The Influence of The Spheres: Colorado Chamber Players
Preview article by Betsy Schwarm
Spheres of Influence: that might suggest influences we experience as individuals or groups, though also influences we exert as individuals or groups upon others. In the case of the Colorado Chamber Players’ launch of its 30th anniversary season on September 8, 9 and 10, it is perhaps both. When a program includes a world premiere, a recent work, and one by a great master, the spheres of influence are many.
Given a major masterwork of the mighty Brahms (in this case, his String Sextet no. 2), influence is undeniable. Brahms’ impact upon composers of his own time and ever since has been profound. Even amongst those who preferred other approaches, his was a musical sphere of influence that could not be entirely ignored.
With the two newer works, only time will tell. However, they arise from powerful spheres of influence upon the composers themselves and countless others. The beliefs of Native Americans and the experiences of Americans of distant cultural origins both have a place, even alongside Brahms.
Receiving its world premiere at the Colorado Chamber Players performance on September 8, Of Cliffs and Sacred Spaces by New England composer Gwyneth Walker is scored for two celli. Performers will be Amy Frost Baumgarten (Kennedy Center Principal Cello) and Beth Vanderborgh. Vanderborgh herself commissioned the work from Walker, specifying the unusual pairing of instruments as well as the central inspiration.
On the faculty of the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Vanderborgh has long been moved by the soaring granite outcroppings of Vedauwoo at the edge of the Snowy Range. In the traditions of the Arapahoe native peoples, it is considered a sacred site: “The Land of the Earthborn Spirit.” Reflecting upon what she calls its “awe-inspiring beauty and solitude,” Vanderborgh adds, “In Vedauwoo, there is a tangible feeling of all that went before and all that happens now.”
Walker chose a less specific title than the mystical (and perhaps puzzling) Vedauwoo. After all, Of Cliffs and Sacred Spaces might suggest countless revered landscapes in the world, not just in Wyoming. Walker herself observes that, as a Quaker, she is open to the idea of becoming “closer to God” through nature. One imagines that the Arapahoe people who revered Vedauwoo would agree. At the head of the score, Walker has placed Thoreau’s poem This Stillness. The great American writer was neither Quaker nor Arapahoe, yet fully understood the power of, as he called it, the “wildness of nature” and two companions walking “together as one.” Walker’s work closes with flowing and ascending lines that seem to reach for the sky, much like the rock pillars at Vedauwoo.
Born in Iowa City, Iowa, and serving on the composition faculty of Denison University, composer Ching-chu Hu declares, “My goal as a composer is to create music that is lyrical and driven by narrative.” In the case of his Spheres of Influence (2013), that narrative arises from his own immediate background, which he describes as “an artistic Chinese family in the middle of the United States.” He adds that other influences also play a part in one’s identity: “As artists, we are influenced by our teachers, and their teachers, and master artists from the distant past as well as living artists around us today. Some of these influences can be directly found; others are within our subconscious.”
A single movement work in three sections, Spheres of Influence evokes stylistic touches from the composer’s own cultures (both Chinese and American), as well as significant composers that Hu names amongst his own influences. Therefore, if one imagines one is hearing hints of Tchaikovsky, Copland, and Stravinsky, one probably is!
The notion of ‘spheres of influence’ also arises through the instruments of the ensemble, influencing each other as they blend in solos, duos, trios, and full ensemble. Spheres of Influence is scored for string sextet, with pairs of violins, violas, and celli. Just because they are all string instruments does not mean they cannot influence one another in diverse ways.
Varied ideas appear in new colors, but everything manages to blend: a fine vision for society as a whole.
The Colorado Chamber Players programs also feature music of Brahms – if one can ever say “also” of such an iconic master! In this case, it’s early Brahms, his String Sextet no. 2 in G major, op. 36 (1865). Barely into his thirties, the young German was still establishing himself as a musical force worthy of attention. Feeling pressured by comparisons to Beethoven, Brahms first focused upon genres ignored by his predecessor. Hence the fact that, though Brahms would not complete a symphony for another decade, this sextet follows the general plan of a Beethoven symphony. One finds the dramatic first movement with contrasting themes, the motion-filled second movement Scherzo, the thoughtful third movement, and the graceful, increasingly spirited finale. No brass, no woodwinds, no percussion: just six string players making a case for how, even at this point in his career, Brahms was establishing his own ‘sphere of influence.’
The Spheres of Influence program with the Colorado Chamber Players will feature violinists Paul Primus and John Fadial; violists Barbara Hamilton and Mary Cowell; and cellists Amy Frost Baumgarten and Beth Vanderborgh. The Gwyneth Walker work involves only the celli; all six artists will join forces for the Hu and the Brahms.
Three performances will be offered:
- Friday, September 8, starting at 7:30pm – Bethany Lutheran Church at 4500 East Hampden in Denver
- Saturday, September 9, starting at 2 pm – The Peoples Building at 9995 East Colfax in Aurora
- Sunday, September 10, starting at 3pm – The University of Wyoming Recital Hall in Laramie, Buchanan Performing Arts Center
For the Laramie performance, there will also be availability of a livestream broadcast. More information is available after August 25 at the University of Wyoming Department of Music.
Ticket information is available here:
Spheres of Influence: it isn’t just a reference to time and place. There is also the influence that one layer of music plays upon another, and that a powerful musical experience can play upon listeners. It seems a fine way for the Colorado Chamber Players to launch its 30th anniversary season!