Russell Peck: Orchestral Works

This CD has been arranged as a short concert. All the music is for full orchestra except the first piece for string orchestra; all are vintage works over 10 years old.

I was given birth by my mother Margaret in 1945. My dad Thorland was an avid symphony fan and professional singer. He listened to Mozart on the radio, practiced barbershop quartet singing in the basement, and also did radio chorus work with the Detroit Symphony. He wanted me to be a composer like Beethoven, even if, of course, far inferior. Another influence in my youth was Motown Records, then in its Detroit heyday. I loved it. It inspired me just as the great composers did. In sum, my musical beginnings were in Mozart and Motown.

I studied serious composition in high school, got a doctorate in the subject at the University of Michigan, then became Ford Foundation composer-in-residence for Indianapolis, followed by a short period of university teaching. Meanwhile during the 1970's I was developing a very successful career in composing and narrating my own works such as Jack and Jill at Bunker Hill for young people's concerts with major orchestras. It was great fun; I could create ultra-high-energy popularizing symphony music without fear of critics, and gain tremendous orchestral experience in rehearsals and performance.

Then came 1978. I dropped out of music altogether to make ending global starvation my sole priority, which I pursued at the United Nations with a friend, Marshall Gordon - no relation to my wife, Cameron Gordon Peck. The period when I did this exclusively finally ended with my writing Signs of Life and the other pieces on this CD. It was the real beginning of my composing works that would be heard next to great composers on symphony concerts, a rare and great privilege. I remember the circumstances.

Signs of Life II

In 1983, when Signs of Life came to be, I faced a kind of personal crisis affecting other people and especially my wife Cameron. After five years devoted to work on ending starvation, my once promising orchestra composition, performing, and university career was nonexistent. I owned a jalopy, debts, and an electric piano; net worth: zero; no job. We lived one floor above Vietnamese refugees in a building soon to be condemned and demolished. And, having failed to qualify for government food stamps because we still had $200 and our utilities had not been turned off, the only hope seemed to be to revive my composing career for orchestra immediately. But getting commissions was farfetched considering my situation. So I called a conductor who earlier showed interest in my work: Paul Polivnick, then Associate Conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I said I'd write him a string orchestra piece for free - actually it was based on my two-movement sax quartet Drastic Measures-if he'd premiere it with the MSO on a classical concert. He said okay. That was Signs of Life, which revived my orchestral career now with musical content for mature audiences, so to speak.

When Signs of Life was first played in 1984 the audience in Milwaukee was enthusiastic. So was Cameron, to whom the piece was dedicated. But reviews were mixed. Being a total departure from then trendy atonal modernism, one critic called it “elevator music.” In a way he was right. It seemed to elevate my career. Soon the piece was being performed widely by American orchestras and made its way to Europe as well. Perhaps most importantly, it fostered my relationship with a valued friend and champion, Paul Polivnick. A conductor of tremendous musical depth and technique, he proceeded to perform my works wherever he went in America and Europe, lending my music the asset of his prestige plus his insights as an expert in my total repertoire.

Later I added a short opening movement to Signs of Life. It first premiered as an independent piece, Don't Tread On Me. Based on my string quartet of the same name, it was performed by the full strings of the New Hampshire Music Festival in 1995. Polivnick conducting. The complete three movement Signs of Life II was then premiered in 1996 by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anne Harrigan. This CD of Signs of Life II does justice to the fractured genesis of the piece by combining a recording of the more recent first movement by a string ensemble of the Colorado Symphony without conductor - as also recorded on their “Up Close and Musical” CD - with the earlier-composed two other movements as performed by the Alabama Symphony under Polivnick. Incidentally, the scherzo (final movement) introduces a new orchestral string technique I've used in a couple of pieces. It involves tapping out notes audibly on the fingerboard, as players often do as a way to practice the fingering of a passage in a very quiet way. Because it sounds a bit like pizzicato, I jokingly call the technique “peckzzicato.”

The Upward Stream

with James Houlik, conductor-Paul McRae

In 1985, a year after Signs of Life premiered, I called another conductor friend of mine, Alfred Savia. He convinced the Florida Symphony, where he was then Associate Conductor, to commission a narrated instrument demonstration piece I wanted to write for educational concerts, the Thrill of the Orchestra. It became a great success and reenergized my work devoted to young audiences for the orchestra. At the same time classical tenor saxophonist James Houlik called about commissioning a serious concerto for himself and the Winston-Salem Symphony, The Upward Stream. That piece and The Thrill of the Orchestra premiered the same week in the fall of 1985 to standing ovations and critical acclaim, and I felt I was riding an upward stream myself. The Upward Stream debut also initiated a valuable relationship with conductor Peter Perret of the Winston-Salem Symphony, who made several excellent comments to benefit the scoring, and proceeded to become a champion of my music, eventually conducting almost all of my works.

