A novel composer of music American poets inspire this Renaissance man

March 07, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

ELAM RAY SPRENKLE has roots in the Mennonites of southern Pennsylvania. That explains his Biblical first name and may clarify his modest disposition and energetic yet soft diction.

More difficult is finding the wellspring of his versatility. He teaches music history, theory and ideas at the Peabody Conservatory and Johns Hopkins University, he's a choir director at Second Presbyterian Church, a radio veteran favoring facts to opinions, an admirer of American creativity, a baseball fan straining for the Orioles' first pitch and a Civil War student unable to shake his upbringing near Gettysburg.

But all of this is secondary when Sprenkle drops the Ray and signs his name. That means he's finished another composition as Elam Sprenkle, one of Maryland's foremost composers. He's just done it again. A new five-movement mixed-chorus piece, "Birches," is to be heard at 8 p.m. Saturday in a Columbia Pro Cantare and Annapolis Brass concert under the direction of Frances Motyca Dawson.

Inspired by the Robert Frost poem, "Birches" is Sprenkle's fourth work for the chorus. The chorus and the Brass will offer a program of Renaissance and American music including songs by Aaron Copland and choruses from "Candide" by Leonard Bernstein.

The first thing you notice about Elam Ray Sprenkle is that he talks funny; not Henny Youngman funny, but Sprenkle informative. His ideas, stored up in complete sentences, rush out like sluice gates letting out the water . . . pause . . . then the second wave rushes out, all in beautifully crafted and considered thoughts. You have to listen closely or you'll miss out.

After a quick and nervous "Why are you doing this?", Sprenkle settled down for an interview recently, lit a pipe and began talking about creating things, something he's done in his mainly straightforward American style "between 30 and 40 times in the last 15 years."

"If I put myself in the right mode, I get ideas. Once I have a musical idea, it doesn't vanish. I work it out from beginning to end as scraps in my head and on the piano. Then I sit down and in one burst, three or four hours a day, I write it. That's the burdensome part. I put 'Birches' down in September and October. It's the best one I've done in awhile, the tightest."

"Birches," 50 pages, more than 1,000 bars and about 30 minutes long, is the latest Sprenkle piece inspired by an American writer. Emily Dickinson poems prompted a memorable musical tableau. think in American arts and letters, a running thread is the very direct, straightforward speech. Poets like Frost and Dickinson remind me of what Auden said: 'Take common words and say uncommon things.'"

The works of the ex-violinist, unlike much new music, go beyond the world premiere and are played over and over again. Brass ensembles in Europe and elsewhere have often played his pieces.

Music is first and foremost on Sprenkle's mind -- after his family, wife Linda and children Thomas and Ellie. Full-time composers are rare and some versatility is forced on them. But he's recycled the term "Renaissance person." He covers a lot of ground, especially the baseball diamond.

Sprenkle plans his annual baseball and music program on WJHU (88.1 FM) the Saturday before the Orioles open in April. (His regular radio program "On Music" can be heard at the 7 a.m. Saturday Dawn Patrol hour.) The former Phillie fan wishes the Orioles the best, thinks getting Glenn Davis is "fabulous, like the Frank Robinson trade." And the new stadium? "Gorgeous, though I'm not sure why it's being built."

"Ray's a wonderful free spirit," says Margaret L. Budd, organist and music director at Second Presbyterian, an upscale Roland Park Church whose members at first wondered about his long hair and kinetic presence. He began directing the choir, and the church stopped worrying (his hair is also shorter now). "He's dearly beloved here," Budd declares.

A respected organist, Budd calls Sprenkle's music "very refreshing. He has two styles -- the English warm style, and also very American, Copland, angular. His music has clean writing, melody and a tonal center. He thinks music needs beauty to succeed."

She cited two of several Sprenkle pieces played often: "Go Down, Death," a short choral piece written for the Handel Choir, and an organ piece, "Four Vignettes on the Hodie, From the Vespers for the Nativity," dedicated to Budd when the church got a new organ in 1980.

Sprenkle was honored at the church a couple of years ago on his 40th birthday. A few usual bull-roast remarks were made about Sprenkle's idiosyncrasies, such as setting a fashion trend by wearing the same shirt all the time. The words were all kind, but Sprenkle squirmed. Tom Hall, Choral Arts Society director, observed that Sprenkle "is just as comfortable having a root canal as listening to people talk about what a great guy he is."

Elam Ray Sprenkle's "Birches" premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. Advance tickets are $10 for adult, $8 for seniors and students; $2 more at the door. Call


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