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Pleasure Ground (2014)

Baritone & Orchestra, 20'

Commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and The MusicNOW Festival in honor of Louis Langre?e with support from Ann and Harry Santen. Texts compiled by Tyne Rafaeli from the writings of Frederick Law Olmsted.

I have long been interested in Frederick Law Olmsted; as a New Yorker, I am surrounded by his work. More so, even, than architecture, landscape design is subject to constant change both natural and human-imposed. In researching Olmsted, I realized that he was a melancholic: deeply affected by his time in the Civil War, he spent many of his later days in private anguish about how his work had been mangled and abused. The piece sets various texts — both formal and private — by Olmsted.

We begin in the 1850s, with his observations about gardens he visited both in England and in America. The music is eager, optimistic, and energetic. After several playful and bucolic episodes, the orchestra and voice shift into a slightly more poetic expression of the artistic power of ‘directing’ nature. The first movement flows seamlessly into the second, which sets some of Olmsted’s private letters written during the war. An uneasy texture in the clarinets and strings is the bed over which a long, drawn-out melody unfolds in the piccolo and oboe. This cycle of twelve chords repeats over almost the entire movement, occasionally stopping to allow the voice to describe another tragic scene. One was particularly moving, when Olmsted writes, “One of our most efficient men, who worked through all with untiring nonchalance, today, being the first day of rest, broke out in hysterics, and for hours afterwards, was in a swooning state. We send him home tomorrow, with an attendant, if he is well enough.” I set this text over a nervous and quietly relentless drone over two octaves of Gs. Winds and brace menace the drone, and the movement ends in a state of dreamy anxiety.
The title Pleasure Ground is a musical joke, a ground being a recurring bass-line that gives structure and melodic content at the same time. I use several grounds in this piece, but the third movement is particularly devoted to one cycle of thirteen chords. At first, the ground is hidden inside a chorale-like texture of strings, over which violent brass and percussion snarl and fight. As the baritone sings about nature having overrun his designs, some small ensembles of instruments echo the voice: a bass trombone, sometimes, and others, a little gamelan of harp, bells, and winds. On the text, “I have done a great deal of work in my life…” we first hear the ground bass in its proper position at the bottom of the orchestra. It goes through two cycles, and suddenly transforms into the material from the very opening of the first movement, but here transformed from youthful optimism into something melancholic and halting.

The piece ends with a delicate, drone-like texture under the words, “If man is not to live by bread alone, what is better worth doing well than the planting of trees?” This text slowly unfurls over a chordal drone, illuminated from within by slowly shifting woodwinds, and from without by celesta, glockenspiel, harp. The idea here is an ideal garden: designed but not fussed-with, communal, and fragilely eternal.

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