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Dan WELCHER (b. 1948)
Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun (1991) [22.32]
Prairie Light: Three Texas Watercolors of Georgia O’Keeffe (1985) [14.20]
Clarinet Concerto (1989) [20.13]
Richard Chamberlain (narrator)
Bil Jackson (clarinet)
Honolulu Symphony Orchestra/Donald Johanos
rec. 10 January 1992, Blaisdell Concert Hall, Honolulu, Hawaii. DDD
NAXOS 8.559287 [57.06]

 

Dan Welcher originally trained at the Eastman School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. He has consistently run two careers in parallel, as a composer and as a performer, having started his career as a bassoonist with the Louisville Orchestra. He is now based at the University of Texas where he founded the New Music Ensemble, served as assistant conductor of Austin Symphony Orchestra and where he now teaches composition.

In 1990 Welcher was appointed composer-in-residence with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and during this period he wrote his Symphony No. 1 and Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun for them.

Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun is a tone poem that Welcher intends to function at a number of levels. It is a narrative piece which recounts a tale about Maui, a Polynesian demi-God about whom a number of adventures are told. Welcher’s piece is concerned with Maui’s adventures snaring the Sun and forcing it to go more slowly across the heavens for six months of the year.

This is a substantial descriptive tone poem. Welcher is concerned to make the piece as accessible as possible, perhaps because of the work’s origins as the offshoot of a composer-in-residence programme. It can be performed with linking narration - as it is here - or without. This is where my problem starts.

Welcher writes attractive, evocative modern tonal music and incorporates a number of Hawaiian tunes into the work’s melodic structure. The music is almost cinematic at times and Welcher’s orchestration has a richness and depth to it that is attractive. He also incorporates a number of Hawaiian instruments into the orchestra. The music is so colourful that I found Richard Chamberlain’s narration rather irrelevant. The text is by Ann McCutchan. I found its tone a little arch, though Chamberlain’s mannered delivery does not help. Presumably this is what the composer wants, as Chamberlain spoke the narration at the work’s premiere in 1991. Also, I did not think that Welcher’s melodic inspiration was direct enough - or memorable enough - to be able to stand against interruption by spoken text. It takes quite a degree of skill to mix narration and music. Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf has had many imitators, but few composers have matched Prokofiev’s skill in this area. Welcher could have learned something from the apparent simplicity and directness of Prokofiev’s musical material.

Much as I enjoyed Maui, I kept wishing that the narration had been omitted. But as the CD lasts just 57 minutes, it would have perhaps been possible to have both versions included on the disc, allowing listeners to make up their own minds.

Prairie Light might be called ‘morning, noon and night on the prairie’, a sort of desert version of La Mer. The piece is based on three Georgia O’Keeffe paintings. Painted whilst she was teaching in Canyon, Texas in 1917 they depict, in stylised manner, three episodes in the desert, Light Coming on the Plains, Canyon with Crows and Starlight Night. Welcher uses these three paintings as a starting point for each of his movements. They show that, without having to be shackled to a text, Welcher still has significant narrative, descriptive skills. These pieces were my favourites on the disc.

Welcher’s musical style is highly allusive. He synthesises references to many of the major 20th century symphonic writers, though I kept coming back to the influence of Sibelius and of Stravinsky. Welcher’s tonal palate is however far richer than those used by either of these more austere artists.

The programme concludes with Welcher’s Clarinet Concerto written for Bil Jackson and first performed by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra in 1989. Jackson combines a career as a symphonic clarinettist with playing jazz and this is reflected in the concerto. Here Welcher synthesises jazz elements into his symphonic writing. The first movement is relatively classical in tone, but with odd perky moments which rather recall Bernstein. This Bernstein influence (notably Prelude, Fugue and Riffs) comes more to the fore in the 2nd and 3rd movements and the latter finishes on a pure jazz note.

There are many people who will enjoy this fluently written, expertly played concerto that mixes classical and jazz influences. It is obviously well tailored to Jackson’s skills as he shimmies from classical to jazz and back again.

The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra under Donald Johanos do Welcher proud and turn in fine performances in all three works.

This is a fascinating disc, one that opens up a window onto the vast amount of contemporary American music that fails to make much impact in Europe. Welcher’s pieces deserve to be heard, but now that the disc is on my library shelves I am honestly not sure how often I will listen to it again.

Robert Hugill

see also Reviews by Glyn Pursglove and Jonathan Woolf

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