Two world premieres — one in jazz and the other for chamber ensemble — mark this year’s Utah Arts Festival. And, for only the fourth time in festival history, the Jazz Master Award will be given. Each of these musicians has amassed distinguished portfolios as indicated below.
Henry Wolking, ‘Time Passing Time,’ Friday, June 22, 8:30 p.m., Festival Stage
‘Percy Grainger meets Frank Zappa’ is how Reed LeCheminant, lead trumpet for the Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra, describes Henry Wolking’s world premiere piece ‘Time Passing Time,’ which is this year’s jazz commission for the Utah Arts Festival.
Indeed, the work is not a conventional big band chart piece but instead is a large jazz ensemble composition that builds upon actually very little melodic material with rhythmic fields that include lilting dances, triplet forms, and ostinato patterns in dotted eighth and sixteenth-note phrases. ‘I’m using a small amount of melodic material in a huge way,’ Wolking explains. The chorale is based on a short composition Wolking wrote for his mother’s memorial service when she died at 93 in 2009.
A trombonist and prolific, highly diverse composer who retired last year from The University of Utah after nearly 40 years, Wolking mellows and warms the colors and textures in his new work with the trombones, flugelhorns, alto flute, and bass clarinet.
As for an artistic statement behind the work’s title, Wolking prefers to leave it rather open-ended so that listeners can approach freely the work with their own sensations of remembrance. Not necessarily disposed to taking up the post of musical oracle to put a concrete significance on the work, he says that ‘normally titles have always been a hard thing for me.’The work is intended to be joyous and uplifting, he adds.
And, like John Hollenbeck a drummer and jazz composer whom Wolking deeply admires, Wolking prefers to have listeners see his music as easily approachable and where its pleasure resides not in something that becomes incomprehensible but in sounds that are new and do not have to conjure up stiff abstract or esoteric avant-garde perceptions. Wolking’s gift comes in his capacity to bring a complex mix of elements – from polyrhythms to melodic chorales to the unmistakable grooving inflections of jazz – to music that can be taken seriously while reassuring both novice and experienced listeners that it’s okay to enjoy it purely on its entertaining merits.
Wolking wrote ‘Forests,’ the first orchestral commission for the Utah Arts Festival in 1991 and has spearheaded the festival’s commission program, which included establishing the jazz commission. He was quite surprised yet deeply honored when Lisa Sewell, the festival’s executive director, shared the organization’s decision to have him pen this year’s jazz commission.
Immediately after the premiere, Wolking flies to Prague where the Moravian Philharmonic will record two of his works – as part of a PARMA recording project – that will be released internationally by Naxos in enhanced CD and electronic media formats through Amazon.
One is ‘Gone Playin’,’ a concerto for clarinet and chamber orchestra which is a musical riff off epitaphs one might see on gravestones. While there are some small hints to Copland, who also wrote a concerto for a similar type of ensemble, Wolking’s work has plenty of Afro-Cuban rhythms that sit well in any jazz music and it reflects a consistent trademark of many of his works with its complex harmonies that are universally ear-friendly.
The concerto was written for the Utah Symphony and was played during the orchestra’s tour in Austria in 2006. The work also was played at the Utah Arts festival in 2007.
The other work to be recorded will be the ‘Old Gypsy’ string quartet with four movements that represent quite a nice treasure trove of musical ideas and forms. The work includes a fanfare motif, a Hungarian folk tune, a lullaby with a strong jazz profile matched against a waltz, and a movement energized by competing atonal and tonal harmonic tensions.
Wolking has been among the most important musical figures in the Utah scene. Coming to the University of Utah at the age of 23 in 1972 to lead the area of jazz studies, he has written roughly two dozen compositions for orchestra and more than 45 of his jazz and brass chamber ensemble works have been published my major outlets. Wolking also has published much of his work through his own company.
The Utah Symphony has premiered several of his works, including his first symphony and a trombone concerto. His music has been performed internationally including the Warsaw Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony, and the BBC Jazz Orchestra. His ballet ‘Forever Yesterday,’ which premiered 20 years ago was broadcast on the NPR’s ‘Performance Today.’
