In the right field

Daniel Sonenberg gets everyone into the compositional league
By BEN MEIKLEJOHN  |  March 12, 2007
ON THE BALL USM: composer Daniel Sonenberg.

In his third year as resident composer and professor at the University of Southern Maine, Daniel Sonenberg is making his mark in the field. An advocate for contemporary art music, he encourages artists to “buck categorical limits,” to overcome stylistic boundaries. There are “more areas of crossover than people realize.” Starting as rock drummer and singer-songwriter, then composing opera and chamber music, he leads by example.

The man who scored a piece with “very blatant rock overtones,” Mejdoub (1998) for accordion, clarinet, drums, electric guitar, and piano, and who takes the stage as the drummer for folk-country-pop band Truth About Daisies, will be featured in an all-Sonenberg recital at Corthell Hall this Friday. Musicians from both here and “from away” comprise a performers’ roster of thirty.

“We have so much to learn from each other,” says Sonenberg. “The people I’m bringing up from New York are very excited to see what we’re doing here in Maine. Mixing it up with inside and outside blood is really important.”

Notable locals — Portland Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Ardith Keef and violinist Robert Lehmann begin the recital with “Noë Noë,” from Sonenberg’s Quintet for Bassoon and String Quartet — a wonderful aural journey of a melody, a Renaissance tune from a mass by Jacob Arcadelt, itself borrowed from Jean Mouton’s motet. The melody starts dramatically in strings, with bassoon embellishment. The strings develop fragments of melody while dissecting it rhythmically. The bassoon doubles its role, helping the cello move the bass line and rhythm forward as melody is abstracted. The strings, hard-pressed to let go of the melody, after much tempting by the bassoon’s fragment variations, finally let the cello have it in, well, bass-ics. From there the bassoon solos a free melody with string embellishment, reassembles it and handily returns it in one piece to the strings. In its favored role as the melody and bass’s go-between, the bassoon joins the quartet in a tonally expanding escort of the melody to its final ending statement. This is exciting instrumental music!

Next — vocal works performed by USM professor, tenor, and composer Bruce Fithian — are three selections from Sonenberg’s 1999 Baseball Songs. The first two, “Prayer for the Captain” and “Imagine,” are joined, set to text spoken by famous broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. In “Prayer,” Rizzuto comments on Thurman Munson’s tragic 1979 death in a solo plane crash. “You know they say time heals all wounds, and I don’t quite agree with that a hundred percent — it gets you to cope with wounds. You carry them the rest of your life.”

In “Imagine,” Sonenberg captures Rizzuto’s narration of the suspenseful, thrilling 1978 one-game playoff between the Red Sox and the Yankees. “Imagine two teams coming down to the end of the season, both winning 99 games. Everybody thought 95 would win the pennant, and it all comes down to this one game of play.”

The third, “Old (G)love” is set to a poem by Royals pitcher Dan Quisenberry. He holds his old glove nostalgically: “Now you look so small. You shrink like old men, stiff and less flexible, but you still look nice and holding you feels so right.” Quisenberry died of a brain tumor, which is relevant shortly.

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