Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - March 11, 2011

That West Coast sound

Choral concert highlights California, Oregon, Washington composers

by Rebecca Wallace

Writings from far and wide have one thing in common at the Bay Choral Guild this month. They've all been given a West Coast interpretation, set to choral music by California, Oregon and Washington composers.

Words by St. Francis of Assisi will be in the company of writings by Pablo Neruda, Bret Harte and Michelangelo, to name a few. The program, "Pacific Passions," will be performed locally on March 20 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.

"It's going to be an interesting concert. The pieces are modern but quite accessible," said Menlo Park resident L Peter Deutsch, one of the composers on the program. His new piece is based on an e.e. cummings poem, "love is more thicker than forget."

Also local is Mountain View composer Frank Ferko, who thought of the late California poet Kenneth Rexroth when he heard the concert's theme. He chose three Rexroth poems about spring, and set them to music as a multi-part work.

The program features three world premieres: the pieces by Deutsch and Ferko, and Trevor Doherty's work based on Harte's "The Two Ships." Other composers include Eric Whitacre, who drew his text from Federico Garcia Lorca's "With a Lily in Your Hand"; and Kirke Mechem, whose cycle features poems by Sara Teasdale.

Sanford Dole, artistic director of the choral group, also contributed a piece. Its text is "Prayer of Saint Francis."

For Deutsch, the program provides an unusual opportunity. Not only will he be premiering a new work as a composer, he'll also be performing. He has sung bass with the Palo Alto-based choral group for many years.

Deutsch has a Ph.D. in computer science and a background as a software engineer, but music has been a longtime interest. In 2003, he began focusing more seriously on composition. He studied music at Stanford University and then earned a master's degree in composition from California State University, East Bay, at the urging of his Stanford mentor, Giancarlo Aquilanti.

"School was what I needed, to go from being a dabbler in composition to someone who could make some claim to knowing what I was doing," Deutsch said earlier this week in his living room, surrounded by records, a piano and an affable orange cat that occasionally interrupted the interview by jumping on the couch.

Deutsch's e.e. cummings-inspired work is titled "The Dimensions of Love." It, along with the poem, explores metaphors about the qualities of love.

Deutsch said he liked the poem's messages about love, as well as its playfulness, and he says his piece reflects that spirit. For instance, with the lines "love is more thicker than forget / more thinner than recall," Deutsch played with texture, moving from five voice parts to the high three parts.

The piece also takes the uncommon step of having all parts, men's and women's, begin on the same note in the same octave, the D above middle C. The voices then expand into different keys, concluding in D major.

While some composers have a favorite time, place or technique for writing, Deutsch said he doesn't have a set method (although he is fond of writing the beginning and the end first, and finishing in the middle). One thing he is set on is his love of the text in vocal pieces.

"I'm very word-oriented. I always approach vocal pieces as setting music to words," he said.

As for Ferko, he had very few words to work with in the three Rexroth poems he chose for his choral piece "The Spring of Life." But that wasn't a problem for him.

"A lot of his poems are very short, concise, almost like haiku, and I really like that miniature kind of quality," Ferko said in a phone interview.

Ferko said he enjoyed using the vivid imagery in the trio of poems, and the thematic and emotional differences among them.

In the first poem, "Spring," Ferko found the full-moon scene mysterious, and thus employed "dramatic musical movement" in his piece, he said. The second, "This Spring," seemed somber to Ferko, who tried to convey a feeling of "open, endless space." He decided that the third, "Spring Is Early," felt carefree, so he began with a four-voice fugue sung to the word "la."

To connect the poems together, Ferko used his style of harmonies across them. He calls the style tonal and conventional.

"My thinking as a composer has always gravitated toward the harmonies we hear in French music from about 100 years ago, like Debussy and Ravel," he said. "I use that as my point of departure and then embellish in my own way."

When composing, Ferko also was thinking of the Bay Choral Guild, which he has seen perform several times.

"Every group has a little bit different quality in their sound. I like to try to capture what I consider to be strong points or certain features," he said. The choral guild, he said, has a "very nicely well-blended sound" that worked well with his colorful harmonies.

As a longtime composer and organist who has also been a choral director, Ferko has written for many vocal, instrumental, theater and dance groups, as well as individual singers. His choral piece "Stabat Mater," written in 1997-98 for the Chicago ensemble His Majesties Clerkes, has received particular acclaim.

Ferko, who is also a library cataloguer and archivist, moved here from Chicago about five years ago to work at Stanford University's Archive of Recorded Sound. The Bay Choral Guild has performed pieces of his in the past, but this is the first work of his that they've commissioned.

Like Deutsch, Ferko often finds inspiration for his music in words, even in novels. Sometimes, he said: "Something in the text hits me and I think: 'Oh my gosh, this is a very musical kind of text. I've got to do something with this.'"

But, he added, "The music comes at just about any time." An idea can come while he's walking, or be sparked by a color or sound.

"I'm very, very sensitive to colors and lighting," Ferko said, adding, "Rainstorms and thunderstorms in the Midwest are fantastic for writing music." He laughed. "I have experienced earthquakes here, but earthquakes don't seem to do anything for my musical mind."

What: The Bay Choral Guild presents a program of music by West Coast composers.

Where: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto

When: Sunday, March 20, at 4:30 p.m. A pre-concert lecture will take place at 4 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $25 general, $20 for seniors, and $6 for students.

Info: The program will also be presented on March 18 in Campbell and on March 19 in San Francisco. For details, go to http://baychoralguild.org .

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