Timothy Kramer, ‘Lake Effect,’ Saturday, June 23, 4 p.m., City Library auditorium
Utahns will readily comprehend the distinctly impressionistic nature of a rapidly building snowstorm that gathers its punch as it develops near the Great Salt Lake in Timothy Kramer’s ‘Lake Effect,’ the chamber ensemble commission for this year’s Utah Arts Festival which is made possible through the Mandel Foundation.
The work – scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion – moves quickly in its 10-minute length with a set of six variations on two musical ideas with distinct harmonic and rhythmic characteristics. Its structure, quite familiar to that of Beethoven’s famous Piano Sonata No. 32 in C-Minor (Opus 111), starts out quietly in a seemingly hesitant manner as it brings together sparse melodic fragments and rapidly accelerates into a musically ferocious scene before ending on what Kramer describes as a ‘calmer landscape.’
At various points in the music, Utahns also will definitely hear a handful of elements from the iconic Mormon hymn ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’ Kramer employs a toccata figure which transforms from its seemingly innocent character into an aggressive force that he says eventually ‘runs into large vertical monoliths – or mountains’ before leaving the listener with a calmer variation that corresponds to the musical expression of the hymn’s text ‘that all is well.’
No doubt, Kramer’s new work will sound big in the sharp acoustics of the City Library auditorium where the work will be heard for the first time with Andrew Rindfleisch, the artistic director, leading the ensemble. The percussion for the work includes vibraphone, small and large suspended cymbals, four temple blocks, tambourine, tam-tam, and kick drum.
A native of the Pacific Northwest, Kramer is chair of the music department at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. He moved to the Midwest in 2010 from San Antonio, where he founded the Composers Alliance of San Antonio and taught at Trinity University for 19 years. The decision for a switch was actually quite easy, he explains. ‘My wife has been teaching in Illinois since 2002 and we got tired of the flying back and forth, he says, adding that the new post has given him the opportunity to grow a music program in a small college setting that is getting a lot of enthusiastic support by college administrators as well as the community. One of his forthcoming commissions will be to write music to mark the town symphony’s 50th anniversary next year. Others include a saxophone concerto and the setting of three songs for baritone and piano.
Like many other contemporary composers, Kramer was raised on a lot of popular music as well as jazz and classical musical. In high school, he studied and practiced on all types of keyboard instruments including organ and harpsichord as well as electric bass guitar for his school’s jazz ensemble. At the University of Michigan where he did his doctoral studies with American composers such as William Bolcom and William Albright, who have been significantly influential in blurring and erasing the boundaries between popular and high-art forms of music.
Indeed, as Kramer suggests, this type of training primes the composer to write various elements of rhythm, melody, and harmony incorporating all types of musical influences without necessarily even being aware that he is doing it at the time. For example, a work for organ that was inspired by the 9/11 events and premiered in 2002 at the American Guild of Organists convention, Meditation (Noël Nouvelet) integrates an old French carol as the music moves from darkness into light. However, in remarks that were shared at John Clare’s blog about composers and their thoughts about their work, Kramer wrote:
‘I had this work played at festival in Florida, with no program notes. After the performance, a composer, who was Egyptian, came up to me and asked me about the piece. He thought it must have a program behind it. He said that the mode that I used at the opening sounded like the Arabic mode Saba, a melancholy mode used for mourning, loss, and grief. Wow. I was amazed at what popped up in the music.’
Kramer has composed for many types of ensembles, ranging from orchestra to choir to concert band to keyboard and solo pieces for tape, clarinet, and amplified cello.
Neil Weight, 2012 Jazz Master, Friday, June 22, 8:30 p.m., Festival Stage
While Neil Weight, 77, remains gracefully understated about his contributions to the Utah jazz community, Henry Wolking does not hesitate to explain how Weight’s contributions pioneered the rise of jazz music performance and appreciation in Salt Lake City area high schools.
‘No doubt, he was Mr. Jazz, especially in the 1960s and 1970s,’ Wolking explains. After earning his bachelor’s degree in music at The University of Utah and a teaching certificate at the end of the 1950s, Weight set his sights on starting a jazz program at Granite High School in 1963 when he joined the staff.
