[Scene Magazine] American stories
The Santa Barbara Symphony's season finale features a grand version of Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' and a world premiere by LA composer Dan Redfeld
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
For the proverbial "season finale," this weekend at the Granada Theatre the Santa Barbara Symphony has opted to draw its energies from close to home, staking a claim in the American domain in the still Euro-centric world of orchestral culture. For a main event, maestro Nir Kabaretti leads his ensemble through the George Gershwin classic "Porgy and Bess," with a collaborative outreach to the Santa Barbara Choral Society and guest soloists in vocal roles. American composer Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2 "Romantic" works its way naturally into the all-American mix, as a purely orchestral showcase.
And even closer to home, the one fresh piece on the program comes to us via Los Angeles — and, by cultural extension, from Hollywood — in the form of a world premiere by composer Dan Redfeld. The versatile composer/conductor/pianist has worked in film and other entertainment-worldly contexts, has conducted the LA Opera, and produced a steady flow of "concert music," including his ink-still-wet Arioso for Oboe, Percussion & Strings, to be unveiled this weekend at the Granada Theatre. To add another American element, Mr. Redfeld's work pays homage to the tragedy of 9/11, a connection he discussed in a recent interview.
News-Press: You have a very versatile stake in music, as composer, conductor, arranger, pianist, orchestrator — and working in various media from film to the concert world. Was it always your intention to be flexible and work in multiple areas, or just the way things worked out?
Dan Redfeld: I have always wanted to work in different arenas, as I'm drawn to a wide variety of music. Although I come from the classical and jazz worlds, my tastes are quite varied.
I adore film music, musical theater, popular music and am especially drawn to folk idioms, such as Appalachian and Celtic. The worldwide influence of American music in the 20th century is staggering. That kind of diversity can truly enhance every American composer currently creating new music.
NP: This weekend's performances mark the world premiere of your Arioso for Oboe, Percussion & Strings, with some reverberations of September 11 in NYC. Given that context, was this composition a more difficult one for you to write — and call "finished" — than usual, given the background?
DR: Well, the piece was completed before I left for New York in September 2001. I had become romantically involved with a soprano in late spring and began drafting the themes in June. By the time I started writing the piece in July, the romance had fizzled, but I wanted to work on this piece as I felt it could be another turning point in my musical voice.
That year was a time right before the invention of the iPod, so I had to rely on memory or a Walkman to hear music when strolling around Manhattan. I was stranded in New York during 9/11 and didn't get back to Los Angeles until September 20. While there, I saw things that were quite horrific — every firehouse had wreaths and candles out front and Times Square was empty. All those images are burned into my brain forever. Because this piece was newly created, it's what played on replay in my mind while walking around the city and essentially became the soundtrack for my experiences during 9/11.
As I state in the notes on the score, if there would be a dedicatee for the Arioso, it would be the firefighters and first responders because so many gave their lives to save others and that kind of humanity triumphs over all the darkness of that morning.
NP: Can you tell me about the musical language or structural ideas involved in the piece?
DR: Well the piece is tonal and the thematic ideas very melodic. I don't like to boast, but one of my true musical signatures is my ability to compose catchy tunes. It was a blessing and a curse in music school.
I wanted to explore the complex, contrapuntal string writing heard in the works of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. I also wanted to play with dissonance as a means to create tension and release. It's something that marks all the great classical works. I feel Beethoven really mastered this. It's yin and yang or what the Italians call "chiaroscuro" — essentially light and dark. I hope I was successful in at least one of these attempts.
NP: In your formative years, you studied with Fred Karlin, who lived in Santa Barbara for a time and did some jazz gigging around the area. Did he have an impact on your musical life?
DR: I didn't know Fred lived in Santa Barbara. He had a big impact on me in terms of my musicality when scoring motion pictures. I was fortunate enough to come into the business just as the digital age was rearing its head. Fred taught us the analog way — we all learned how to calculate our timings with a click book and to conduct with and without a click track or metronome.
I'm rather antediluvian in my approach and cannot create at a computer. Fred instilled a lot of that in me along with a few other "Silver Age" composers I was lucky enough to study with. Fred was a brilliant writer and a gentleman.
NP: Some composers working in Hollywood, going back decades, have struggled to get more of their "concert music" performed. Is that something you would like to see happen more often, or are you happy with the balance of musical projects?
DR: I'm always happy to simply be writing or conducting. But I would like to see more balance with the two worlds. For some reason, Hollywood music is still looked down upon in the concert hall. It's slowly evolving, but not fast enough for me. You see how audiences respond to film music concerts. They also react in a similar fashion if music has a cinematic quality to it. So much of the revered masterworks in the repertoire possess that quality — and most were composed long before the invention of motion pictures.
I adore writing for the concert hall because I'm free to take the listener on a journey of my design. But there's a thrill to composing something that has to fit the timing constraints of a scene on film and yet has the through-line of a good piece of symphonic music. It's not easy or for the faint of heart. And there's no denying the power of hearing a John Williams piece played live by a symphony orchestra. It's magical.