Maxfield Parrish Composer’s Competition Concert

Music of Wright, Fairlee-Kennedy, Bauer, Hsu and Denisch

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia, PA. Sept. 15

by Peter Burwasser

On the face of it, commissioning new music in honor of an art exhibition carries an intrinsic risk that the work produced will be overtly programmatic, imitation Pictures at an Exhibition. None of the five finalists in this competition, drawing from 39 submissions from the Northeastern U.S., followed this impulse, and yet the spirit of the artwork was fully honored.

The concert took place in the rotunda of the great Victorian museum and art school, amidst Parrish’s work.

Maxfield Parrish was as much an illustrator as an academic painter, producing crisp, boldly colored images that easily suggest musical motifs. The composers in this competition responded to two basic thrusts in Parrish’s work – his infatuation with the extreme colors and shapes of the vast American West, and a vivid identification with the dream world of fairy tales.

Two of the composers fell into the former camp, Maurice Wright of Philadelphia and Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy, of Ithaca, N.Y. Both were inspired by “Arizona,” an almost psychedelic, pulsating desert landscape. Much of Wright’s music, which unfolds with the rich and decadent harmonies of such fin-de-siecle figures as Mahler and Scriabin, assigns reverberant low tones (cello, percussion, piano) to darkness and bright, dynamically more aggressive sound (clarinet, flute, violin, harp, piano and percussion again) to lightness. But he also captures those transitional boundaries of shifting light with great thoughtfulness, such as in a delicate duet between harp and percussion. The effect is no less easy to bring off in music than it is in painting. Fairlee-Kennedy (in her Desert Echoes) uses long strands of undulating chromatic scales and trills, eloquently expressing the colors and light of the American West in her music, as well as the loneliness of the vast desert in plangent solos on the flute, bass clarinet, and cello, beautifully played, respectively, by Cynthia Folio, Allison Herz, and Vivian Barton.

Princeton`s Randall Bauer was one of two composers to take on “The Dinkey Bird,” which he calls Catch in the Turn… Parrish’s image of a nude boy swinging in a fairy-tale setting is translated by Bauer with an ostinato pattern borrowed from the vocabulary of the minimalists, as well as perky syncopated rhythms. He achieves a quality of whimsy and playfulness, so much a part of Parrish’s outlook, that was generally missing from the music of his colleagues this evening. Chia-Yu Hsu, a Taiwan-born composer now studying at Curtis, was also drawn to “The Dinkey Bird,” which she interprets with gentle, Debussy-like impressionism.

Only one composer, Baltimore native Beth Denisch, chose to use an overtly visual image in her work. “The Singing Tree,” a chamber work in three movements, is inspired by Parrish’s painting “Princess Parizade Bringing Home the Singing Tree.” Denisch wanted to portray a journey to and from a mountain peak, and so she placed a tracing of the mountain in the painting on a musical staff and then filled in the notes. But the effect is natural and uncontrived, and the use of whole-tone melodies honors the Asian origin of the painting topic. A delightfully jazzy romp down the mountain concludes this highly entertaining and imaginative work.