Children On the Playground, Violin Concerto for Strings
Early in 1999, I received a surprise call from Alex Dean, an old college buddy violinist, and he was looking forsomething interesting to do while his organization, the United States Air Force String Orchestra, was performing concerts in Melbourne, Florida. Both my wife and I had great times with Alex in our University of Akron days, and we were pleased to invite him our way. During one of these visits, he dazzled our whole family with an impromptu performance. It was the first time the kids had ever heard real violin up close. Alex was really wonderful with our kids, who were then small children, joking and having fun, even allowing them to hold and bow the instrument. There eyes were wide with wonder. I played him the recording of “EarthCaoine“, after which he asked me to compose a work for him to play with his orchestra. “Children On the Playground” was my attempt to capture the playful world of young children – so alive in Alex’s own musical energy. The work was completed in 2001. Unfortunately, changes in the USAF Orchestra conducting staff delayed the work’s performance. In the meantime, I entered the piece in the Sixth Riverside Symphony International Composition Contest .
2002 proved to be a good year for this work. The USAF String orchestra scheduled the world premiere at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia on August 28th. I was invited to stay with Alex’s lovely family and attend rehearsals. The USAF is an excellent orchestra, perhaps because of the huge number of hours these fine musicians actually play together. Their ensemble is extremely tight and balanced. Difficult passages in the first and third movements were met with deft clarity and precision. Alex’s virtuosic performance was full of the energy of a musical Peter Pan. The concert was well attended and the work was warmly received – and programmed many times on the Shenandoah Cable System.
Meanwhile, “On the Playground” won the Riverside contest along with five other composers! I would receive a thirty- minute reading session by the orchestra in New York that fall with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Cenovia Cummins, as soloist. I travelled to New York with my twin brother Kevin for a September 10th performance. The Riverside Symphony is a truly beautiful organization and could only exist in NYC: a part time orchestra made up of great professional players. These musicians seemed to love and respect each other – I saw laughter and smiles in their intense work for these readings – the best example of what the word ‘philharmonic’ actually means: love-harmony. This idyllic and passionate atmosphere can be attributed to their conductor, George Rothman, and their composer-in residence and artistic director, Anthony Korf. The musical styles read in these sessions were widely varied – from John C. Ross’ gorgeous impressionistic “After A Line By Theodore Roethke” to the austere sonic adventures of Swiss composer Martin Derungs’ “Concertino”. Exceedingly demanding, indeed, for any orchestra. The last of the readings was my concerto. Cenovia Cummins, a stunning woman and beloved by her orchestra, stood and brought the work to life with such a light-touched vivacity. She sang and glided through the entire reading. I learned at the session that there was a chance that one of our works read that day might be later chosen as a work for a Lincoln Center concert.
Two years later, Anthony Korf called me to give me my heart’s hope: They chose my work from a select pool of twenty winning entries culled from a field of five hundred submissions to seven competitions over the past eleven years! “On the Playground” would be performed at Riverside’s opening concert for the 2004-5 season at Lincoln Center! Anthony said he regarded my work as excellent and well-crafted. Such a statement from a composer of his stature was the among the finest compliments I have ever received.
Nell Thompson, our Director of Education at Full Sail, supported me with a paid trip to NYC. (Thank you again, Full Sail, for your constant support) Joy, and our son Chris, then 14, joined me, and had a fantastic adventure – it was Chris and Joy’s first experience in the Big Apple. Many members of our family and friends made the trip – what fun!
The work was beautifully programmed after the charming ” Three Pieces” by the fairly obscure Erwin Shulhoff. Intermission followed, and the evening tied together with Dvorak’s popular Serenade in E major. I was invited to provide the following text about the work for the program:
“On the Playground” was inspired by my children, and I sought to capture their joy and wonder with this music.In the first movement, “Joyful Play”, the soloist portrays an eight-year-old alpha kid leading a mini-mob of friends. Each friend is represented by one of the five choirs of the string orchestra. These kids are conjuring up something grand and vivid on a schoolyard or in a park somewhere. The solo violin sparks and inspires the imaginations of
the other kids into a hugely dramatic, semi-evil, megalomaniacal glory, so typical of kids. The cadenza brings them back down to reality and the fun continues. I felt the traditional sonata form suited this story nicely.
While creating the second movement, “Yearning”, I remembered my own adolescent feelings of melancholy. I’d seek refuge via rapturous escape in the sky. The luminous sonority of high strings in diatonic clusters is like high-altitude clouds and provides a setting for the long, sweeping solo phrases seeking a soaring deliverance.
The last movement, “Follow the Leader”, is, as it sounds, a fast frolic. The solo violin cajoles and sometimes runs away from the group, which chases but a single step behind. Each string choir imitates the soloist, but entrances are carefully timed to avoid one stepping on the other. This produces a close, stretto canon, like a flock of finches in flight. Each chase ends in happy chaos, thus producing the clear outline of a rondo form. If you listen, you’ll find out if they caught the leader or not.”
There’s nothing like the feeling of a New York audience giving you a standing ovation: they are the most intelligent musical crowd on the planet! Anthony Tommasini, the chief editor of the New York Times, seems to have enjoyed it, too. Read his review. What a night!
Score and Parts for “Children On The Playground” are available for purchase from JWPepper for $35.00
On the Playground: Violin Concerto for Strings – February 15, 2010
Location: Focus #2, Margeson Theater, The John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center, Loch Haven Park Complex, Orlando, FL
Artists: Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra: Sir Tamas Kocsis, violin soloist. Christopher Wilkins, conductor
Multiple broadcast of USAF Strings performance on Shenendoah University Cable