Music of Ronald Caltabiano

Color and upbeat driving energy, plus plenty of the other forward
qualities, characterize Ronald Caltabiano’s music and especially his
Sonata for Solo Cello. The earliest work on this disc, completed in
June 1982, it was written when he was in his early twenties (he was
born in 1959) and still a student at The Juilliard School. He was
about to embark on a year with Elliott Carter as his teacher, though
he seems to have already learned from Carter’s music how to create a
physical sense of movement in fully chromatic music, a sense that
comes from the composer’s and the listener’s shared conviction that
the right notes are happening in the right register at the right time.
You feel that each gesture goes in the only way it could go—but then
part of how the music progresses is by finding other ways. The titles
of the sonata's two movements, “Transformations” and “Variations,"
indicate the importance of this principle of altered similarity, which
can be heard in a very direct way in the recurrences of one simple,
urgent motif in the first movement (at 45", 2' 33", and 3' 53"). This
is the trick of making deliberate decisions (to repeat) in ways that
sound non-deliberate: natural, inevitable, part of the music’s growth.
Caltabiano uses that trick in another way by his combination of
quasi-serial operations with a small-interval melodiousness that can
suggest plainchant (especially where there are repeated notes) or even
American folk or popular song. In other words, Modernist abstraction
works freely and easily with a recovery of older, simpler musical
values, especially those musical values inherent in the human voice.
Rather curiously, vocal music forms only a small part of his output to
date. [As this CD is in production, Caltabiano's chamber opera,
Marrying the Hangman, to a text by Margaret Atwood, has been premiered
in Great Britain, and a new song cycle for soprano, flute, and harp,
also with an Atwood text, is nearly completed.] While none of the
pieces on this CD is vocal, they are all full of patterns that could
be sung. Again the first movement of the cello sonata shows this: Fast
sections alternate with slower, lyrical passages, the latter
increasing in length and variety as the former become ever more
compact. The big declamation at the start of the movement is reduced
to a figure using just seven notes, while the andante music, which at
first is a single note (A) with decoration, grows into pentatonic
melody, whose chromatic additions fall away to leave, at the end, a
pure pentatonic theme inherited from Alexander Tcherepnin. (The sonata
was commissioned by the Tcherepnin Society for the fifth anniversary
of Alexander’s death.)
The second movement is in six sections, of which the first should
perhaps already be regarded as a variation, since it fluidly sets out
some characteristic intervals, shapes, and harmonies rather than
projects a finished theme. But besides offering something new, this
movement is also a replay of the first. The “intervals, shapes, and
harmonies” of its opening sequence come from the andante music of the
first movement, and their tempo is the same. The next three sections
stay at that tempo: the second is a melody with pizzicato
accompaniment, the third pure melody in quicker notes, the fourth more
in the style of the first, but with the long notes played without
vibrato rather than as harmonics, and with jerky interrupting figures
performed sul ponticello. The fifth section is faster,
and—surprisingly but satisfyingly—it reintroduces elements from the
allegro music of the first movement, including the declamation already
mentioned. Then, in the last section, that declamatory music returns,
at its original tempo. What had slowly disappeared in the first
movement is now fully restored.
Almost a decade separates the cello sonata from Concertini (1991),
written in the period during which Caltabiano completed his studies
and started a teaching career that led him from New York by way of
Hong Kong to San Francisco, for whose Symphony the new piece was
written (though what is recorded here is a chamber version with solo
strings). During that time he gained experience in writing for larger
ensemble and orchestra, but many essential features of his work
remain: the music’s growth by repeated new departures, its strong
construction, its reworking of motifs from section to section, its
variety of vivid characters, its strains of quasi-vocal melody.
Within Concertini's ten movements are connections the composer has
partly identified: “Raucous rumblings of the first movement are made
more linear in the introspective Andante piacevole that follows. The
intervals of the third movement’s rhythmic brass chorale are followed
by a more melancholy treatment in the Andante moderato. Material first
presented by strident and insistent winds in movement V also appears
in VII, tutti sections, and in VIII, with maniacal obsession. A
lyrical contrapuntal web of sound (VI) is later clarified in greater
tranquility (IX). The kaleidoscopic finale allows echoes of all
previous movements.” Meanwhile the title is justified in that each
movement is a little concerto—sometimes a concerto for orchestra,
sometimes featuring a soloist or group: bassoon with piano and low
strings (I), brass quartet (III), piccolo, oboe, and E clarinet (V),
violin (VI), violin and viola (VII), or trumpet (IX). The feeling of
continuity through the ten concertini comes not only from alternations
of character and on motivic relationships (reinforced in the finale by
the reappearance of the timpani, unheard since movements I and III),
but also on large rises and falls in register. Such shifts had also,
on a smaller scale, helped enliven the sections of the cello sonata;
here they create a general curve of ascent (I through V) and slower
Caltabiano dedicated the ten movements of Concertini to ten composers
he admires, including three of his teachers: Carter (II), Peter
Maxwell Davies (the only non-American, III), and Vincent Persichetti
(in memoriam, IX). The others are George Perle (I), Donald Martino
(II), Charles Wuorinen (IV), Ellen Zwilich (V), Jacob Druckman (VI),
John Adams (VII), and Ned Rorem (X). In no evident sense are these
composers or their styles portrayed in the respective movements: the
homages are rather those from a colleague writing in his own musical
Fanfares was written for the harpsichordist Joyce Lindorff and dates
from 1994. The first two movements are based on similar motifs, and
offer clear examples of how Caltabiano will take an idea and let it
walk, or run, then go back and let it do the same thing for a longer
time or in another direction. Both these movements start from bright
and simple things to end with dense chords unexpected from the
instrument. The finale then makes a loop out of this trajectory,
moving from dark melody to brilliant figures that are even more
fanfare-like than those of the earlier movements but have the same
wonderful tendency to complicate themselves into sonorous harmonies.
Hexagons, also from 1994, was written for the New Jersey-based group
called Hexagon, consisting of wind quintet plus piano, but the work is
hexagonal in other ways too. There are six movements, and the ideas
seem to spring from dividing the twelve notes into two six-note
groups. It is typical of Caltabiano, though, that the resulting
harmonies strongly feature tonal intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths,
octaves—and that melodies will often be in modes devised to suit the
human voice. The most obvious example here is the pentatonic tune on
the oboe in the third movement that has a linked sequence of different
Hexagons is almost a condensed reworking of Concertini (compare the
opening movements, which both seem to end too soon, opening broad
musical spaces to be filled by the movements to come), and again there
are concertini for the various instruments: bassoon and piano (I);
flute, clarinet, and horn with piano, the oboe entering only near the
end and the bassoon never (II); oboe, in a pastorale (III); horn and
bassoon (IV); and clarinet, accompanied and imitated only by flute and
oboe (V), the finale being for everyone.
Again, too, the movements are linked motivically, but the rhythmic
and registral patternings are different. In rhythmic character the
movements are arranged symmetrically, with endpieces that are both
strongly pulsed and in the same allegro tempo, more flexible sections
in second and fifth places, and slow movements in the middle. In terms
of register, there are two smaller ascending waves, from the lowest
register to the middle (I-III) and from the middle-low register to the
highest (IV-VI). As if having moved along the six sides of a hexagon,
the music returns to where it began, with boogie-woogie piano,
strident chords, and reiterative semitone motifs. But time is not like
space. No true return is possible. Things have been encountered and
learned along the way, and the finale has to accommodate them while
keeping up the beginning’s hope.

