Arthur Levering: School of Velocity

Every conductor appreciates the distinction Rimsky-Korsakov made among orchestration ideas that sound good the first time in rehearsal, those that sound good after some rehearsal, and those that never quite work no matter how much rehearsal time they take. Arthur Levering writes the first kind, and he does it more consistently than any composer I can think of. For each of the pieces I conduct on this disc, the first reading at the first rehearsal revealed a clear, ringing musical conception. There was still plenty of work for us to do as performers: we had to learn to articulate the elegant formal structures, to match the pacing and exquisite taste of the music, and finally to rise to its power. But there was never any doubt that we were working on music with a stunning mastery of every compositional element.

Not that Arthur uses every compositional element he might — he is scrupulously selective in what his music can include. The beginning composer's desire to say everything in every work, using every possible means, has been replaced by the professional's sureness in knowing what to omit. Arthur Levering puts this focusing energy not only into each piece but into the creation of a body of work that speaks with a clear and identifiable voice. Arthur has created this voice the hard way, without gimmicks or eccentricity. To have known and worked with him has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my musical life; this is some of the best music I know.

—Scott Wheeler

Twenty Ways Upon the Bells is based on a fragment of three-part counterpoint played by clarinet, viola, and piano at the outset. Each of these three contrapuntal parts is treated as a separate theme and what follows is a series of intertwining variations (20 to be precise). The title alludes to a small body of Elizabethan works for lutes or keyboards, early examples of program music. These pieces consist of variations over a short ground, in imitation of church bells. While my “bell” theme (in the right hand of the piano at the start) is very strange by Renaissance standards, the use of open 5ths and modal harmonies in some sections reinforces the allusion to early music. Twenty Ways Upon the Bells was commissioned by the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble for its 20th anniversary season with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The two movements of Clarion/Shadowing are both variation forms of a sort. The first movement is based on three themes heard at the start (one for the clarinet, one for the piano, and one for the violin doubled in various octaves by piano) and the entire piece is constructed of different juxtapositions of these themes or fragments of them. Movement 2 uses a 19 note theme to generate all of its material, although the theme itself is played in its entirety only five times during the course of the work, somewhat in the manner of a rondo.

School of Velocity is a set of three display pieces, in the genre of concert etudes. The title is borrowed from Carl Czerny's Die Schule der Geläufigkeit, a 19th century collection of piano studies still popular today. Although the spirit and aim of Czerny's work may coincide with my own, there are no direct musical connections. The first movement involves rapid descending chromatic scales among other challenges. The second is a quasi-tremolo study, and the final movement, a study in compound melody, is the most contrapuntal of the set and is perhaps the least didactic in nature. School of Velocity was commissioned by Donald Berman.

Roulade, a single-movement work for flute, harp, and string trio, is based entirely on three themes stated at the outset (one for the flute, one for the harp, and one played in hocket-fashion by the strings). Occasionally, all three themes are heard with their original rhythmic relationship preserved (other parameters being varied), but more often, one theme will assert itself and become the primary focus of a section or part of a section. The title has several meanings, some humorous (a rolled up slice of cheese?), but the one I intended is an 18th century term referring to a vocal melisma or an ornament consisting of rapid passing tones inserted between two principal melodic notes. Roulade was recomposed and reorchestrated as the first movement of Clarion/Shadowing.

Uncle Inferno was written for the inaugural program of the “Pianists and Composers Meet” series at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Given the challenge of composing for pianists in the early stages of training, I decided to do something a little ridiculous - write for three players at one keyboard. While each part is necessarily simple from a technical standpoint, the primary challenge for the performers is in the ensemble. These three very short, very light pieces are all based on the same insipid tune. (Don't worry, you can't miss it.)

Cloches II contains many allusions to the sound of bells, from the oscillating 4th in the piccolo and clarinet at the start, to a shameless but brief reference to Big Ben in the cello near the end. It was written during an idyllic year in Rome and was inspired by the tolling of that city's thousands of church bells. Cloches II was commissioned by the Gruppo Strumentale “Musica d'Oggi”.



(b. 1953) received his musical education at Colby College, Yale University (studying classical guitar under Eliot Fisk), and Boston University (studying composition under Bernard Rands). He has been a fellow in composition at the Aspen Music Festival, the June in Buffalo Festival, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. His awards include the 1997 Heckscher Foundation Composition Prize, a 1996 Barlow Foundation Commission, a 1994 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the 1992 Lee Ettelson Composer's Award from Composers, Inc., 2 Composers Guild 1st Prizes, and the 1988 Malloy Miller Composition Prize (Boston University). In 1996 he was awarded the Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome. He has received commissions from the Music Teachers National Association, the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, the Brass Consortium, the Boston Conservatory Chamber Ensemble, Boston Musica Viva, Musica d'Oggi (Italy), the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet (Germany), and pianist Donald Berman. His works have been performed in Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, as well as in the U.S.A.