody"

Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967) is one of the most highly regarded American composers of his generation, earning widespread notice for his richly colored and superbly crafted scores. Focusing primarily on instrumental works, Jalbert has developed a musical language that is engaging, expressive, and deeply personal. Among his many honors are the Rome Prize, the BBC Masterprize, and most recently, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's 2007 Stoeger Award, given biennially “in recognition of significant contributions to the chamber music repertory.”

Jalbert grew up in South Burlington, Vermont, where he studied both piano and composition with Arlene Cleary. Beginning piano lessons at the age of five, he entered and won regional competitions for young pianists, and began to write his own music at eleven, earning several composition awards while in his teens.

Jalbert studied at Oberlin Conservatory and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a PhD in composition under principal teacher George Crumb. He won the Rome Prize in 2000-2001, and was awarded the BBC Masterprize in 2001 for his orchestral work In Aeternam, selected from among more than 1,100 scores by a jury that included Marin Alsop, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Sir Charles Mackerras. In Aeternam has been performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Budapest Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the California, Hartford, San Antonio, and Santa Rosa Symphonies, and the Orlando and Rhode Island Philharmonic.

Other major works for orchestra include big sky (2005), commissioned by the Houston Symphony and performed by the ensemble at Carnegie Hall; Symphonia Sacra (2001), written for the California Symphony; Chamber Symphony (2004), commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and Fire and Ice (2006), commissioned for the Oakland East Bay, Marin, and Santa Rosa Symphonies through Meet the Composer Foundation's Magnum Opus Project.

Jalbert has served as Composer-in-Residence with the California Symphony (1999-2002), Chicago’s Music in the Loft Chamber Music Series (2003), and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (2002-05).

Jalbert's music is tonally centered, incorporating modal, tonal, and sometimes quite dissonant harmonies while retaining a sense of harmonic motion and arrival. He is particularly noted for his mastery of instrumental color: in both chamber works and orchestral scores, he creates timbres that are vivid yet refined. His rhythmic shapes are cogent, often with an unmistakable sense of underlying pulsation. Driving rhythms often alternate with slow sections in which time seems to be suspended.

While his music is not programmatic, Jalbert draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including natural phenomena. He composed big sky after visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas, a place of starkly contrasting mountain, desert, and river environments. In Icefield Sonnets for string quartet, Jalbert created transparent, glassy textures in response to poems by Anthony Hawley about life in northern latitudes. The Baltimore Sun called it “fresh [and] dynamic,” praising its “luminous colors and propulsive rhythms.” Jalbert also set Hawley’s texts directly in a 2005 song cycle of the same title, scored for soprano, baritone, and piano trio with percussion.

Spiritual concerns are also central to Jalbert’s work. Symphonia Sacra (2001), inspired by the splendor of Roman churches and cathedrals, incorporates plainchant melodies. Les espaces infinis, another orchestral score from 2001, is described by the composer as “a quiet meditation on the nature of time and space.” The Los Angeles Times observed that “the piece, which begins and ends quietly, but achieves a resonant climax at its center, holds the listener through a canny blend of instrumental colors and combinations, chromatic but not dissonant, and ultimately pleasing.”

Pierre Jalbert is Associate Professor of Composition and Theory at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, where he has taught since 1996. His music is published by the Theodore Presser Co.

Jalbert says of "Autumn Rhapsody:"

My Autumn Rhapsody was inspired by the autumn landscape in Vermont, when the trees present a multi-colored tapestry, and the wind begins to blow colder than summer. One of my favorite places in Vermont is on the Long Trail, on the top of Mount Belvidere, near Jay Peak. There's a fire tower on top which one can climb up and see the surrounding mountains of Vermont and Canada for many miles. I had this image in mind when starting work on this piece.

Written for string orchestra, the piece, all in one continuous movement, begins with a slow, lyrical and somewhat mysterious music. The music is very still, creating a sense of suspended time. This gradually gives way to a faster, more animated, and energetic music ("the wind begins to blow colder than summer"). This section is characterized by strings playing measured tremolos, the rapid, rhythmic movement of the bow across the strings. This builds to a furious climax until suddenly dissipating and the opening returns, but only for a brief moment.

Throughout my formative years in Vermont, I studied piano and composition with Arlene Cleary. She was an extremely energetic and tireless advocate for music, always striving to make herself a better musician, and helped me to do so as well. This piece is dedicated to her.