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Veteran composer David Amram to join Omni Ensemble for Park Slope gig

for The Brooklyn Paper

For the Omni Ensemble’s March 13 concert at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, leader David Wechsler has invited a special guest: composer-performer David Amram.

"Dave has been around for a very long time," Wechsler tells GO Brooklyn. "He used to do the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s children’s concerts; he’s written film scores, including ’Splendor in the Grass’ and ’The Manchurian Candidate’; and he’s done a lot of jazz stuff. He was from the Beat Generation, and even performed with Jack Kerouac."

Wechsler has often worked with the 73-year-old Amram, including at the Bethlehem Music Festival in 1988 and ’89, when Amram was artist-in-residence.

"He’s a great musician. He’s really versatile," says Wechsler. "And he’s one of the most-performed American composers. Orchestras do his music all the time. He’s in demand as a conductor, and he has a good stage presence. He probably will show that at our concert as well, talking a bit about his works, as well as playing percussion, piano and French horn."

The Amram pieces that the Omni Ensemble will perform are from throughout his career: "Discussion" dates from 1961, "Native American Portraits" premiered in 1977, and "Theme and Variations on "Red River Valley" was composed in 1992.

Also on the program are Karlheinz Stockhausen’s "Tierkreis (Zodiac) - 12 Melodies of the Star Signs" and the world premiere of the Violin Sonata by Omni’s own Jim Lahti.

Amram himself discussed with GO Brooklyn the genesis behind his three compositions.

"’Discussion’ was dedicated to the memory of the great standup bass player Oscar Pettiford," explains Amram in a telephone interview from Orlando, Fla., where he was rehearsing. "I played improvising jazz French horn with him. He was one of the pioneers of jazz cello in the ’50s, and he loved classical and Latin music as well. I included some of those musical elements in the piece, and I’m happy to say that it’s become a staple of chamber music that features percussion."

The "Red River Valley" variations, Amram notes, "were written to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Kerrville, Texas music fest where I appeared since 1976 as a performer. I dedicated it to the memory of Hondo Crouch, who was the mayor of Luckenbach, Texas, population seven, whose motto is ’Everybody Is Somebody in Lukenbach.’

"Hondo was a great storyteller, singer and guitar picker, and he absolutely loved classical and Mexican and jazz music. I played ’Red River Valley’ with him before he died [in 1976], and we did many variations on that song, which inspired me to write this piece."

Amram’s "Native American Portraits" is a work based on traditional sources.

"The first movement is based on Cheyenne music, the second on a Seneca prayer song, and the third on Zuni melodies," Amram explains. "I learned the themes by performing with four Native American musicians. It’s amazingly sophisticated music."

Amram and Stockhausen - considered the godfather of avant-garde music in Germany following the Second World War - haven’t shared the same concert program in decades.

"In the ’60s, Stockhausen’s music was played all the time, and he used percussion instruments often in his chamber works, as I did, so I heard his work a lot," said Amram. "I’m looking forward to hearing him again after such a long time."

Wechsler agrees that Stockhausen’s 20-minute "Zodiac" (composed in 1974-’75) is atypical of his work.

"It’s a nice-sounding piece, it’s pretty accessible to audiences," he admits. "Each zodiac sign has a melody, and these one-voice melodies are each played by one instrument, and those melodies are harmonized. Any instrument can play the single-line melody, and the harmonizing can be done by any instrument that plays chords. We’re using glockenspiel and marimba."

Wechsler and the ensemble members are also pleased to finally premiere Lahti’s Violin Sonata, which was written a couple of years ago. "The stars had to be lined up for this to happen, I guess," Wechsler says with a laugh. "Maybe it’s the Stockhausen on the bill.

"As with most of Jim’s pieces, it’s a very through-composed sonata," he says. "Jim composes traditionally, though it’s very contemporary-sounding. His voice as a composer is always very apparent. He’s written a very good piano part for himself, of course. It’s a very tuneful but technically difficult work." Violinist Jorge Avila will perform the sonata with Lahti.

Wechsler feels that the stars became aligned for the entire program.

"I had seen Dave in June and we talked about doing his music, which we hadn’t done in awhile," he says. "We wanted to do Jim’s violin sonata, and since we also needed a violinist for Dave’s ’Red River’ Variations, we could do both.

"And, since we had a percussionist for Dave’s ’Discussion,’ we looked around for another piece with percussion, and we decided on ’Zodiac.’ It also fits nicely because Stockhausen is into improvisation and so are Dave’s jazz-style pieces. So everything ties together."

 

The Omni Ensemble, with guest artists David Amram and Jorge Avila, performs music by Amram, Stockhausen and Lahti on March 13, at 8 pm, at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, 58 Seventh Ave. at Lincoln Place in Park Slope. Tickets are $15, $12 students and senior citizens. For more information, visit www.omniensemble.org on the Web or call (718) 859-8649.

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