Difficult listening

Adventures in new music

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Even The New York Times admits that some of Richard Wernick's musical compositions aren't easy, calling them "positively defiant in standing up for dissonant chords and melodies that have no obvious tonal home." In fact, the word "dissonant" turns up in most reviews of the Pulitzer Prize-winner's work. But reviewers also call it dramatic, seductive, compelling, intellectually stimulating and intensely eloquent to the willing ear. One reviewer said his work stretches the imagination and stirs the intellect and emotion.If a musical work can do all that, so what if you can't hum it or tap your toe to it the first time you hear it?

Cellist Scott Kluksdahl, who is on sabbatical from his teaching post at the University of South Florida, has always been a fervent proponent of new music and a fan of Wernick. As a graduate student at Julliard, Kluksdahl became interested in a piece for solo cello by Wernick. "I spent a year learning it," he says. "Then I called him and asked if I could play it for him."

It was a nervy move for a young student, but Kluksdahl valued the opportunity of hearing directly from the composer what he intended for the music. "Notation is so crude," he says. "It really hasn't changed for centuries. There are certain basic ways to play, of course, but we don't have access to Mr. Beethoven to ask what he intended." Kluksdahl has since played and recorded Wernick's music, and over the years the two talked about commissioning a work for cello and piano. In 2000, the talk became reality.

Kluksdahl is devoted to playing the work of living composers and has commissioned several other works for cello. "I do a lot of new music," he says. "I believe in creating the history of our instrument. ... As wonderful as the old masters are, it's a great feeling to have something new to play, something on the cutting edge." A worthy goal — and the Wernick commission certainly qualifies. "It's a high honor for me because he's a very great man. He's won every prize." But it goes beyond Wernick's impressive accolades and pedigree. This work is special for a couple of reasons.

One is timing. Wernick's piece occupies a special moment in history and a spontaneous yet sophisticated, personal and artistic reaction to that moment. Wernick had completed the first movement and was finishing the second on Sept. 10, 2001. The second movement is a Scherzetto, "exactly what the name implies," writes the composer in a program note, "a flippant, tongue-in-cheek, two-minute piece of fluff that was enormous fun to write, but probably not so much fun to play."

The next day brought an abrupt end to so many things. Wernick stopped working for a while. "When I finally returned to composing," he writes, "I decided to leave the second movement exactly as it was on September 10, and the piece moves directly, with no pause, into the third movement: In Remembrance 09/11/01." The sudden arrest of momentum, the change from light to somber, mirrors the experience of the nation on that day.

"It's the deep center of the piece," says Kluksdahl of the third movement. "It has tremendous anguish, like a prayer." Embedded in the opening motif of the third movement is a musical code that spells out 09-11-01, in the tradition of composers coding significant numbers into their works. The motif repeats throughout the movement, becoming increasingly complex.

"It's very powerful," says Kluksdahl, adding that the audience was moved to silence at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where the piece premiered. "He really hit something deep."

Even Kluksdahl was surprised at the power of the work. "It's always hit or miss when you commission a piece. You never know what you're going to get," he says. "This time we got a lot more than we bargained for." Already cellists and pianists are asking for and playing it.

The other thing that gives this piece a special emotional resonance also has to do with timing and remembrance. It is dedicated to Robert Helps, a pianist and composer of international reputation who lived in Tampa and taught at USF. Kluksdahl calls him a colleague, a dear friend and a mentor. They played together many times and Kluksdahl commissioned Helps to write a duo for cellos.

Helps and Wernick had never met but were scheduled to be in residence at the same place in the fall of 2001. But Helps was too ill to attend. He died around the same time Wernick was finishing the commission.

"He left me money, which I used to pay part of the commission," says Kluksdahl. The piece is dedicated to his memory.

The Florida premiere will take place Sunday, May 18, at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Although it isn't a memorial concert for Helps, his presence will be palpable. The concert will begin with Helps' "Duo for Cello and Piano," a short piece composed in 1977. Kluksdahl calls it, "profoundly melancholy with glistening textures." Then comes a "Sonata for Cello and Piano" by Gabriel Faure. "People either love it or hate it," says Kluksdahl. "I love it." Then comes the Wernick piece, dedicated to Helps. And that's just the first half of the concert, which features Noreen Cassidy-Polera on piano.

Kluksdahl admits the concert is difficult listening, calling it "very rigorous for the listener." But he feels it's important to be a part of the creation of new music and he believes local audiences are up to the challenge. "It's not just up to the composer," he says. "It's up to musicians and audiences. We have to insist on it." He's doing his part and looking to us to do ours.

"I'm hoping people will be intrepid and step up to it."

The concert takes place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 18, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive N.E., St. Petersburg. Call 727-896-2667 for details.

Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at 813-248-8888 ext. 122 or [email protected].

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