Exploring a whole new world of music

Conductor: Stephen Paulus will join the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra for the premiere of his inclusive `Dialogues.'

April 25, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Barriers have been crumbling in Annapolis. Not physical ones, but the curious emotional barriers people put up against contemporary music, worried about potential dissonance and complexity.

The man breaking down that reluctance is Stephen Paulus, one of the most successful composers in the country. And he has been doing it as much with a smile and ingratiating personality as with his musical talent.

This weekend, the final assault on the faint-of-ear will be made when the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra performs the world premiere of Paulus' "Dialogues," commissioned for the ensemble's 40th anniversary. The title is apt, for Paulus has been engaged in a multi-faceted dialogue with folks in Anne Arundel County since last summer. And, in a novel twist, some of that interaction generated actual notes in the score.

"We were one of eight orchestras to receive a `Music Alive' grant from the American Symphony Orchestra League and `Meet the Composer' program," says ASO education director Pamela Chaconas. "The grant helps us to do a lot of outreach and make people more comfortable with a living composer."

Paulus, 51 and based in Minnesota, is perhaps best known for "The Postman Always Rings Twice," an exceptionally vivid, widely staged opera from 1982 based on the film noir classic. His extensive list of compositions in virtually every genre expanded two weeks ago with "Voices of Light," premiered at Lincoln Center by the Westminster Choir and New York Philharmonic.

Originally, Paulus was scheduled to be in Annapolis only for one week in the fall and another in the spring, but he found ways of visiting more often, starting last summer. The effort has made the project all the more valuable.

This week's final installment of "Music Alive" is packed. In addition to attending social events with the ASO board and staff and rehearsals for the new piece, Paulus will give a talk at a retirement home about the ASO's commissioning of "Dialogues"; attend a performance at Key School, where students will dance to one of his chamber works; and talk with the Annapolis Area Christian School Chorus about his opera "Three Hermits" and hear that group sing an excerpt from it.

Tomorrow, Paulus will join ASO music director Leslie B. Dunner and ASO musicians for a performance of works by members of the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble Paulus has had a particularly fruitful liaison with since the fall. (This free public concert begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.)

"When he first met with the CYSO composers in October to look over what they had been writing, they were all sitting up straight in a classroom, looking petrified," Chaconas says. "Can you imagine their excitement?"

Paulus can. "I know what it's like - I was petrified in grad school anytime I had to have my works discussed," he says. "But they loosened up pretty quickly. And I brought cookies."

The students, ages 9 to 17, got a lot more than they imagined from meeting Paulus.

"I thought it might be cool, and a way to keep the kids involved, if I used a little theme from each of them in `Dialogues,' " the composer says.

The six-minute work for full orchestra, including ample percussion, begins with a quiet melody for solo viola. In the printed score, right above the first measure of that solo, is the name "Spencer" - for Spencer Godboldte.

In the fifth measure, a solo clarinet theme identified as "Sarah" [Saviet] slips in, followed shortly by a solo violin line marked "Caitlin" [Howard] and a line for a couple of bassoons marked "Brittany" [Jordan]. Later on, "Robert" [Burnett], "Micah" [Saviet] and "Evan" [Duke] turn up in passages for wind instruments. Something in the composition-attempts of each student, ranging from a few lines to four movement works, caught Paulus' fancy.

"Spencer played a languorous melody on violin in class," he recalls, "and it conjured up visions of introspection, so I scored it for viola, which has a wonderful, dark maple syrup quality. Brittany had written some unusual things that I knew could quickly vaporize into anything I would normally write.

"And as long as I was quoting them, I decided to quote myself - I took some material from my `Mass,' using brass instead of the original chorus. The only thing I didn't put into the piece was a sea chantey. If I did, I'd have to call it the `Kitchen Sink Concerto.' "

Paulus, whose music combines a distinctive mix of tonality and harmonic piquancy, was introduced to the Annapolis public earlier in the season when Dunner programmed a 1991 score, "Voices from the Gallery." Since then, Paulus has become much more than a name for many in the community.

A lending library of Paulus recordings was set up for board members, who have made good use of the opportunity to explore his output; three traveled to New York to hear the recent philharmonic premiere. And all the appearances at various functions in the region as part of "Music Alive" have added to his appeal.

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