From Johnny Cash to contemporary chamber orchestra music. Go ahead, call me a culture vulture or an arts parasite, but please don’t call Culture Currents predictable.
Nor do I want to present this post under false pretenses, although I offer it with genuine enthusiasm for the music link here within.
Frank Stemper is an old friend, whom I have blogged about before, and a highly gifted and skilled composer and head of the composition department at Southern Illinois University — Carbondale. His music has been performed throughout the United States and Europe and in Mexico.
Composer Frank Stemper
He has long been known for an expressionistic and dramatic style with varying degrees of dissonance and shifting time signatures. He now offers The Persistence of Honor, a short piece of terse and restrained lyricism in a yearning and consonant mode, and inspired originally by Barack Obama’s first election. As his program notes below suggest, Persistence seems highly appropriate in reprised form as a meditation on the first African-American president’s re-election and the challenge and promise it offers.
Here are Stemper’s program notes, followed by my response to the piece.
The Persistence of Honor was commissioned by the Dutch chamber orchestra, Het Wagenings Orkest ‘Sonante’, as part of their 25th anniversary celebration. It was premiered in November 2009 by that orchestra in the Netherlands, directed by their dedicated and extremely talented conductor, Melvin Margolis.
In the music, you will probably notice a continuous, unrelenting – almost annoying – repetition of a rising pensive refrain. Although this idea repeats “persistently,” it never repeats exactly. Tiny musical changes create a continuous evolution of this refrain, with each statement delivering the same message in a slightly different way.
What follows is a slightly edited response I wrote directly to Stemper upon recently hearing the piece, performed here by The New Chicago Chamber Orchestra.
The descending “sigh” note at the end of the ascending phrase at 5:30 touched me as much as the much richer, fuller end that soon followed.
The motivic phrase obviously signifies the “persistence of honor,” and the rather rapturous variation around 8:30 feels like glorious vindication. (coincidentally the first piece of music I wrote is titled Vindication and dedicated to Jackie Robinson,* though it doesn’t sound anything like this.)
One might imagine the motif emerging from more dissonance but, as you wrote it, the presence seems almost untouchable and impregnable, which makes it feel somewhat idealistic. Even the most honorable of us have our moments of weakness, to say the least. I imagine Mother Teresa had her bitchy moments. I’m reading a book called President Lincoln: the Duty of a Statesman, about perhaps as fine an example of complex honor we’ve known among our leaders
Nevertheless, I enjoyed and appreciated your piece as it was.
I like that it began with the cello, with his deep-hum eloquence, and the persistence felt as sure as a wind — part temperate, part cool — rising to clear away fetid atmosphere. That’s how it seemed plausible; Nature passes eventually to uncanny redemptive light, even after its most destructive tempests. Human nature also retains that potential.
The music also conveys to me a sense of slow, sure human healing and, though you might shudder to think of your music in search terms, it has an almost therapeutic quality. I intend that as no mixed praise.
“Persistence” shows how deftly you can handle a consonant palette, though the chords at the end grew magnificent in their blend of light and shadow, with hints of the hoary weight the Persistence is doubtlessly bearing.
I will play this again. It graces my player.
* Historically paralleling Barack Obama, Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball, in 1947 when he debuted with Brooklyn Dodgers.
photo of Barack Obama courtesy: paydayadvanceUK.co.uk