Chrysalis: Orchestral Music of Brian Fennelly






Polish Radio National

Symphony Orchestra

Joel Eric Suben


boguslaw Furtok


Chris Gekker


Brian Fennelly

Brian Fennelly (born 1937) is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Arts and Science at New York University, where he taught from 1968 to 1997. Following a degree in engineering from Union College, he studied music at Yale with Mel Powell, Donald Martino, Allen Forte, Gunther Schuller and George Perle (M.Mus 1965, Ph.D. 1968). In addition to a Guggenheim fellowship, his awards include three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and two commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation. In 1997 he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Recently he has held composer residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio and the Camargo Foundation Center in Cassis. He has been awarded prizes in many competitions, including the Goffredo Petrassi Competition for Orchestral Music (1993), the Louisville Orchestra New Music Competition (First Prize, 1986), Shreveport Symphony Competition (1981), and the Premio Città di Trieste (1981). Recordings of his music appear on various labels, with "solo" CDs on the New World and CRI labels.

In addition to composing and teaching, he has been active as officer and board member in a number of music organizations; he also co-directs the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society, which he founded in 1976. Fennelly resides in Kingston, New York with his wife Jacqueline, who played French horn with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic for many years. Liam Fennelly, a son from a previous marriage, is a viola da gamba player active throughout Europe.

The five works recorded on this CD cover a 21-year period in the creative life of the composer, from 1976 (Concert Piece for Trumpet & Orchestra) to 1997 (Chrysalis). Among the consistent, remarkable features of Fennelly's orchestral works from these years—the elements which define his distinctive compositional “voice”—are the abundant paradoxical tendencies: steadfast resistance to fashion, coupled with frequent signs of his awareness of contemporary compositional trends; nearly obsessive dedication to formal transparency, coupled sometimes with impressionistic, sensuous orchestral textures and the masking of structural divisions; strong goal orientation through progressions of phrases leading to powerful climaxes, coupled often with rhapsodic passages of a seemingly static nature; pitch organization clearly derived from dodecaphonic or hexachordal procedures, coupled frequently with motives and harmonies selected for their apparent non-serial associations (suggestive of, but not operating functionally in, traditional tonality or modality).

This album reveals Brian Fennelly as a craftsman of sober, weighty music built to stand objectively, i.e. by the strength of its own content and architecture. Nonetheless we hear—apart from the neutrally titled Concert Piece—a collection of tone poems full of extra-musical imagery and full to the brim with highly-charged emotional content—and, on more than one occasion supplied with suggestions of whimsy. Fennelly is one of very few composers active today who have not retreated entirely from serialism and abstraction yet continually create works full of the breath of humanity. That he has brought all this off without surrendering the compositional rigor which informs his entire œuvre may well be the greatest paradox of all.

It is precisely in the resolution of paradox—invariably in favor of structural and dramatic clarity—that Fennelly achieves his signature stamp. His high regard for the trappings of erudition—strict canons often so labeled, rigorous adherence to a central content of pitch, rhythm, and indeed tempo—ultimately calls attention not so much to these details themselves as to a larger process in each work, with the result that the listener—even the untrained listener—identifies the experience as highly invigorating and above all, richly musical.

Alongside the consistent aspects of Fennelly's orchestral music during 1976-1997 are signs of definite evolution. The music has over the years moved progressively away from rhythmic abstractions toward metrically-oriented rhythms of the kind associated with 19th century music. In Fennelly's hands this apparent gravitation toward a simpler, more readily comprehended surface has furnished many occasions for passages of dazzling figuration. The master of the paradox simply will not be denied: in giving up one compositional “habit,” he merely substitutes a new one just as daunting.

