John Frayne: C-U Symphony's new in-residence composer delights

John Frayne: C-U Symphony's new in-residence composer delights

Composer Stacy Garrop is the new Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra Music Alive Composer-in-Residence, and being the new composer in town, Stephen Alltop and the CU Symphony organized a chamber concert to allow Garrop to introduce herself and samples of her compositions to music lovers of this area. The concert was entitled "Legends" and it took place on Sept. 6 in the Illinois Ballroom of the I Hotel in Champaign. The admission was free, and the ballroom was filled to capacity.

Two of the three works played were depictions in music of the ancient Greek gods, and Garrop's most famous work, "Mythology Symphony," portrays famous legendary characters of Greek myth such as Medusa, the Sirens and Pandora.

Garrop's own phrase for her work is "dramatic and lyrical storytelling," and her music uses traditional elements of melody, rhythm and harmony to tell her stories. In some ways, her goals are conservative by contemporary musical fashions. From the rise of the Romantic movement in the 19th century on, it was generally assumed by audiences that music was always about "something," telling a story or portraying a character. By 1900, everyone was writing "tone poems." By 1925, no one was, and music was about music, and telling stories in music was relegated to children's concerts. The urge to stamp out "extramusical" effects was never entirely successful, but the tide was running heavily against "program music."

So, it is quite refreshing to encounter a composer who writes music about things that we in the audience already know something about.

At this concert, Garrop, with a charming and disarming manner, introduced her pieces, explaining the mythic allusions and the circumstances of their composition. Speaking of the first work, for string quartet, entitled "Athena Triumphant," Garrop described Athena as the goddess of war and wisdom. I had always connected Athena more with wisdom than war, but Garrop's music definitely set Athena on a battlefield. Music of struggle at the beginning was relieved by serene music with lovely phrases for the first violin. The quartet members were CU Symphony players Sun-Young Shin, violin, Aaron Jacobs, violin, Robin Kearton, viola, and Barbara Hedlund, cello.

Next came two highly contrasting poems by famous African-American poets. Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the first poet of his race to achieve national attention. His four-line poem "Dawn" was given simple and direct treatment by Garrop, and it was sung with beautiful phrasing by soprano Josefien Stoppelenberg, with polished accompaniment by Stephen Alltop at the piano. Next came a setting of the famous poem "We real cool," by Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black Laureate of the United States. The overlapping lines were delivered in staccato style, and the final line, spoken by Stoppelenberg, "We die young," came across like a slap in the face.

The last offerings were Garrop's three movements from "Legends of Olympus" for Brass Quintet. The first piece, "Helios," contrasted vividly the sun god's romp across the sky with the ominous moods of night. "Aphrodite" began and ended with "whispers" from the players. This love goddess' famous rising from the sea was suggested by intense soaring phrases, especially from the trombone. This robust version was a far cry from Ottorino Respighi's gauzy evocation of Sandro Botticelli's famous painting. Lastly came the messenger god Hermes, and for him Garrop gave the brass players evocative fleet-footed phrases. The brass players were Jenny Brown, trumpet, Tracy Parish, trumpet, Marc Zyla, horn, Elliot Chasanov, trombone, and Marc Moore, tuba.

There was a relaxed, family air about the concert, and at the end conductor Alltop introduced all the orchestra players, asking them to say how long they had played in the orchestra.

At CU Symphony's concert on March 2, we will hear more of Garrop's engaging and evocative music when Alltop conducts three movements from the "Mythology Symphony": "The Lovely Sirens," "The Fates of Man" and "Pandora Undone."

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.