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Composer describes work to receive debut by Ozark Festival Orchestra on Oct. 11 in Monett

Thursday, October 8, 2009

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Ozark Festival Orchestra commissioned "Balkanska Kitka" (roughly translated into "Bulgarian Wildflowers Bouquet") for the opening concert of the season at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11, at Monett City Hall Auditorium. Music director Ken Meisinger has described "Balkanska Kitka" as filled with "lyrical folk tunes, folk dances like Bartok and whirling, stomping, raucous drinking songs; a fun piece that ends in a rhythmic mammoth sound."

Goza is well known to Monett audiences, having served as music director of the OFO three times for five yars from 1989 to 1999. He offered the following comments on his composition:

--How does your approach to composition work? Do you hear the piece finished in your head, does in emerge graudally out of a fog, or is it like erecting a building, a brick at a time?

It's a little of each. If there's a reason to launch into a new composition----in the present case it was a commission----I first spend considerable time letting my imagination wander freely over a wide range of alternatives. I've learned from hard experience not to rush this part of the process. Sometimes an unexpected encounter will nudge me in one direction or another. In the case of Balkanska Kitka, I happened to be listening----just for enjoyment----to a recording of a Bulgarian Horo orchestra during a time when I was finishing an article for GIA Publications on Percy Aldridge Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy. The two came together in my mind's ear, and I started laying out the composition. I believe I described it to Music Director Kenneth Meisinger as "Bela Bartok meets Gustav Holst;" perhaps a better way of saying it would have been "Pancho Vladigerov meets Percy Grainger."

I decided on some time-honored rubrics for the overall plan----I'd rather not try to reinvent that particular wheel. So I chose a four-movement design with the slow movement as the third section, as in many of Beethoven's most significant compositions. I also decided to impose some cyclicity on the piece, bringing back first movement material in the second and third movements almost as a lament (whose focus becomes clear only toward the end of Movement III), and returning to the opening movement's main theme in augmentation at the final movement's climax. These are not exactly formulas, but there are plenty of precedents for them in music that I love and know well, and they often serve good dramatic purposes if the thematic material is appropriate to them.

The selection of thematic material was the next step in this particular case. All of the themes in "Balkanska Kitka" are preexisting melodies, some by known composers, and some whose origins are lost in the mists of time. I chose material that would serve the kinds of structural/developmental purposes that themes are expected to serve in European classical music and treated them accordingly. By the time I put the first notes on paper, the composition was already thoroughly worked out in my mind to the extent described.

The actual hammering out of the details, however, does pretty much proceed brick by brick----much as the individual brush strokes of a painting may be contrived "on the spot" in order to arrive at an already established conclusion.

--You arranged some Mahler songs for an OFO pops concert. Do you spend much time composing? Has this experience inspired you to write more?

I haven't spent much time composing in the last few years: somewhere along the line I reluctantly admitted that Joseph Haydn was a far finer composer than I could ever hope to be, and I thus turned my attention to his music (and that of some well-loved others) instead. But I will say that the OFO's commission really lit a fire under me, and I ended up composing two works simultaneously----the first in several years. And I'm already mulling over other possibilities----so maybe I'll return to it in earnest.

--Mozart played many instruments. Beethoven and Hindemith were viola players. How do you think being an oboe player influences your composing?

I try not to let my primary instrument dictate my choices, but it's probably inevitable that my manner of compositional expression reflects things that work well on the oboe. For instance, my music tends overwhelmingly to focus on the sort of long, conjunct lines that sound really good when played on the oboe (which is essentially a sostenuto instrument). And I couldn't have written the oboe solo in the third movement if I hadn't been well acquainted with the instrument and some of its lesser known possibilities.

--Your commission was limited by the directive of writing for a community orchestra. How did that influence what you write, espeically in writing for an orchestra you know?

This bears directly on the preceding question, because I knew I was writing that long and fairly demanding oboe solo for Julie Waetke-Bishoff! I also know that the orchestra's principal hornist, Jackie Kenny, has a famously strong high register, and took advantage of that. In general, I did try to write to the strengths of the orchestra and to be reasonable in the demands that I placed on everyone. For instance, I didn't cycle through irregular meters as wildly and freely in the final movement as I might have done, had I been expecting the Concertgebouw Orchestra to be playing the piece. And I tried to keep the string parts in the lower positions most of the time. Nevertheless, I was not exactly sparing of challenges: in the immortal words of Robert Browning, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

--In classical music, the artistic pressure is to write something new and different and memorable, as opposed to strictly appealing to popular tastes of the day. How did you respond to the challenge?