Concert Piece for Trumpet & Orchestra stands apart from the other works in this collection for having been composed (1976) so much earlier than the other four, which are clustered in a twelve-year period (1985, 1990, 1995, 1997). Written for Empire Brass Quintet trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, this work is the only one of the five to have no other qualifier—i.e. no Italian or English “character” term—other than the numerical tempo indicator—at the beginning of theoriginal score. (Later editions of the score show the composer's insertion of “Lively,” in keeping with a perceived trend away from hard-edged objectivity.)

Concert Piece is in a lucid three-part form, ABA. After a brief orchestral flourish the trumpet enters near the very bottom of its register and rises to declaim a stately theme through three clearly delineated phrases to an undulating string accompaniment. A brief transition, marked by faster rhythmic figures leads into a classically-styled second theme recognized by the accompaniment's motor-rhythm of sixteenth-notes in the strings. An unmistakable climax is followed by a reminiscence of the original stately theme.

The middle section is built on syncopated rhythms in which sections of the orchestra are instructed to play at times with jazz inflection, at other times “rhythmically exact.” A brief concertato passage (decidedly jazz-inflected) of bass clarinet, vibraphone, one double bass, and the solo trumpet marks the approximate mid-point of this section. An accompanied cadenza (a miniature jam session for trumpet) leads to a return of the opening material of the piece.

A highly traditional recapitulation reaches a stronger, more extended climax than did the corresponding point of the first section of the work. The piece ends with a whimsical final punctuation mark having the impact of a dot of whipped cream on a cupcake. Concert Piece was first performed February 13, 1983 by Steven Trinkle with the Shreveport Symphony Chamber Orchestra, Margery Deutsch conducting.

The composer's program note to the first performance of Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 (Ambrosial Mornings) (February 8, 1986: Hudson Valley Philharmonic Orchestra [who commissioned the work], Imre Pallo conducting) defines its essence: “…a freely developing work, a single movement episodic in nature, as is the case with my first orchestral fantasy after Thoreau, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World [composed in 1975, available on 1994 on New World CD 80448-2]. Without admitting to any specific programmatic content (in either work), Fennelly furnishes the title page of Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 with a guiding passage from Thoreau's Journal:

I was reminded, this morning before I rose, of those undescribed ambrosial mornings of summer which I can remember, when a thousand birds were heard gently twittering and ushering in the light, like the argument to a new canto of an epic and heroic poem. The serenity, the infinite promise, of such a morning!

Again in the composer's own words:

The piece can easily be regarded as consisting of two large parts. After an introduction setting the atmosphere for the work, a leisurely thematic statement (beginning with the solo horn) is followed by episodic commentaries which highlight first the strings, then the woodwinds, then the brass. An extended bridge leads to the second part, which features playful scherzo music alternating witth energetic canonic passages. These sections become longer in each of three statements and culminate in the climax of the work. Percussion outbursts are followed by “echo” canons as the music leads to an extended coda, incorporating references to previous sections. The work closes peacefully with the sounds of local instruments: Woodstock wind chimes.

With Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 Fennelly hits his orchestral stride, creating an epic tone poem of Straussian proportions and displaying a mastery of dazzling orchestral colors and contrasts (invariably placed in the service of compositional structure). In a manner which over the years has become one of Fennelly's hallmarks, the work's rigorous structure is overlaid by a continually evolving treatment of thematic material which binds many disparate and contrasting details into a single compositional organ. Often drawing heavily on traditional elements of rhythm (parts of the Scherzoso in the middle of the work may remind the listener of characteristic rhythms of Schumann refracted through a Mahlerian prism), Fennelly leads the material by stretto and the massing of orchestral sound into a series of dramatic intensifications.

