Raising Standards--Conductor Clark Suttle uses music to establish 'high road.'
Thursday, March 12, 1998
Think you know Clark Suttle? Just wait ''til you hear his Concerto for Strings which open the Monterey County Symphony concerts, March 22-24. While the music director of the MCS is a little coy about what inspired him to write the piece, he hints that it grew out of a conversation about certain "nightmarish" events in his life during the last two years. Do those events correspond with the inappropriate leaks-and subsequent legal action-about Suttle''s contract with the MCS not being renewed? He won''t say. At least in words.
What he has said in music, however, is pointed, virtuosic and personal. It shows remarkable mastery of forms and vivid individuality.
"I wanted to write something that was tonal and kind of new at the same time," Suttle said, almost nonchalantly, during a recent interview. "Of course, it quickly flowered into the piece it is today," he added, explaining that he worked on it for two and a half months, up to 40 hours a week, finishing last November.
To listen through the work''s 25-minute performing time (Suttle produced a synthesized preview version on audio tape) is to be amazed at its economy of means, kaleidoscopic effects and sizzling energy. That there is nothing extraneous-no chaff with the wheat-is further testimony to Suttle''s efficient use of materials. How did he learn such a high order of craftsmanship? "I studied in school," he says laconically. And then adds, "Absorbing scores and conducting orchestras for 25 years, you pick up a few things."
During his studies, Suttle dedicated himself to the analysis of counterpoint, an intellectual discipline that has sent many a musician, including not a few famous composers, onto the rocks of despair. "Bach is a big influence in my education," Suttle says of his training, "and likewise Shostakovich." The rhythmically charged first and third movements of the Concerto flash with contrapuntal brilliance. But in the central slow movement, "I tried, for the sake of contrast, to be serene and arrhythmic. Its long measures, in 8/4, 9/4, 11/4, with elongated triplets, makes it hard to figure out where the beat is. For that, I turned for advice to Vaughan Williams." Suttle''s wife Arna describes the movement as a dialog between wisdom and hope (itself an allusion to Bach). "She saw the first of the three themes as wisdom," he explains, "that hope, the second theme, is not always happy, and in fact can be quite tortured." The third theme Suttle describes as the "soul work" of the whole piece, an accepting, comforting embrace.
As Suttle reports, people who have heard the tape "have all come up with their own stories about it. Everybody seems to have a very visual picture." However, because the work uses classical forms, it is easy to describe in musical terms. The composer started the first movement''s "nightmarish" theme in the second violin, then added viola, cello and bass lines in counterpoint, with the melodic first violin part added last. Called Allegro intensivo, he chose a 5/4 meter with frequent digressions into 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, to further syncopate its driving energy. The first movement uses the classical sonata-allegro, in common practice since the middle 18th century. "It follows the same form as Mozart''s 40th Symphony, first movement," says Suttle. The piece also uses imitation, fugue, stretto, augmentation, and quotes themes and cadences from the Lutheran hymn tradition, such as the Doxology tune and so-called Dresden Amen. For extra harmonic spice, he adds devilishly delicious tritones and weirdly vertiginous modulations.
Suttle originally envisioned a string quintet, but soon realized that the work demanded a string orchestra, where divisi writing could allow him to virtually double the texture and substantially enlarge the harmonic richness. He wrote the work at his personal computer, using "Finale," a program specifically designed for composing large scores, like a word processor converted to a note processor (the sort of technology Bach would have been tempted to trade one of his 20 children for). "But you have to keep the whole score in your head," he adds. "You might only be able to see three or four voices on the screen at a time. Some of the Concerto''s melodies do not always stay in a single voice, the voices criss-cross, which is not always easy to see in the score. And since I didn''t want to let down the tension, my floor became cluttered with printouts. Fortunately, Finale makes it very easy to correct errors."
Suttle wrote the last movement, a rondo he calls Danza del Diablo, in three days. Its main theme sounds originally in the celli and basses, but is often obscured by rapidly rising whole-tone passages in the upper strings. "After the fact, I realized I had given the long-suffering violas not a single rest," shrugs Suttle. Once again, there are many meter changes designed to increase rhythmic energy through syncopation. Although the movement is built from only one theme, contrasting ideas spark increasing adventure. Where the strings play pizzicato, in a danse macabre passage, the theme has been turned upside-down; a bass-line motif reprises a theme from the first movement, played in shortened note values (a technique called diminution). Out of this fierce maelstrom, suddenly the gleaming ''soul-work'' theme of the second movement bursts through for one last but unforgettable moment of glory.
While Suttle''s relations with his employer have soured to the point where communication itself has become disabled, his orchestra can and does empathize, as one musician to another. With clarity and confidence, Suttle has chosen the most eloquent language he knows to sound a note of personal vision and triumph. This will be a concert to remember.
Last Week''s Quiz: Who compiled the BWV listing of works by JS Bach and when was it published? ANSWER: Wolfgang Schmieder; published in 1950.
This Week''s Quiz: Emma Bardac divorced one of the most influential French composers to marry another. Name them. cw
University of Notre Dame Concert Band
Thursday, 7:30pm. Famed "Fighting Irish" band plays benefit concert for performing arts program at Salinas'' Notre Dame High School. King Hall, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey. $10. 644-8257. (Group ticket discounts, 624-7595.)
Pianist Andras Schiff
Friday, 8pm. Carmel Music Society presents award-winning, concert/recording artist in sonatas by Scarlatti, Haydn, Schumann. Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at 9th Avenue, Carmel. $40, $30, $15. 625-9938.
Guitarist/Composer Peter Evans
Saturday, 8pm. Acclaimed local flamenco/classical guitarist Peter Evans joins conductor John Anderson and Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra in world-premieres of Evans'' works, including The Hums of Edward Bear (inspired by episodes from Winnie the Pooh), Five Dances of Seville, and Montereyanas. Music Hall, Monterey Peninsula College, 980 Fremont St., Monterey. $12, $10. 646-4200.
Youth and Honors Orchestra
Sunday, 3pm. John Larry Granger conducts annual Youth Music Monterey joint concert with local professional musicians and guest conductor Clark Suttle. Featured works include Herold''s Zampa Overture, Beethoven''s Triple Concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov''s Russian Easter. Performing Arts Center, Santa Catalina School, 1500 Mark Thomas Dr., Monterey. $5/general, $3/seniors & students. 375-1992.
Monterey Bay Choral Festival
Sunday, 3pm. Seven church and community choirs from Monterey County, coordinated by John Koza, in music by Lasso, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Haydn, others. Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at 9th Avenue, Carmel. $5/general, free/children under 6. 449-2717.