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A Challenging Blend

Posted by on Tuesday, March 17, 2009 in Featured, Spring 2009.

The ambitious goal of the Blair Commissioning Project is to pair each of Blair’s three signature faculty ensembles with acclaimed composers from around the world to create new music for audiences everywhere to enjoy. A Year in the Catskills by Peter Schickele is one of these most eagerly anticipated new works. It has its world debut this spring with the Blair Woodwind Quintet.

“When we received word of the James Stephen Turner Family Foundation funding of the Blair Commissioning Project in 2006, I let the ensembles pick the composer they wanted,” Dean Mark Wait says. The Blakemore Trio selected composer Susan Botti, whose new work is set for its world premiere with the trio in New York City in spring 2010, while Blair String Quartet chose Gyorgy Kurtag.

After reviewing the works of dozens of composers, the Blair Woodwind Quintet picked Schickele, perhaps best known for his satirical/musical alter-ego P.D.Q. Bach, but also an outstanding musician and composer in his own right. “The woodwind quintet is a strange animal,” says Jane Kirchner, quintet charter member since 1971. “It’s unlike a string or brass quintet, in which the instruments’ sounds are produced in basically the same way and the timbre of the group is homogenous.” The Blair ensemble consists of Kirchner, flute; Jared Hauser, oboe; Cassandra Lee, clarinet; Cynthia Estill, bassoon; and Leslie Norton, horn. “We felt we needed a composer who understands these instruments—and Schickele is a bassoonist as well as an incredible composer,” Kirchner says. “We also love this man’s humor, because, even though we take music seriously, we find much joy in our work, too.”

“He is a truly a multifaceted composer. He has an incredible catalog of compositions and has written for every medium. So one thing I know about his Blair commission is that it will be very well-crafted.”

~ Dean Mark Wait

Schickele has been finding joy in music since childhood. Born into a musical family in Iowa, Schickele grew up in Washington, D.C., and Fargo, N.D., where he studied composition with Sigvald Thompson. “We used to have lots of chamber music in the home,” Schickele recalls. “My brother played the viola and was always getting people together to play chamber music, so I was around string quartet music a lot.”

Schickele himself gravitated to the woodwinds as a young boy—and laid claim to being the only bassoonist in Fargo at the time. By the time he graduated from Swarthmore in 1957, he had already composed and conducted orchestral works, chamber music and a number of songs. He went on to study composition with Roy Harris and Darius Milhaud, and with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma at the Juilliard School of Music, where he returned to teach in 1961.

Schickele gave up teaching four years later to pursue a career as a freelance composer/performer and gained international acclaim when he “discovered” the works—and indeed the very existence—of P.D.Q. Bach, the great composer’s long-lost (yes, some would say fictional) offspring. While he still has a warm and fruitful working relationship with this branch of the Bach dynasty, Schickele has earned as much if not more acclaim in recent years composing for symphony orchestras, choral groups and chamber ensembles. A short sample of recent Schickele premieres includes: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, with Danielle Farina and the Pasadena Symphony under Jorge Mester; Symphony No. 2 The Sweet Season, premiered by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Stefan Sanderling; New Goldberg Variations for cello and piano, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax; Symphony No. 1 Songlines, premiered by the National Symphony under Leonard Slatkin and performed by such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra; and Blue Set No. 1, a jazz string quartet commissioned by the Greene Quartet and recorded on the Virgin label.

Schickele has also created music for feature films, documentaries, television commercials and several Sesame Street episodes. He was one of the composer/lyricists for Oh! Calcutta!, and his weekly syndicated radio program, Schickele Mix, has been heard nationwide over Public Radio International since 1992. Then there are his orchestral programs P.D.Q. Bach: The Vegas Years and P.D.Q. Bach Strikes Back, as well as his chamber program, P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele: The Jekyll and Hyde Tour, that continue to explore his musical satirist persona. 

“He is truly a multifaceted composer,” Wait says. “He has an incredible catalog of compositions and has written for every medium. So one thing I know about his Blair commission is that it will be very well-crafted.”

The Blair Woodwind Quintet is, from left, Leslie Norton, horn; Cynthia Estill, bassoon; Cassandra Lee, clarinet; Jane Kirchner, flute; and Jared Hauser, oboe.
The Blair Woodwind Quintet is, from left, Leslie Norton, horn; Cynthia Estill, bassoon; Cassandra Lee, clarinet; Jane Kirchner, flute; and Jared Hauser, oboe.

Part of the fun of this particular commission for Schickele is the challenge presented by writing for woodwinds. “I’ve written several pieces for string quartets, but with strings, the instruments are similar and inherently have a strong blend,” he notes. “With woodwinds, each instrument is so different. The flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, though all winds, are all different sounds, and the French horn, well, that isn’t even a woodwind and so it can really stick out. The blending is tricky—so while I want to take advantage of the variety, I also want to explore the blending.” 

Schickele’s new work explores variety and blending in five movements. The first movement, called “Fantasy,” showcases the virtuosity of the five instruments and is “hefty and involved,” according to the composer. The second movement, called “Imitations,” is a series of canons where the instruments mimic each other for what Schickele calls a “hypnotic, trance like effect.”

The third movement is inspired by the bass line from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a rich musical vein Schickele has mined in the past, resulting in several other compositions. “I still had sketches on the bass line that I had never used and had never even decided which instruments they were suited for,” Schickele says. “When I began working on this commission, I realized these sketches were perfect for a woodwind quintet.”

The fourth movement features a prominent oboe solo and a clarinet solo—and invites audience reflection. “It’s slow and still,” Schickele says.  “I don’t like to use words like ‘sad’ because it’s like telling the audience what to feel.” The fifth movement, while not overtly humorous, certainly sounds like it may leave audiences smiling. “The final movement is a bebop jazz kind of thing,” says Schickele. 

If composing for woodwinds poses a challenge, tackling a new work also tests the musicians debuting the work. “You practice even harder and study the score more closely because you don’t have previous recordings to listen to,” Kirchner says. “You have to determine the character of the music, have colleagues coach and counsel you, and tape yourselves playing the piece to listen, critique and learn more.”

Despite the extra attention a new work requires, it is perhaps the most exciting kind of music to perform. “New works offer a great opportunity to grow and learn,” Kirchner says. “And we especially need new music because the woodwind quintet doesn’t have as extensive a repertoire as the strings or brass, whose music goes back centuries. A lot of what woodwind quintets play is 20th century music. We hope Schickele’s work will be a new classic of this century.”

“We need original music,” agrees Jared Hauser, the newest member of the Blair Woodwind Quintet. “This is my first season with the quintet and one of the things that really excited me about joining the ensemble was the commissioning project. This whole series of commissioned pieces is really rare and is a big feather in the cap of the school.” 

“Not many schools of music do this,” Wait concurs. “We teach our students to play the music of the past, but it is equally important to support and nurture and present the music of the future.”

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