Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bernard Rands: An Inexhaustible Phenomenon

Bernard Rands during a rehearsal at JiB 2014
Last year, the Chicago-based, English-born composer Bernard Rands celebrated his 80th birthday.  To honor this milestone, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned a new work, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, which featured pianist Jonathan Biss.  Rands shows no signs of slowing down—the concerto is just one of over a hundred of his published works, and later this year, he'll see the premiere of another new concerto, for English Horn and orchestra, which is being written for Robert Walters and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Rands is no stranger to orchestral composition—he was the composer-in-residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra for seven years (1989-1995), and before that, he became widely known for his two Le Tambourin suites (1984), composed for the same organization.  This work, eventually awarded first place in the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards, took inspiration from six paintings and drawings by Vincent van Gogh.  For its six movements, the composer tried to translate the visual elements of six of the Dutch artist's works, without creating any direct narrative allusions.  "I didn’t want to do another Pictures at an Exhibition.  That’s not the intention.  I analyzed those paintings and drawings to the nth degree in terms of everything that constitutes a visual art activity.  That is:  form, color, density, harmony of colors, counterpoint of movements—the same terminology we use in music."  Elaborating on what he found so stimulating about van Gogh's work, the composer enthusiastically explained to New Music Box,
You don’t see sunflowers like that!  […He] painted to see the world in his mind, not the world as it is, or in the reality of normal observation.  The world in his mind made him so different, and made the paintings so different from anybody else’s.  When you think of that in terms of the sonic domain in which we work:  what is the sound in my mind, not what it ought to be but what is in my mind.  […It] has to leap off the page and be something other than what’s technically possible.
Rands's preoccupation with van Gogh did not end with the Le Tambourin suites, but continued into what is perhaps his most large-scale work, the two-act opera, Vincent (1999).  With a libretto based on Van Gogh's letters by J.D. McClatchy, the opera aims to place the artist "in contexts which were his real experiences, thus revealing his complex character—that of genius artist, religious fanatic, alcoholic, epileptic, unstable of temperament, resulting in behavior ranging unpredictably between kindly affability and violent aggression."  Premiered by the Indiana University Opera School in 2012, the work displays Rands's characteristically colorful orchestral writing alongside his keen knowledge and skill in composing for voice.

It is perhaps Rands's vocal works that have become the most widely celebrated.  His 1991 choral cycle, Canti d'Amor, which sets texts from James Joyce's "Chamber Music," was recorded on the Grammy-winning Chanticleer album Colors of Love.  His trilogy of works for solo voice and orchestra, Canti Lunatici (1980), Canti del Sole (1983), and Canti dell'Eclisse (1988), have been widely performed, with the middle work winning the 1984 Pulitzer Prize.  In a unique act of compositional imagination, each of these three works exist in two different forms, a chamber and orchestral version.  However, the chamber versions are not merely reductions, as the composer explains,
The vocal line remains absolutely the same in the chamber and orchestra versions, but they’re not the same pieces. […]  Let’s say in the chamber version, before there’s any intention to make an orchestra version, you have a five-note chord, which is perfectly fine for an orchestra.  But what if you add one more note to that chord?  Where does it go?  Does it go here?  There?  […]  If you add two, where do they go?  And, if you add more, and you start to change the harmonic implication, you’ve got a very different environment for the voice to perform exactly as it would in the other version, but now we have an extension of the juxtaposition of differences that are very important.
van Gogh's Agostina Segatori Sitting
in the Café du Tambourin
, the namesake for Rands's 
Le Tambourin suites
Rands's history with June in Buffalo stretches back to before David Felder restarted the festival in the mid-1980s.  Before reigniting the festival, when Felder was teaching at Cal State Long Beach, he started a summer program for West Coast artists called the Summer Composers Institute, which brought together young composers with emerging performers and ensembles and gave them a chance to work with faculty composers, one of the first of which was Bernard Rands.  Rands was quick to offer Felder his support when the latter restarted June in Buffalo, and since then, Rands has been an important figure in the festival's history, being a faculty composer more than ten times, and seeing nearly thirty performances of his works at the festival.  These include the world premiere of Rands's Interlude, which was commissioned for the festival's 25th anniversary in 2000, and three performances of Canti Lunatici (in 1991, 2002, and 2014—the latter at a portrait concert which also featured Steven Beck playing Rands's Piano Preludes).  Several of the composer's "Memo" series of solo works have been heard at the festival, including Memo 1 for contrabass in 2000, Memo 7 for soprano in 2002, and Memo 4 for flute in 2006.  Rands's virtuosic orchestral compositions have been featured many times at the Buffalo Philharmonic's festival-concluding concerts, including a 2010 performance of the second La Tambourin suite, and last year's presentation of "…where the murmurs die…" (both conducted by JoAnn Falletta).  This year, the festival's mid-week Performance Institute concert at Kleinhans Music Hall will feature two of the composer's works, Memo 4 and Walcott Songs, played by Performance Institute students and faculty.

Rands with the Slee Sinfonietta and Jerry Hou
after the JiB 2014 performance of Canti Lunatici
Thinking back to the aforementioned Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the Boston Globe writes that Rands's music brings "tonal and non-tonal elements into a fusion that is firmly enough based in musical tradition to be inviting, yet unpredictable enough in the deployment of those tools to convey a sense of modernity."  This dichotomy between tradition and innovation, singable and spiky, lyrical and dramatic, is key to Rands's work, as he explains:
It so happens that one of the fundamental principles of my own aesthetic position is the juxtaposition of opposites.  […]  These two [the non-tonal and the tonal] are interacting all the time, whether it’s a harmony or a rhythmic cell, a timbre or a gesture.  Music has always been that way.  Otherwise, we would have used up its resources a long time ago.  But it seems to be an inexhaustible phenomenon.
As a composer, Rands seems yet to use up his musical resources, and is himself an inexhaustible phenomenon, still creating new, intriguing music into his eighth decade.

—Ethan Hayden