Charis Bean Duke does not shy away from her opinions. "Who wants to write a piece that no one can play and no one wants to hear?" asks the 23-year-old composer. "Doesn't that defeat the purpose of music?"
Audiences can discover for themselves how Duke answers these questions on Sunday evening when the Women Composers Orchestra, led by conductor Antonia Joy Wilson, gives the world premiere of her tone poem "Four Glimpses of Night." Inspired by a poem by Frank Marshall Davis, an African American poet, "Night" represents a return to Duke's roots -- both musical and geographic.
Raised in Frederick, Duke, who is pursuing a master's degree in music theory at the University of Illinois, received the commission for "Night" through a local connection. Her high-school music teacher, Mildred Trevvett suggested Duke to Wilson, when she invited the orchestra, which plays the neglected music of women composers, to perform at the Frederick Women's Fair Saturday.
Wilson says, "Since we had scheduled the concert in Frederick, I wanted to work with a local composer or soloist. Charis' name came up and I listened to a tape of her music and was quite impressed."
For Duke, the commission was a challenge. She faced two obstacles: the work would have limited rehearsal time and it must be something that local audiences could grasp quickly. Complex musical theories were not welcome.
Duke, a talented on the piano, oboe and cello, considers herself a conservative composer. "I play a lot of contemporary music, and I'm discovering that performers enjoy that music if it is not impossible."
Even so, Duke struggled with "Night." She says, "I haven't written anything tonal since high school. It took me a month to compose the first section." By the end, however, Duke enjoyed the process. "It was fun to return to my earlier musical techniques. The final section only took one day to write!"
Wilson speaks highly of the piece. "My hunch is that the audience will get excited about the music. Charis ends it with a bang. She is such a good craftsperson, and for a young composer, that is a big head start."
A head start that Duke can use in a musical world dominated by men.
"People pigeonhole women composers and think they write music that is merely sweet and fluffy. The greatest compliment I ever received came from Samuel Adler, the composition teacher at Eastman School of Music. 'Charis,' he said, 'You write music like a man.'"
"Four Glimpses of Night" will be performed at Frederick Community College. Call 1-301-663-0597. It will be played in Baltimore on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in LeClerc Hall at the College of Notre Dame. Call 448-2650.