Especially noteworthy in Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 are two examples of its structural architecture. The canonic episodes in the midst of the Scherzoso are all based on the same tune (played each time by the horns), to which additional canonic motives are added in each (successively slower) reiteration. Fennelly derives the tempo of each canonic episode from fine-honed mathematical relations (in the manner of Elliott Carter's metric modulation) which create a seamless and startlingly dramatic continuity. A second example of compositional black magic is the “bridge” preceding the Scherzoso: The long-breathed melody of the First Violins (accompanied unabashedly with a Schumannesque syncopated pattern) morphs suddenly, if subtly, into a highly figurated woodwind-dominated chamber music seemingly more at home in the neighborhood of Le Sacre du Printemps than of Kreisleriana. The process is repeated until the strings are drawn into the rhythmic contest, only to have the affair dissolve into a miniature cadenza for solo piano leading to the Scherzoso.

The breadth of Fennelly's rhythmic pallette—which occasionally includes ragtime-like syncopation in passages dominated by the brass—is matched in the area of harmonic content. From a single 12-tone series comes an enormously varied harmonic and melodic spectrum which lets Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 luxuriate in soft, open sonorities as well as, in times of high stress, all the invasive power associated with dodecaphony. Of great importance to the creation of a truly symphonic music here is the stretching of harmonic rhythm which allows the rhythmic-melodic activity to gather, when needed, a great force which is readily perceived upon hearing.

One last observation about this work of Faustian scope: the appearance of mildly aleatoric elements, yet another Fennelly signature touch. Individual players are sometimes allowed freedom in placing notes and—at other times—in choosing repetitions of designated figures. The first partly-aleatoric passage is heard near the beginning of the work, as two solo violins carry on a chirping duet. Near the end of the work, before the “echo canons,” an ensemble of percussion with piano enjoys a ringing passage utilizing freely chosen repetitions of figures.

Lunar Halos (Paraselenae), for Double Bass and Orchestra, exploits the composer's predilection for presenting an ideal programmatic vision while restricting its function to the status of “…an image to be regarded as a generating idea rather than as a programmatic key.” Fennelly accomplishes a supreme paradoxical coup by generating the entire work—a credible rondo form (ABAB+coda)—out of the arpeggiation of a melodic-minor scale (whose essential derivataion from just two pitch intervals—the whole- and half-tone—is prominently manifested throughout the piece). Through the action of a triplet figure judiciously used (often as background) at pivotal places, the entire work takes on a global unity (pardon the pun) appropriate to its title.

The composer writes: “Lunar Halos begins with the double bass alone; the orchestra then reflects and builds on the pitch material introduced, and states the generating chord of the work…. ” Using Fennelly's signature semi-aleatoric shimmering arpeggiated figures, this is punctuated by a climactic buildup from which a lone English Horn emerges to announce the second half of this section. Directly out of a second climax comes a contrasting section in the form of a sharply rhythmic passage of woodwinds plus vibraphone. Next, in a section marked “Playfully,” the solo double bass has its first real concertante experience with the orchestra. The string instruments play a very expressive melodic line, over (and under) which the solo itself waxes melodiously into a quintet with solo strings and bass clarinet. This highly figurated music gradually reveals itself to be a much transformed return of the atmospheric opening section of the piece. After a vigorous restatement (“Dramatically”) of the primal chord (from the beginning section of the work) the soloist and orchestra play a multi-phrase “upbeat” to a restatement of the angular-rhythmed woodwind music with a superimposed “anxious counterpoint” (the triplet figure mentioned above—now played massively by the strings, then by woodwinds and upper brass) leading to a climax before the tension dissipates (“Pensively”). A coda , marked “with mystery (in shadow),” transforms the “anxious counterpoint” into a reflective afterthought which ends this haunting work. Lunar Halos was commissioned by James VanDemark and the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, Ohio and was first performed by them (with Timothy Russell conducting) on January 5, 1991.

Of Reflections/Metamorphoses the composer writes:

The impulse behind the work was in reaction to the calamitous world events of the time: the Oklahoma City bombing, the tragedy of Grozny in Chechnya, and the atrocities in the Balkan countries. There is no specific program to the piece, but there are moments which convey the anguish of these events (e.g. the final cries of the clarinet and the violent drumbeats at the conclusion) as well as the memories of happier times. The title refers not only to these events but also to the flow of the work.