This is a problem that's dear to my heart, both as a composer, as a conductor who has to assemble concert programs on occasion, and as an educator. We all know that facile categorizations are inherently problematic, and that's as true in music as in any other realm of life. The distinction between "classical" and "popular," for instance, or "classical" and "folk," has been the source of much mischief. That's why I think that compositions like Grainger's "Lincolnshire Posy" or Bela Bartok's "Roumanian Folk Dances" (which are also featured on the OFO's Sunday afternoon program), or well-crafted orchestral suites of folk music by Kodaly, Holst, Milhaud and others, are extremely important pieces. For it's in those compositions that "classical" and "folk" are reconciled, and two aesthetic ideals meet each other on an equal footing. I tried to achieve something like that in "Balkanska Kitka," by using Balkan folk materials----songs and dances----in the construction of a piece that really behaves like a piece of European classical music (its rubric----if not its scale- is symphonic). I tried to honor both the earthy, homespun quality of much of the source material, and the formal requirements of Western art music.

As far as being "original" (my word not yours), that's never held much interest for me, because I've always suspected that the truth about us is that we're less individuals ("indivisibles") than creatures of whatever culture we had the good fortune to be born into. So to the extent that we're at peace with our culture, we might as well reflect it in our art.

--To fully appreciate your piece, what do you recommend audience members focus on and listen for?

I recommend that they not think too deeply about it. There's a grinding dissonance in the third movement's sixty-fourth measure. I don't want anyone to sit in the audience and analyze it. I'd rather everyone felt it as a moment of crisis, an inevitable outcome of the events that led up to it, and the explosion that follows as a huge release into a chasm of pure grief. I want people to feel the sadness of the flute solo that follows (also written for an orchestra member----Leanna Colf----whose playing I know well) without subjecting it to a Schenkerian scalpel, and I want them to sense in the final movement the great relief of pure, unbridled joy.

This is not a composition that invites and rewards analytical scrutiny. It was not written for music theorists.

--How do you feel going into a premiere of your new work?

Nervous. I've never heard the piece. Composing is not like painting: I can't really stand back and look at what I've done. I think it turned out well, but I won't really know that until Sunday afternoon!

--Explain a bit about the musical influences on this piece. How will we hear them?

There's a lot of Bulgaria in this piece: modal scales, Balkan rhythms, exotic tunings and close harmonies. Bulgaria is a country I love: I treasure those stretches of my life that I've spent there. I love the mountains and villages, music and painting, food and beer of Bulgaria. I love the roses, the cherry orchards, the vernacular architecture, the outdoor cafes and public fountains of that beautiful land. I'm endlessly fascinated by the flora and fauna and metamorphic rocks of the Balkans, which tower over my wife's hometown. And most of all I adore my Bulgarian companion, Rossitza----who suggested the title of the piece. All of these things have a place in this music. This composition is my musical tribute to Bulgaria, and to the woman who has made my life a pleasure. I hope people hear deep affection in this piece, because a lot of love went into it.

It's also a piece that could only have been written for the Ozark Festival Orchestra. I've had a long relationship with that Orchestra, served them as Music Director for five years in three different skeins of seasons. I'm sure I wasn't the most capable music director they ever had, but in the best of our times together we had a lot of fun. I came to appreciate----more deeply, perhaps, than the members of the orchestra will ever know----a group of people who, out of sheer love of music and of music-making, have managed to keep an orchestra alive and thriving in a fairly rural area of the Midwest, operating on what most such organizations would consider a shoestring, and making a smashing success of it year after year. It's an inspiring prospect to me----always has been.

This is also a piece for my dear friends Ken and Elizabeth Meisinger, who over the course of the dozen years I've known them have come to mean more to me than they will ever understand. I hope that they hear in it, some of the affection that I feel for them. There aren't many conductors that I'd have written for as enthusiastically, as for Ken Meisinger. And it's also a piece written in appreciation of Murray Bishoff, the person who recommended me as the recipient of the commission. Murray was on my mind as I crafted the antiphonal exchange in measures 129-144 of the final movement). This commission ended a considerable dry spell for me, and I appreciate it.

--How do you measure the success of a compositional effort?

If someone's smiling at the end, I'll consider it a success. Especially if the person who's smiling is sitting in the orchestra.

--What else are you doing these days?

I'm teaching World Music at the University of Oklahoma. Rossitza's teaching violin at the University of North Texas and serving as concertmaster of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, so we once again have a commuting marriage. I get to spend most of my weekends with her, either in Denton or in Tulsa. Occasionally I spend the weekend in Fayetteville, catching a theatrical production that involves my son Jim (an actor of unbelievable range and a comic genius), or in Highlandville, getting my attitude adjusted by my dear friends Tom and Jane Parker. And there are plenty of interesting geologic features and good rock collecting sites between Norman and each of those destinations, and I spend a lot of time in road cuts, quarries and stream beds armed with geologic maps, a high-powered lens, a rock hammer and chisels and collecting bags. If I had it to do over again, I'd probably become a geologist. It's the only thing I can imagine I'd enjoy even more than making music.

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