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What a Score!

Symphony gains Kenneth Frazelle

By Gretchen Giles

COMPOSER Kenneth Frazelle was at the Juilliard School of Music with Santa Rosa Symphony conductor Jeffrey Kahane in the mid-'70s. At least he thinks they were there together. "Jeff told me that he once came to a party at my house," chuckles Frazelle by phone from his North Carolina home. "But I don't remember him.

"Actually," he says, before pausing. "I don't remember having a party."

Frazelle is no Alzheimer's candidate. At 42, this composer is at the vanguard of rising artists who are setting the classical world on its ear. His known association with Kahane--parties aside--began in the '80s. "Jeff was looking for a new, young composer, and a mutual friend suggested me. He has become one of my greatest champions," Frazelle says warmly. His compositions for Kahane include a duet for the pianist/conductor and cellist Yo Yo Ma, and so many other works that seeing Kahane's name listed as a performer in concert reviews is almost inevitable.

Born in the juicy tail end of the baby-boom cycle, Frazelle takes the term "world music" very literally--that is, very literally bringing the sounds of the world into his classical compositions.

Trained under polytonal master Roger Sessions at Juilliard, Frazelle has gradually moved away from the music-as-math considerations of his mentor to explorations of a simpler nature: remembering how a child sees stars pop one by one into the sky; mimicking the bird songs of his native North Carolina; scoring a work based on a name-that-tune game that his father played with him, as a child, on a toy piano; investigating his family's roots in Appalachian folksongs; and charting--with full orchestration and some large old pieces of tin--the joyous banging of pots that traditionally hail the annum on New Year's Eve.

That last piece, titled "Shivaree," receives its West Coast premiere Oct. 11-13 when Frazelle joins the Santa Rosa Symphony to begin a three-year term as composer-in-residence. Co-commissioned last year by the symphony in conjunction with the Winston-Salem Piedmont Triad Symphony, "Shivaree" is based on Frazelle's memory of piling into his aunt's old Thunderbird one crisp New Year's Eve, loaded down with pots and pans to provide a cacophonously surprising New Year's greeting to friends at midnight. Kitchenware is actually included in the performance, part of whose melody is underscored by his rendition of a chuggingly cold Thunderbird engine.

In addition to his tenure here, Frazelle will join Kahane--who also directs the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra--in a three-year residency down south. And then there's the residency in Rome this winter, and his ongoing teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

But all this hustle and bustle doesn't have Frazelle frazzled. When asked how he visualizes music in his head, he pauses thoughtfully.

"I don't see music in colors or anything else like that; it's more sophisticated. Sometimes a string of notes will come to life for me when I see a painting or a landscape or a shaft of light," says this composer who often takes colored pencils outdoors to sketch ideas upon his scores. "I remember one time--in the early '70s, when I was living in New York--going to see a collection of de Koonig paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. He was doing a lot of these strong, vibrantly messy seascapes at that time, and as I stood looking at them, I actually heard brass instruments playing in my head. That was a very intense experience."

The classical music world of today offers many intense experiences, as revered composers go bust to bust with such younger artists as Frazelle. Among his accomplishments is "Sunday at McDonald's," a work set to the poetry of North Carolina writer and Guggenheim Fellow A. R. Ammons, 80 of whose poems Frazelle has scored, and with whom he's been corresponding for some 20 years. "This is one of those rare instances when you follow a great artist, and when you actually get to meet them, they are just as wonderful as you thought they were," says Frazelle. "His sense of being both inside and apart really appeals to me."

His North Carolina roots show up in other ways, as with the "Blue Ridge Airs" series he began in the '80s. Based in large part upon his grandmother's and great-aunt's recollections of folksongs--which, at his request, they sang into a tape player--his familial wellspring of indigenous music has deepened his work. "They didn't even know what folk music was," he says of his aging relatives, "and when, about a month later, they sent the tapes back, they had recorded literally hundreds of songs. It was a treasure trove.

"[Folk music] has as much beauty for me as a wildflower," he continues in his softly accented voice. "More, perhaps, than that of a hothouse orchid, though I like those, too. There is something unbidden about the beauty."

Other innovative work by Frazelle was showcased in choreographer Bill T. Jones' Still/Here, a dance and multimedia work exploring the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. Frazelle scored the first half, while Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid charted the second. "That was exciting," says Frazelle of Still/Here's 1994 premiere. "Most of the audience were under 25, and they really responded. It made me feel very alive."

If it can encompass pots and pans, poetry, Appalachia, and a marriage of modern dance and rock and roll, what are the restrictions of classical music?

"Well," he answers, beginning to laugh, "it is unlimited, except for the limits. Obviously, you can't create a completely improvised symphony. That would go beyond what a symphony does, but within the restraints of the form, you can do just about anything."


Shivaree, along with works by Dohnányi and Britten, will be performed by the Santa Rosa Symphony, conducted by Jeffrey Kahane, with Orli Shaham as guest pianist, Saturday-Monday, Oct. 11-13. Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Saturday and Monday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $17-$30. 54-MUSIC.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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