There are three primary texures: 1) the opening rhapsodic music, 2) bright, rhythmic music in winds and percussion, which grows longer at each appearance, and 3) a melodic line in the strings, first heard as a nostalgic dance, which is transformed at each occurrence and combined with the wind music at the high point of the piece.

In this work some of Fennelly's major hallmark techniques are in evidence—limited use of partly-aleatoric notation, selective exploitation of luminescent orchestral textures (alternating with passages of constant sharp definition)—while others have been superseded. Particularly striking are two places of brief silence early on, which define the work's three major textural building blocks. Fennelly's inclination to derive tempo changes from mathematical relations generates—near the work's conclusion—a demonic series of accelerations (heard in an extended solo violin passage) ultimately leading to the tempo of the start of the acceleration, at which point we hear the third statement of the “bright, rhythmic music in winds and percussion” mentioned by the composer, above. The effect is breathtaking. Reflections/Metamorphoses was written for the Woodstock (NY) Chamber Orchestra and its conductor, Luis Garcia-Renart, who gave the first performance on September 21, 1996.

Fennelly's latest symphonic work, Chrysalis, is both an independent composition and the final movement of A Thoreau Symphony. (The other movements, recorded previously as independent compositions, are On Civil Disobedience [1993: New World CD 80448-2] and A Sprig of Andromeda [1995: CRI CD 759].) The composer's own comments reveal the extent to which Chrysalis operates as program music: “Chrysalis, literally the pupa of the butterfly, is here meant to convey metaphorically the various stages of life. For the insect, this begins with the formation of the chrysalis, the gradual internal transformation into and the emergence of the butterfly, and, finally, its brilliant display of color and preparation for flight.”

Fennelly's mastery of contrasting textures will not obstruct the fact that he is at bottom a composer of gesture—highly shaped goal-directed melody in the tradition of Western polyphony. It is gesture which dominates the outsized middle section of Chrysalis—marked by a brief, unmistakable silence about 4 1/2 minutes into the piece. Even the very beginning of the work (“Quiet, sustained”), a rotation of two 4-note chords, is itself the germ of a series of tunes—first a jazz-like pizzicato double bass “riff,” then a playful alto flute line made to sound improvisatory, then a solo horn line leading to a return of the opening music (now a single 5-note chord made from the contents of the original two chords). A long cantus firmus of violins, with added rhythmic levels of counterpoint, extends throughout the strings and rises to a climax before the opening chord rotation sounds one last time as if to remind us of the origin of the melodies.

After the silence Fennelly treats us to seven minutes of endless melody, which now emphasizes the half-tone where the opening tunes were whole-tone rich. A slight increase in tempo (“With motion”) is clearly apparent in this large middle section. A gradual heightening of tension comes from increasingly faster rhythms and the addition of more instruments until what began as spare two-part counterpoint now thunders with the full might of orchestral polyphony. The butterfly's dazzling color comes not from an impressionistic shimmering texture but rather from a latter-day Mannheim Rocket of solid polyphonic accretion: the gesture makes the texture, not the other way round.

Having thus emerged from an unlikely source, the butterfly tests its wings with short bursts of rhythmic figuration at fast tempo. A long coda (“Quietly”) begins as Violins play a whole-tone-heavy tune enriched by intermittent flight images from several other instruments. Lower strings reminisce briefly some places in the other works in the trilogy without making direct quotation. The work ends in an ether of distant meditation purged of all tension. The listener cannot fail to be transformed along with the subject.


Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra of Katowice

The Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra of Katowice was founded in 1935 in Warsaw by conductor-composer Grzegorz Fitelberg. The orchestra was re-formed in 1945 in Katowice. Among the conductors and soloists who have worked with the orchestra are Artur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Leonard Bernstein, and Maurizio Pollini. The Polish Radio National Symphony has made more than 200 recordings for EMI, Decca, Newport Classics, CRI, and Poliskie Nagranie. Since the founding of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in the 1950's, Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra has every year performed either the inaugural or closing concert.