After The Upward Stream premiered Houlik toured major cities in Europe with the piece performed by the Charlotte Symphony, Leo Dreihuys conducting. To my relief classical critics in Europe were not put off by the tenor sax, nor by the conerto's clear tonality. They gave it great press. It also got a startling rave in the Chicago Tribune after a stellar performance by Houlik and conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann with the Grant Park Orchestra. However, programming of The Upward Stream has been held back by fear the tenor saxophone is an inappropriate concerto instrument for classical audiences. I hope this recording by Houlik and the London Symphony orchestra can help dispel that idea. It was done in Abbey Road Studios after their British premier of the work in the Barbicon Center, Paul McRae conducting. In addition to helping to arrange for this recording, McRae was a true fan. He thought constantly of all he could do to promote me, and was a real risk-taker. He even did an unprecedented all-Peck classical concert with the Lake Forest Symphony in 1993, betting it would be a hit with the audience. This London Symphony recording of The Upward Stream documents his unique devotion to my work. It also reveals the phenomenal talent of James Houlik. He is one of the most engaging virtuoso soloists, and brought to life this concerto which may be the best large symphonic structure I've composed. The three movements all use related ideas and thee last two are played without pause.

Peace Overture, here likewise presented in a London Symphony Orchestra recording, was commissioned by the Birmingham International Festival. It premiered in 1988 with the Alabama Symphony under Paul Polivnick, who also conducts this LSO performance. The piece is unusual for me in being a programmatic tone poem. I wanted to create a musical tribute to all the people who have struggled against conflict itself toward a just and lasting peace for all of us. Commissioned to honor Egypt in the work, I chose one man's story to symbolize that effort, late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He was murdered in 1981 by terrorist gunmen in response to his brave trip to Jerusalem for peace with Israel, and to protest the Camp David Peace Accords he had signed with Israeli Prime Minister Begin and U.S. President Carter. I tried to depict Sadat's intense life in emotional terms: His desolation at the suffering of his people in conflict. The savage exhilaration and terror he felt as a warrior pilot fighting Israel. His awareness of the moments of normal happiness among the people on both sides despite the conflict. And, most especially, the agony of Sadat's pondering the decision to make his “peace overture” - his historic trip to Israel - followed by his tragic death, and hopeful legacy of peace.

Being Egyptian, Sadat was, of course, an African as well as an Arab, and at the premiere of Peace Overture an African-American audience member told me she liked my use of a melodic refrain from the famous spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” With the African connection to Peace Overture and the aptness of the words, she obviously thought the quote was conscious on my part. I had not heard it as such until that moment, but six notes of the tune “like a motherless child” are clearly audible as a leitmotif; it's even varied and developed all the way to the quiet ending.

The Glory and the Grandeur

During work on that composition I also wrote The Glory and the Grandeur, a one-movement concerto for percussion trio and orchestra. My hometown orchestra, the Greensboro Symphony, commissioned it and in 1988 did the premiere with the extraordinary Percussion Group Cincinnati, whose founding member Al Otte was a great help as I was writing it. Most especially, he suggested I incorporate material from my well-known piece for three drummers, Lift-Off. The result is a big opening group cadenza for drums that sometimes gets applause for itself. At the premiere the conductor Paul McRae came offstage and said with wild eyes, “Russell, this is the one!” Indeed, Glory became my most popular work at concerts. One reason is that I composed the piece intending the sight of the percussionists playing and moving among their many varied instruments to be part of the structure and appeal. As a result glory has been videotaped for television broadcast in several states; and the WPBY production of the West Virginia Symphony, Thomas Conlin conducting, won a major international video award.

This recording is by the Alabama Symphony, Polivnick conducting, and features the orchestra's own percussion section - Kevin Barrett, Time Miller, and Bill Williams. It highlights the virtuoso energy of the concerto, and to a degree also captures the work's spatial dimension of sounds spinning around and coming from different locations. Nonetheless, I'll admit that the Glory and the Grandeur, like my other music, is really designed to have greatest impact as a concert experience. In the creative process I don't imagine pure sound; I imagine myself seated in the audience at the actual premiere. Recording is wonderful for many purposes and makes an abstraction of the sound, which has certain advantages. Yet for me nothing compares with hearing and seeing orchestral musicians on stage making music live with all its drama and immediacy. This CD tries to capture these pieces at their best; but I say, “you haven't lived until you've heard them live.”

All works published by Pecktackular Music 336.288.7034

Signs of Life, first movement and editing: David Wilson; recorded November 10/11, 1997 at Colorado Community Church. Peace Overture and The Upward Stream recorded August 26/27, 1988, Abbey Road Studios, London; movements two and three of Signs of Life and The Glory and the Grandeur recorded November 25, 1990, Moody Music Building, Alabama university; editing: William Allgood, Allgood Productions. Mastering, Thomas Rowan, Sound Lab.

Russell Peck Photography: Nancy Sidelinger

CD Artwork by UnetS: Dave Kropf, Graphic Design & Concept •

Paul Polivnick: Maxim Gershunoff Attractions 800.422.MUSIC • James Houlik: Stanton Management 718.956.6092


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