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Robert Beasers Souvenirs

Jennifer Gartley | February 2009

    Premiered in 2002 by Carole Bean of the National Symphony Orchestra at the 32nd National Flute Association Convention, Robert Beaser’s Souvenirs is a true gem of the piccolo repertoire. Reflecting the compositional style of his earlier works for flute, Variations and Mountain Songs, Souvenirs is a suite of six movements that includes folk tunes from Spain to the Appalachian Mountains.  
     Robert Beaser is currently Professor and Chairman of the Composition Department at the Juilliard School in New York and the Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra.  He was the youngest composer to win the Prix de Rome and has received major commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Sym­phony, St. Louis Symphony, and countless others.
     After hearing a recording of Beaser’s Mountain Songs performed by Paula Robison and Eliot Fisk, Jan Gippo, former piccoloist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and former chair of the N.F.A. Piccolo Committee, set out to convince Beaser to compose a new piccolo work. Beaser commented, “This is not something that I would have done on my own. I had written a lot for flute, the Variations and the Mountain Songs, and I had been saying no to writing anymore for flute. Piccolo was not what I had in mind as an alternative. Jan Gippo got me to do this, through his persistence and perseverance. We went to a small Cuban restaurant in New York City, and Jan spoke so passionately about the cause of the piccolo that I finally had to say yes.”

The New Tonalist Movement
     Beaser is often cited as a leading figure in the New Tonalist movement, which includes such composers as Lowell Liebermann, Aaron Jay Kernis, and George Tsontakis. These composers can loosely be described as rejecting post W.W. II cryptic and esoteric compositional practices; they synthesize Western musical tradition and tonality with the American vernacular. With standard musical forms present in both the overall arch of the complete work and also in individual movements, coupled with the use of American folk songs, Souvenirs is a perfect example of this ideology.

The Composition
     The genesis of the work took several years and spanned several countries.  Approached about the commission in the late 1990s, Beaser started gathering ideas. “The movement ‘Cindy Redux’ came from the Mountain Songs. Another movement, “Happy Face,” came from my time in Italy. Eliot Fisk gave me these Federico Garcia Lorca folk tunes from Spain, and I remember playing through them, but I lost them and had to reconstruct them in my head; that is where Spain came from. The title referred to a collection of found objects that gradually, through time were all linked together.”
     The sixth movement of the work. “Ground O” (the letter O not zero), is poignant and marked to be played with great space. Beaser lived in New York City on the Upper West Side during the events of September 11, 2001, so this movement is especially personal.  “This is what I wrote immediately after – I started to write, and I didn’t know why – every one has their own story about that day. I lost a very close friend in the collapse of the first building, and I could see the collapse of the second building from my place. This piece captured what I wanted to say.”
     Often Beaser’s music is compared to the work of the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981), who composed a four-hand piano work of six movements in 1952 also entitled Souvenirs. This work reflects Barber’s love of the afternoon teas of the Plaza Hotel in New York City and pairs wistfulness with gentle humor. Beaser says about the comparison, “I called it Souvenirs, of course knowing Samuel Barber’s use of the title. Basically, it was in homage to him, but the title is used in a different context, and there is not a direct connection between the music.”
     When asked about writing for piccolo Beaser says, “There is something special about the delicacy of the instrument and the compressed sound of the piccolo against the sound of the piano that I find alluring. I never expected the range that it has – I would never have guessed. I love the piccolo’s low range. It has both vulnerability and power, but I love that vulnerable quality.”
     This juxtaposition of vulnerability and power is at the heart of the work and should be remembered when exploring the character of each movement. “Y2K” and “Ground O” are the most overtly vulnerable, but every movement has flashes of delicacy, elegance, and fluidity. These paired with the powerful and agitated sections of “Spain,” “Cindy Redux,” and “Lily Monroe” create a masterful work that is varied and richly textured.
     Viewing himself as a green composer of sorts, Beaser reuses material often in a variety of compositions. He has transcribed Souvenirs for clarinet and piano, and it was recently performed on tour by pianist Emanuel Ax and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. Along with the clarinet transcription, Beaser has also reworked the piece for string orchestra and called it Folk Songs.
     With the flute and guitar work Mountain Songs, Beaser provided options for movement extraction to maintain a certain level of control over the piece. In Souvenirs, the work can be re-arranged for certain concert situations, although the composer would much rather the work be presented in totality. If you must leave something out, Beaser prefers it to be structured similar to Folk Songs. The order is: Lily Monroe, Y2K, Happy Face, Ground O, and Cindy Redux. This reflects a distinct reordering of movements and the longest and most difficult movement, Spain, is omitted.
     When first approaching Souvenirs, there are a few things you can do to create a successful performance. There is a tendency to play the first movement’s opening a bit too softly in comparison to the texture of the piano part. The sound should have a dense and focused quality. If you do not project a little more than the marked piano dynamic, the piccolo sounds shy and has a tendency to be swallowed up.
     In the Helicon edition, there is a missing slur over the septuplet in measure 30. Find a balance between charm and conservatism in “Lily Monroe” and “Cindy Redux.” Beaser provides specific articulation markings that help classically-trained piccoloists to embrace the folk elements. In order for the movements to be truly effective, performers should internalize the style and let go of their inhibitions.
     The first half of “Cindy Redux” repeats the troublesome note, second-octave C#, frequently. It blends better and is more in tune on most piccolos with the fingering 23    234. In “Ground O” strive to match the timbre of the notes outlining the large leaps to achieve a homogenous sound.     
     To date, there is only one commercially available recording of the work, and it was released late in 2008 – American Reflections by piccoloist Leonard Garrison, and pianist Jonathan Sokasits. (TROY 1062) Another recording, Art of the Piccolo, by Mary Karen Clardy, piccolo and Pamela Mia Paul, piano, will be available in the future (Encore Performance Recording 2526). Reflecting on the composition, Jan Gippo said, “Beaser put his best effort into it, and the result is we have a wonderful piece to play. It is just good music.”