Joel Eric Suben

Joel Eric Suben has led first performances and commercial recordings of nearly 300 works by American and European composers, among them Pulitzer Prize winners Roger Sessions and Leslie Bassett. A frequent guest conductor of major Central European orchestras, Suben records more than ten hours of symphonic music and opera each season.

In March 1998 he led archival recordings of the symphonic works of Karol Rathaus at the invitation of the Polish Radio. In September 1998 Suben made his debut with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. His work is represented on some 25 CDs released on the Centaur, Capstone, CRI, Naxos/Marco Polo, New World, Opus One, Parnassus, and Soundspells International labels.

Suben studied conducting with Jacques-Louis Monod, Witold Rowicki, Otmar Suitner, and Sergiu Celibidache. While still a student, Suben led the first Boston performances of Service Sacré by Darius Milhaud with members of the Opera Orchestra of Boston. As a finalist in the 1976 Hans Haring Conducting Competition of the Austrian Radio at Salzburg, Suben was called back three times by the jury to prepare a performance of Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6, by Anton Webern. After his 1977 debut with the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, Suben won a Fulbright scholarship for advanced study in Poland, where he devoted all of 1978 to organizing performances of American music.

Suben's activities as a composer encompass some 60 published works.

Boguslaw Furtok

Boguslaw Furtok, a native of Katowice, Poland, studied at the Szymanowski Music Academy there as well as at the Frankfurt Academy of Music in Germany. Principal Double Bassist of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra since 1995, Furtok appears widely in Europe as a soloist and clinician. Since 1987 he has made numerous broadcasts for Polish Radio and Television. He regularly serves as a professor at the International Master Classes for Stringed Instruments in Lancut, Poland.

Chris Gekker

Chris Gekker is Professor of Trumpet at the University of Maryland. As a soloist he has been featured at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. He appears as soloist on more than twenty recordings, and on more than one hundred chamber, orchestral, and jazz recordings. A former member of the American Brass Quintet, he remains in demand with groups like the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center. A longtime faculty member at the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and Columbia University, Gekker has seen many of his students occupy positions with major orchestras around the world, as well as being prominent in chamber and jazz groups.

All selections recorded in the Concert Hall of the Polish Radio, Katowice.

All selections produced and edited by Beata Jankowska-Burzynska

Chrysalis recorded March 31-April 1, 2000

Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 recorded April 1-4, 2000

Reflections/Metamorphoses recorded April 5, 2000

Lunar Halos recorded April 21, 2001

Concert Piece for Trumpet & Orchestra recorded April 22, 2001

Final Mastering by The Trees Recording

Lunar Halos is published by MMB Music, Inc.

Chrysalis, Thoreau Fantasy No. 2, Reflections/Metamorphoses, and Concert Piece are published by American Composers Edition (ACA).

The recording of Chrysalis was made possible in part by an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Additional funds from AAAL, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and the Fromm Foundation were instrumental in realizing this project.

Photo of Brian Fennelly by Mark Baczynsky.

Photo of Joel Eric Suben by Patrick Gainr.

Cover Art by Lori Baczynsky.


Orchestral Music of


1 Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 (Ambrosial Mornings) (1984-85) [22:30]

2 Lunar Halos (Parasalenae) for Doublebass and Chamber Orchestra (1990) [13:08]

Boguslaw Furtok, doublebass

3 Concert Piece for Trumpet and Orchestra (1976) [8:32]

Chris Gekker, trumpet

4 Reflections/Metamorphoses (1995) [12:25]

Roland Orlik, violin solo

5 Chrysalis (from A Thoreau Symphony) (1996-97) [15:20]

Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra

Joel Eric Suben, conductor

Total Time = 72:23