Expansive Poetry & Music Online:  Music Essay


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Stefania de Kenessey

Stefania de Kenessey is a leading figure in the revival of neoclassical contemporary music and the founder of The Derriere Guard, an association of traditionalist artists, architects, poets and musicians. Her music is performed regularly throughout the country as well as abroad, and her recent chamber music CD "Shades of Light, Shades of Dark" (North/South Records) received rave reviews in Fanfare Magazine as "fully worthy to share a program or disc with the masterpieces by Mozart or Brahms".

Ask most people who have fallen into the habit of listening actively to music – rather than passively, merely as the background accompaniment to their other activities – and they will reveal something astounding: the vast majority of their selections were written between 1500 and 1900. Only occasionally will a name familiar from the twentieth century crop up – but then it will be early Stravinsky, late Bartok, balletic Prokofiev or operatic Britten: all tonalists (at least at that stage of their long and eminent careers).

Simply put, musical modernism has been a failure: in spite of determined attempts by established musical institutions, by intellectuals and by critics, the newly configured aesthetic – music as organized, structured sound – did not take hold among the listening public.

Nor did it take a firm hold among all composers, although the holdouts constituted a minority. Alas, a slim minority.

But there has been a noticeable comeback in the U.S., and it is gaining momentum amongst the younger generation. Increasingly, composers are beginning to tinker with the old-fashioned concepts of melody (horror!), triadic harmony (even greater horror!) and classical forms (unspeakable horrors!).

Through the festivals of The Derriere Guard, which I launched in 1997, I have tried to present composers who work in this neo-traditionalist, neo-classical vein. Although their music varies greatly, they share some traits:

    - They insist on creating beautiful melodies;
    - Their basic musical language is tonal;
    - Their harmonies are (often) consonant;
    - They counterpoint shows craft and linear development;
    - Their structures grow out of classical forms;
    - Their idiom is more than a parodistic, eclectic juxtaposition of borrowed styles.
In other words, these composers are all reaching for a new synthesis of old and new, for a revitalization of tradition which both acknowledges the values of the past – but is unafraid to move ahead.

Let me highlight some of these "Derriere Guard" composers as a demonstration of the riches that are now available to us; alas, there are simply too many to include…

The First Derriere Guard Festival of 1997 showcased the chamber music of Eric Ewazen (email: eric@ericewazen.com; website: www.ericewazen.com) whose current CD’s include "Shadowcatcher" with the Juilliard Wind Ensemble (on New World Records) and "Bass Hits" (on Albany Records). A prolific and brilliant composer of chamber and orchestral music, his work for brass ensembles deserves special mention; his music is tuneful, sweeping and richly textured. A native of Cleveland, Ewazen has been Composer-in-Residence with the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble and is currently a faculty member of The Juilliard School.

We also heard a wonderfully lyrical new piano concerto by New Yorker Ed Green (email: egmusic@gis.net; website: www.gis.net/~egmusic). A professor of composition at Manhattan School of Music who also serves on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, his "Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra" is included in Vol. 2 of the VISIONS series on a Tintangel CD (Canada), in performance by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Paul Freeman, and this performance will also be released as part of an Albany Records CD (USA) in 2002, on their "Twentieth Century Visions" series.

Among the orchestral triumphs of the The Second Derriere Guard Festival of 1998 was a scintillating, exciting, rapid-fire concert overture by Robert Ian Winstin, (email: numusic@numusic.org; website: numusic@numusic.org), an award-winning composer-conductor & pianist who hails from Chicago. He has written more than 200 works, including 5 symphonies, 2 piano concerti, a 'cello concerto, a violin concerto, and numerous chamber and solo instrumental works. His most recent work, "September 11th, 2001 - 9:05am" for solo trumpet and orchestra was used by several news networks in the days following the tragedy and will be included as the title work in an upcoming film. His music can be heard on several recordings on the E.R.M. label (also available at www.mp3.com/winstin).

The concert also offered music by Michael Dellaira (email: mrd@dellairamusic.com; website: www.dellairamusic.com), who performed as a solo guitarist and with several rock groups during the 1960's. Although he studied composition with the eminent serialist Milton Babbitt, Dellaira’s music evinces his deep-seated love of American vernacular idioms, with beguiling turns of modal harmony and melody. His opera "Cheri" was recently showcased at Lincoln Center, and his new CD "FIVE" was released to acclaim on Albany Records (www.albanyrecords.com)

The Third Derriere Guard Festival of 1999 showcased the vocal music of San Franciscan Jake Heggie, whose recent opera "Dead Man Walking", had a triumphant west Coast premiere and is on its way to several productions throughout the U.S. Hailed for his command of the singing voice, his communicative lyricism and his deeply felt emotionalism, Heggie has been championed by singers such as Frederica von Stade, Renee Fleming and Jennifer Larmore, amongst others; they can be heard on "The Faces of Love", a gorgeous new disc issued by BMG Classics, with the composer at the piano.

The concert also featured chamber music by West Coast composer Nancy Bloomer Deussen (email: deussen@ix.netcom; website: www.nancybloomerdeussen.com) , who is well-known throughout the San Francisco Bay Area as a composer, performer and arts impresario. Her beguiling music shows traces of Gershwin and early jazz, yet remains completely individual and always deepy heartfelt. Her work is available from Arizona University Recordings, North/South Records, ERM, Keynote Designs and BMS. Her most recent orchestral CD is "Reflections on the Hudson" (Arizona University Recordings, www.AURec.com).

And most recently, the 2001 Winter Salon of the Derriere Guard, added the talents of two other notable New York composers to this impressive list.

Ben Yarmolinsky (email: yarmo4@aol.com; website: http://members.aol.com/yarmo4) is a classically trained composer with an interest in revitalizing the American musical theater tradition by combining contemporary language with classical musical forms. He has composed many musical theater pieces, including a "docu-opera" based on the Anita Hill hearings in the U.S. Senate (Anita), a sung television news broadcast (Blind Witness News) and a Letterman-inspired talk show (The Lenny Paschen Show). His most recent CD is "In Lieu of Flowers", occasional songs written and performed by the composer.

Beth Anderson (email: beand@interport.net; website: www.users.interport.net/~beand/) writes new romantic music, text-sound works, and musical theater. Her style is occasionally folksy, blues-inflected or minimalist in texture, always beautiful and with a sly sense of humor. Her most current CD is "September Swale" for mandolin and guitar (Antes/Bella Musica, on a disc CD 31.9153 entitled "Chilli Con Tango".

           Stefania DeKennessey