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Dan WELCHER (b.1948)
Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun (Tone Poem)* (1991 ) [22:32]
Prairie Light: Three Texas Watercolours of Georgia O’Keefe (1985) [14:20] Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra** (1989) [20:13]
*Richard Chamberlain (narrator);
** Bil Jackson (clarinet).
Honolulu Symphony Orchestra/Donald Johanos;
rec. 10 January 1992, Blaisdell Concert Hall, Honolulu, Hawaii.
NAXOS 8.559287 [57:06]

Formerly issued on Marco Polo 8.223457, this CD collects three works by Welcher, a New Yorker who in 1990 was named Composer in Residence with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.
The first work here, Haleakala grew out of that experience - as did Welcher’s first Symphony. We are told, in the composer’s own notes, that it was designed both as a children’s story and as “a piece of mature contemporary music”. An orchestra which includes a variety of traditional Hawaiian percussion instruments accompanies, illustrates and decorates a spoken text which recounts one of the myths of the trickster hero Maui, an important figure in Polynesian mythology. There are plenty of effective passages, but for all the undoubted skill with which Welcher uses his resources, and for all his claim that “the work can be performed without narration”, the music comes across as secondary to the text, prepared by Ann McCutchan and spoken by Richard Chamberlain. At times I wondered whether Chamberlain’s narration had been recorded at a different time and the orchestral and spoken contributions only brought together after the fact, as it were. There is some colourful orchestral writing, some telling climaxes, but as a piece of music, it all feels decidedly fragmentary.
I found more musical satisfaction in the other two pieces on the disc. Prairie Light responds to three watercolours painted by Georgia O’Keefe in Texas in 1917 - Welcher now lives in Texas. The three – which give their titles to the three movements - are ‘Light Coming on the Plains’, ‘Canyon with Crows’ and ‘Starlight Night’. What one writer (Siglind Bruhn in ‘A Concert of Paintings’, Poetics Today, Volume 22, 2001) has called ‘musical ekphrasis’, i.e. when a composer seeks to find ways to transpose aspects of a painting’s style and structure or dominant images to his own art form, now has a pretty lengthy and fairly distinguished history. In the first of Welcher’s three pieces the horizon and concentric circles of blue light which characterise O’Keefe’s painting are ‘represented’ by static bass line and three extended musical phrases which persuasively mimic the gradual arrival of sunlight. This is a striking and memorable piece. In the second, staccato chords and solo lines for woodwinds mimic the crows of O’Keefe’s painting; in the third, gamelan-like patterning underlies a larger circular structure, in which a nocturnal melody is finally fused with the dawn ‘chorus’ of Prairie Light’s first section.
The Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra starts off in relatively staid fashion, but is soon overtaken by the idioms of jazz and the dance hall. The second movement - described as ‘Blues and Toccata (on the name ‘Benny Goodman’) – uses a repeated ostinato over which a range of echoes from the jazz tradition are played out, the movement ending with the orchestra reduced to clarinet, vibes, bass and drums – a jazz quartet, in short. There is much lively writing, much entertainment throughout the concerto.
Prairie Light is a substantial and perceptively coloured piece which rewards repeated hearings – best of all if one can access reproductions of the paintings. The Concerto is thoroughly accomplished, witty music. The more I listen to Haleakala, however, the thinner and slighter it seems. Still, two out of three is not bad! For these two earlier pieces, from the 1980s, I recommend this recording as a way of introducing oneself to the music of Dan Welcher.
Glyn Pursglove

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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