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SONG OF MYSELF by James M. Stephenson (2015)

Commissioned To Celebrate The Retirement Of Craig Kirchoff

World premiere 26th April 2015, University of Minnesota

DESCRIPTION

Song of Myself
a rhapsodic tone poem – after Whitman
for solo soprano and wind ensemble


duration: 20′
instrumentation:
piccolo, 2 flutes (doubled/alto flute), 2 oboes, english horn, Eb clarinet, 2 clarinets (doubled), bass clarinet
2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 alto saxes, tenor sax, baritone sax
harp, piano, cello, contrabass
2 trumpets, 4 french horns, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, euphonium, 2 tubas
timpani, percussion (7 players)
percussion instrumetns required:
Mallets: glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, chimes, crotales, xylophone
Perc: suspended cymbal, triangle, slapstick, china cymbal, tambourine (held & mounted)
vibraslap, shaker (2), crash cymbals, high wood block, finger cymbals,
snare drum, 4 concert toms, bass drum, tam-tam
solo soprano

Program notes – from the composer
In the summer of 2008, I attended a most auspicious meeting. I was invited to a home in Minnesota to discuss with the Minnesota Commissioning Club the possibility of being their next commissioned composer. Also at the meeting was their friend, and University of Minnesota’s wind ensemble conductor, Craig Kirchhoff. Two wonderful things came as a result: I was awarded the commission to write my first violin concerto (later premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra), and, I got to know Craig.
Craig and I kept in touch, and a few years later he spearheaded the project to have me compose a new bassoon concerto (“The Dialogue of Self and Soul”), which he subsequently premiered. Working with Craig, and discovering what a wonderful person he is, along with his dedication to his craft, have been a highlight for me, both personally and musically. It is no surprise that he is one of the most esteemed and sought-after conductors in his profession.

During this time-span, I also got to know Jerry Luckhardt, Associate Director of Bands at the University of Minnesota. Jerry approached me with the idea to write a new work, in Craig’s honor, to be premiered at Craig’s last concert as Director of Bands, in late April of 2015. Needless to say, I was thrilled at the prospect, even though the importance of the task itself was rather daunting.

The music:

I knew I wanted to bring three important facets of Craig into this new piece: the flute (his instrument), sailing (every time I call him, he’s at his lake!), and Walt Whitman (a favorite poet of his). Furthermore, I used the reverence of his last name (meaning “church-yard”) to inspire me, along with the pitch of “B” (the musical equivalent of the h’s central to his last name) to “anchor” the work.

I read many of Walt Whitman’s poems, and finally settled on “Song of Myself” – an iconic existential manifesto – because of the plethora of text seeming to have been written just for this project.

Because Craig started as a flute player, I knew I wanted to open this work with a major flute solo. As a result, nearly all of the material in the piece stems from this solo; most importantly, the “Craig theme” – the first 4 notes. (Once the ensemble enters, the theme is repeated in the trumpet, symbolizing the composer’s (former) instrument). After the music grows in passion and then subsides, making way for the soprano soloist, the first text sung is: “Ah, this indeed is music, this suits me”. This seemed a perfect
way to open such a work for Craig.

A dance-like section ensues – again derived from the “Craig theme” – allowing the wind ensemble to shine. This again subsides into some text, including words seemingly perfectly written for the occasion:

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
retiring back a while, sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad,
I celebrate myself, and sing myself.

I was struck repeatedly by Whitman’s assertions that he was no more than a “blade of grass” – and Craig seems to think the same way: in other words, regardless of his talent (which is bountiful), he respects all others and treats all others with equal dignity. No one is no more or no less than any other.

The work rhapsodizes several times, growing in intensity, reclining to more intimacy, and finally at last re-instating the initial dance theme, this time in a solidified tonal center, suggesting that Craig’s long career is to be celebrated, and that he is happy and content with where he is.

The work does end in B – which is a “no-no” for a “band piece” – but it had to be that way. It is a glorious ending, sprinkled harmonically with a hint of reservation. I cannot presume to know exactly how Craig feels about the end of his tenure as Director of Bands, but I would imagine that it is filled with both pride and a bit of difficulty. Therefore, the “Craig theme” is repeated in grand fashion, but at the end, we are left to linger just a bit longer, in a last effort to savor the moment before finally giving way to the reality that the time has indeed come: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”

As stated earlier, this couldn’t have happened without Jerry Luckhardt. I would like to thank him most sincerely for making this happen, along with the University of Minnesota School of Music, as well as former students of Craig’s who all helped to support this work.