Picture this: Watery light filtering through stained-glass windows. Shimmering cornfields depicted in Colonial drawings. Ships sailing up the James River.
Listen carefully, and you might hear these images in musical compositions. All served as inspirations to the composers whose works will be performed in the coming weeks.
Thanks to the upcoming Jamestown 2007 celebration and other events, an unusual number of musical compositions will be heard for the first time throughout Hampton Roads. Some of America's foremost composers have been tapped to bring these works to life, and the inspiration for these pieces vary from thoughts and feelings to encounters in the physical world.
For these composers, the idea for a new piece frequently comes from a nonmusical source. John Duffy was inspired by Colonial drawings of Native Americans by John White found at the Mariners' Museum. Adolphus Hailstork studied artifacts on Jamestown Island. Kenneth Fuchs saw sunlight played through the stained-glass windows at Riverside Church in New York.
There are memories as well. As a child 50 years ago, Thomas Newman stood behind Hilton Elementary School in Newport News and watched the replica of the Godspeed and other vessels sailing up the James River for the 350th anniversary of Jamestown.
Sometimes these images can almost be literally translated in the music. Newman wanted his composition, "Jamestown," to have the feel of the seas, so he fashioned the bottom musical lines of the work to sound like rolling waves. The Indian drums Hailstork saw on his trip to Jamestown were incorporated into his fanfare, "Settlements," written for the Jamestown celebration.
Then there are more abstract threads that composers make. In May, English horn player George Corbett and the Virginia Symphony will give the first public performance of Fuchs' concerto, "Eventide." Entwined in the work are the melody lines of "Mary Had a Baby" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
"When I think about the repertoire of American folk music, these two Negro Spirituals interested me," said Fuchs, who's composer-in-residence at the University of Connecticut. "And the tonal colors of the English horn, which can be melancholy and pungent, intone the emotional qualities that spirituals can evoke."
In writing his short work, "Indian Spirits," Duffy included a percussion section that reminded him of the pounding rhythms of Igor Stavinsky's "Rite of Spring."
Composers can make human connections with their music as well. Fuchs composed his concerto for Thomas Stacy, who has been
English horn player of the New York Philharmonic since 1972. The two have been friends since Fuchs was a composition student at New York's Juilliard School of Music where Stacy taught. Virginia Symphony conductor JoAnn Falletta was a Juilliard student at the time as well.
"Eventide" is the fourth work Fuchs has written for Stacy, and in many ways he sees it as a gift to his long-time friend. Though Stacy has recorded the piece with the London Philharmonic, with Falletta conducting, the concerto has never been heard in a live performance until now.
Jamestown 2007 has been the impetus for several commissionings. Composer Linda Tutas Haugen of Minnesota is writing the music for a family opera, "Pocahontas," that will be premiered at the Virginia Arts Festival. Newman's "Jamestown," a movement to a longer work he is working on titled "Windows on the Chesapeake," recently was premiered by the Peninsula Concert Band.
Four fanfares, or short celebratory works, will be heard at the May 11 joint concert by the Virginia Symphony and Richmond Symphony orchestras on Jamestown's anniversary weekend. Rob Cross, director of the arts festival, was asked to line up the commissionings. He chose Duffy and Hailstork, two composers with local ties, as well as John Corigliano of New York and Jennifer Higdon of Florida.
Composers don't always follow the rules. Duffy, a frequent visitor to Hampton Roads and director of the arts festival's Composers Institute, frankly admits that the idea of writing a fanfare didn't appeal to him at first.
"I tried in vain to whip myself into shape to write one and just couldn't do it," says Duffy. "I'd done a lot of fanfares, and I wanted to go a little deeper."
Instead, his more reflective piece was born out of two events, the John White drawings at the Mariners Museum and the sighting of the Godspeed.
White, a 17th century artist and explorer, made vivid drawings of American Indians at work and in ceremony.
"One sees sacred places for ritual and ceremony," Duffy writes. "One sees children at play, and amazingly, three separate corn fields at different stages of growth."
His piece is a homage to Native Americans and their culture. Its several sections depict an Indian ceremony, a soaring eagle and a corn dance, all drawn from White's images.
"I was struck by the beauty of the people, the men and women are so physically healthy," says Duffy in reflecting on White's work. "And I was struck by what we didn't know about these people. Native Americans once were called 'savages,' yet they had a rich religious life."
In addition to the melodic material in the spirituals, Fuchs drew inspiration from what he describes as "the mysterious quality of sunset light glowing through stained-glass windows.
"I can see myself sitting in the sanctuary with the setting sun and the light streaming through the stained-glass windows," he says, "Contemplating those ever-changing colors, and the mystery of meditation and what it means to be in a place like that. It's not to suggest that the piece is religious, but a piece that comes from spiritual meditation."
On other occasions, Fuchs has found inspiration in art and literature. One of his string quartets was inspired by the collages of Robert Motherwell, another by the poems of Walt Whitman. He's crafted musical responses to Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler and the bold, visceral images of other artists in the New York School.
While Duffy visited the Mariners' Museum, Hailstork traveled to Jamestown after Cross offered him the fanfare commission. On viewing the exhibits there, he came up with the title, "Settlements," to describe the at-times uneasy relationship between the American Indians and the English.
"The native population was already living here," he says. "The English settlers came here and parked on their front lawn."
Hailstork admits a fascination with instruments of other cultures, so he incorporated the Indian flute, rattles and drums into his piece. There are restless sections that suggest the clash between the two cultures. Mindful of the nature of the event - "It's an international celebration, so I wasn't going to write a dirge," he says - Hailstork included a colorful passage for trumpets.
Duffy favors some instruments, such as the cello, and the sound of the bassoon has a quality that suggests to him the American Indian culture. "Indian Spirits" also is scored for 20 different percussion instruments.
"I like this guy in the orchestra who plays tympani, so I gave him a couple of solos," says Duffy.