—Paul Griffiths

RONALD CALTABIANO's music has been hailed as having achieved "...a remarkable synthesis of modernism andromanticism, of violence and lyricism, of integrity and accessibility."
He first came to international attention in the early 1980s with his String Quartet No. 1, premiered in Great Britain by the Arditti Quartet and in the United States by the Juilliard Quartet. A series of virtuoso solo pieces (double bass, cello, English horn, trombone, and violin) solidified his position among the leading American composers of his generation, and a series of prominent orchestral commissions soon followed. Works written for the San Francisco Symphony, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and the Cincinnati Symphony exhibit kaleidoscopic colors and provocative designs. Performances by international orchestras include those of the BBC Symphony, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The composer's finely detailed chamber music has also been in demand around the world. Notable works include Concerto for Six Players, commissioned by the Fires of London for their farewell performance; On the Dissonant and Rotations, both commissioned by Australian ensembles; and prominent commissions by American organizations, including the String Quartet No. 2 (Emerson Quartet), Quilt Panels (Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center), and Clarinet Quartet (consortium of new-music ensembles). The dramatic bent in Caltabiano's work naturally lends itself to vocal music, which has been an important focus throughout the composer's development, from the early song cycle, First Dream..., through two dramatic cantatas, Medea and Torched Liberty, and his first theatrical work, the 1999 chamber opera Marrying the Hangman, on a text by Margaret Atwood, written for the British ensemble Psappha. Major awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation were anticipated by a number of awards from BMI and ASCAP as well as two Bearns Prizes. Since working as assistant to Aaron Copland during the last five years of that composer's life, Caltabiano has served on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and the Peabody Conservatory, and currently teaches at San Francisco State University.
Born in 1959, Caltabiano is a BM/MM/DMA graduate of The Juilliard School, where he studied with Elliott Carter and Vincent Persichetti. In addition, he has studied composition with Peter Maxwell Davies and conducting with Harold Farberman and Gennadi Rozdesvensky.