Within three years, Weight laid the foundations for a jazz band that could compete at a highly regarded jazz festival in Reno which drew phenomenally talented ensembles from California and all points rising up along the Pacific Northwest coast. While the band came away from its first festival without any awards and was generally overwhelmed by the initial experience, the students kept on practicing. Two years later, Weight took the band to Reno, where against 125 other bands, the ensemble took the first place trophy in the rigorous Quadruple-A division.
“It took a lot of discipline because it was hard to build a tradition from the ground up,’ Weight recalls, adding that the students were really motivated and they even rehearsed during the summer.
In many ways, Weight’s story is the real-life version of the 1996 fictional drama film ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus,’ the story about a 30-year career of a high school music teacher in Portland, Oregon.
However, what is most reassuring about Weight’s career is the ever-strong passion for communicating his most wonderful gift of music, which continues today with his excellent arrangements of many jazz standards and which he has done for more than 50 years. In fact, the Utah Arts Festival’s newest Jazz Master Award recipient also will have one of his latest arrangements performed by the Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra – the jazz standard ‘Body and Soul’ featuring clarinetist Jerry Floor.
That gift for communication undoubtedly changed the lives of some of his students. A Granite High School counselor asked Weight if he could help out with a student who was on the verge of dropping out of school – because of excessive truancy and drug use – but who really liked music and wanted to play the electric bass. ‘He was a sophomore and he wasn’t eligible to be in the band,’ Weight recalls, ‘but I took him on the trip to Reno when the band went for the first time to compete.’ The experience was the first step in the boy’s transformation who was motivated to practice and Weight says he was in the band that won the trophy in Reno in the first of two consecutive top finishes. The student went on to a successful medical career.
Weight never wavered in the faith to help out a student’s potential – especially with a student who lived in the western outskirts of the district on a goat farm. ‘He wanted so desperately to be a tenor sax player so I sent him to one of the teachers at the U.,’ Weight says. ‘However, the teacher came back and said, ‘Neil, the boy is hopeless.’
The negative prognosis didn’t faze him nor the boy. ‘Two years later, after practicing and listening constantly, he did a great solo.’
Likewise, his students never limited themselves to the possibilities. A young female clarinetist copied a favorite Woody Herman arrangement off a recording and played the solo at a festival that impressed the judges. When Cottonwood High School opened its doors in 1970, Herman joined the faculty and established an award-winning jazz program there. Meanwhile, he was making a little history himself in the University of Utah’s graduate music program becoming the first student to do a master’s thesis in writing an original jazz composition. And, according to Wolking, this was before the school had formalized a graduate music degree program specifically for jazz studies.
As a boy, Weight took up at the trumpet at the age of 10. ‘I liked to practice,’ he recalls, ‘but I also was interested in becoming a good trumpet player, not necessarily a professional.’ He developed his playing chops quickly because by the age of 13, he was playing professional gigs with a first trumpet player who was 29.
He snagged up as many 45-rpm records as he could manage so he could listen to the interpretations of great trumpeters such as Dizzy Gillespie and Shorty Rogers.
In no time, Weight became a top on-call trumpet player for every imaginable type of gig, playing with celebrities, jazz ensembles, and theater pit bands and orchestras. At the same time, he cultivated his reputation as a skilled arranger. He performed with the National Guard Army Band for 26 years and became staff arranger for the concert and jazz bands of the 23rd Army Band, which still performs his music today. Since he retired from Skyline High School in 1995 after being more than 20 years on the faculty and staff, Weight – despite some health problems – has continued to compose many arrangements that college as well as professional bands have performed across the country. A regular arranger for the Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra, he also will have work featured at next month’s Salt Lake International Jazz Festival.
Weight’s induction as a Jazz Master brings the class of honorees to four. The others – Larry Smith, Lars Yorgason and Bob Bailey – will be on hand at Friday’s presentation to congratulate the newest member of this prestigious group. Like the others, Weight has done much to give Salt Lake City quite an impressive reputation for jazz, given the size of the city.
For more information about the festival and performers, see here.
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