AIDS quilt inspired Caltabiano's work

October 21, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

"I always want to write music that moves people an continues to play in their memories long after they've heard it," Ronald Caltabiano says.

That prescription had even greater urgency when the 30-year-old composer was writing "Quilt Panels," which the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform tomorrow night in the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore series at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Caltabiano's work is a sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano and was written last year on a CMSLC commission. It was inspired by a trip that the young composer made to Washington a few years ago to view The Quilt, a tapestry of 3-by-6-foot panels that commemorates the victims of AIDS.

"When I saw the quilt, I didn't know that I would be writing musiabout it," he says by phone from his home in New York. "In fact, music was the last thing on my mind. But any powerful emotional experience continues to affect you, and not long afterward I began to have ideas for a piece."

Caltabiano says his work is not like John Corigliano's AIDS-inspired Symphony No. 1, which was premiered last year by the Chicago Symphony and whose individual sections are dedicated to various dead friends.

"My piece is much less direct than that," he says. "In certain cases I had certain personalities in mind. But the intent of 'Quilt Panels' was kaleidoscopic, rather than specific, and it represents a distillation of sorrow."

If "Quilt Panels" is anything like such recent pieces as "Northwest!" for orchestra or the String Quartet No. 2, it should be both challenging and accessible. Those works alternate between violent, propulsive expressionistic tendencies and longspun, sensuous lyricism. Unlike his contemporary Michael

Torke, for example, Caltabiano's music is unaf

fected by minimalism. But his works feature recurring, recognizable phrases that lend a defining clarity to the music's overall form.

"Repetition is one way of defining structure," he says. "It's one of the things that we lost for a while during the 1950s and 1960s when academic composers were writing for audiences that consisted largely of themselves. My first pieces were fairly strict serial pieces. But in the last 10 years I have tried to combine those techniques with tonality. I'd say that 'Quilt Panels' is typical of what I've been striving to do up to now."

The Long Island-born and -raised composer studied as a child with Elie Siegmeister. As a 16-year-old he went off to Juilliard to work with Vincent Persichetti and Elliot Carter. Until about 10 years ago, anyone who heard the young man's music might have thought he was a quasi-Carter -- so abstract, gnarled and concentrated was his music.

His "turning point" was three summers -- 1979, 1980 and 1981 -- spent studying with the distinguished British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. The older man even lent Caltabiano his cottage in the Orkneys, near the Arctic Circle, in the summer of 1981. It was there -- in the strange light of the White Nights, sitting at a desk that looked directly north to where the North Sea met the Atlantic Ocean -- that the then 21-year-old composer wrote the dramatic and lyrical String Quartet No. 1, which established him as one of America's important young musicians.

But, though he once thought otherwise, Caltabiano is not sure any composer can be called specifically "American."

"I don't see how one can make such designations," he says. "Copland, for example, wrote 'Appalachian Spring' and 'Inscape.' Which of them are we to say truly represents American music. If we live an American experience, then the music we write is American."

Chamber music at the BMA

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform tomorrow at 8 p.m. in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Meyerhoff Auditorium. The program includes works by Brahms, Peter Lieberson and Charles Wuorinen. Admission is $13. Call 366-8504 or 486-7566 for information.

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