Review of Symphonies #1 & 2 – Signature
Boise Philharmonic, Billings Symphony
What are the Great American Symphonies? For my taste the list begins with the Barber First, the Ives First, the Hanson Second (Romantic), the Hovhaness Second (Mysterious Mountain) , and the Hovhaness Ninth (St. Vartan). These are works I’ve heard half-a-hundred times each and can’t wait to hear again. The list continues with the William Schuman Third, the Copland Third (most especially the Minneapolis/Dorati recording unaccountably out of print for nearly fifty years!), the Chadwick Fourth (Symphonic Sketches), and the Hovhaness Fiftieth (Mount St. Helens). These works I’ve enjoyed often and remember well*.
I’ve been listening to these symphonies by Jim Cockey over and over recently and fit them on my list right about here. These works have that combination of lyricism, great beauty, and moment to moment surprise and delight, even on repeated hearings, coupled with a sense of inevitability in retrospect, that we find in great music.
Jim Cockey was born in Baltimore, Maryland, studied composition in Portland, Oregon, and currently lives in Idaho. The central tragedy in his life is that his son, Israel, was born autistic. It is this Israel that is the dedicatee of this Symphony No. 1, and it is that tragic experience that he seeks to allay through his music. The first work I heard of his, his Elegy for string trio, was deeply introspective and inspired in me visions of the late Shostakovich quartets. This Symphony is somewhat more extroverted and less moodily tragic, yet still a remarkably personal work, lightly scored and brilliantly crafted. Cockey asked his son what he should write about, and the boy replied, “play” and “love” so the two middle movements of the symphony are so titled. While the “Play” movement is a bright symphonic scherzo with unmistakable echoes of Copland’s Billy the Kid and El Salón Mexico, the Love described is a complex, anguished one, suffused with hope and careful optimism with occasional wafts of Philip Glass and Leonard Bernstein. The Boise Philharmonic Orchestra gives us a brilliant performance especially noteworthy for leader Susan Duncan’s gorgeous singing solo phrases. The coughs and sneezes say little for Boise in November as a healthy place to live.
The Second Symphony is more extroverted still, being something of a public celebration for the City of Billings, named for Frederick Billings, the founder and President of Northern Pacific Railroad. This work in its nineteen sections is similar in form to Honegger’s Le Roi David or Walton’s Christopher Columbus, but briefer than either. In 1886 the Billings family was living in Vermont, their 25 year old son Parmly was living in Billings, Montana. He began a rail journey home, but fell ill and died in Chicago. The texts of the symphony are taken from family letters. The work begins with very effective and original railroad travel music that sounds nothing at all like either Honegger or Villa-Lobos, then stops abruptly to suggest the interrupted journey, and we hear the fragile, birdlike sound of the Native American flute suggesting the loneliness of the prairie, the loneliness of death. The solo piano plays a sad, wistful salon tune**. The lightest moment is the depiction of the 1886 Fourth of July celebration in Billings, described in Parmly’s letter home. Beginning with popular dances, then with a few bars of Yankee Doodle, the movement continues with authentic style Native American celebration music; in the cleverly crafted conclusion the melodic lines merge and we come to see that all this music is the same music. Now Parmly’s journey moves on to its tragic conclusion. Following the first alarming news of his illness, the anguished appeals of the mother and father are sung in canonic counterpoint. Then we hear hymns from the funeral, and a reprise of some of the earlier music in the finale.
That even the wealthy and powerful must experience tragedy, the shared tragedy of the illness of a child unites this symphony to the rest of Jim Cockey’s work. This Second Symphony is presented and recorded here live in the context of a municipal festival; on first hearing some inanities may obtrude. But on repeated hearings the force and power of music sweep all such considerations aside, and you are a stronger man than I if you are not on several occasions reduced to helpless tears.
The legendary R. Carlos Nakai receives credit in the liner notes, and it is likely that it is his development of the Native American flute (similar at times in sound to the Japanese shakuhachi) and appropriate performance practice that is being acknowledged. Suffice it say that Joseph Fire Crow, who has released a best selling solo CD album, plays this difficult instrument with all the skill and beauty of his illustrious predecessor. The instruments used in this performance were crafted by Barry White Crow Higgins.
*Most people would add the Harris Third, although I’ve just never warmed to this work. And just to complete my list: the Glass Symphonies do not represent his best work, gradually increase in quality up to number three, and have fallen down considerably since them. The Antheil, Thomson, and Cowell Symphonies are ingenious but difficult to remember. A good performance of the Ives Fourth Symphony is an experience never to be forgotten, nor repeated. The Bernstein Symphonies, again, are not his best music, and suggest that, like Samuel Barber and Arthur Sullivan, in the end his talent may have been vitiated by excessive praise. John Knowles Paine easily earned a B minus in the Write-Another-Mendelssohn-Symphony Contest.
**Whether this is an actual folk tune or an original composition is probably impossible to determine. It is made up of every emotional phrase from every folk-song you ever loved and as such pours right into you unimpeded by rational considerations.
Review of Elegy to an Ancient Battlefield – Pensiero
Dvorák and Beethoven notwithstanding, the most substantial work on this disk is the Cockey Elegy. On the model of the late quartets, it is the string trio that Shostakovich never wrote. Even the five movement form reminds one of Shostakovich’s structural innovations in his later string works. Yet the work is authentic and original and effectively projects the composer’s strong personal convictions. Not since Marga Richter have we heard such authentic full brooding intensity from an American composer.
Elegy for an Ancient Battlefield, is an extremely personal work. The movement titles are taken from Stanley Lombardo’s stunning translation of The Iliad. Jim composed this work immediately following an exhausting period of time with his autistic son, an experience which culminated with his having to look at tragedy, unadorned, in all its bare honesty and simplicity. “During the writing, I wondered where the beautiful sections were coming from and why I was compelled to write them … these moments come from the part of the self that makes it possible to keep going during difficult times, the part of the self that holds on to hope and vision.”
Review of To the Wandering Hero of Distant Lands – Volante
The first piece by Jim Cockey that I heard was his String Trio #1: Elegy to an Ancient Battlefield performed at a Langroise Trio concert. The composer had in mind the heroic struggles of daily life as mirrored in great literature, specifically The Iliad. The overwhelming beauty and emotional power of this work absolutely knocked my socks off. I immediately wrote to the composer and subsequently obtained the only recording of his music then available5, a CD of his first two Symphonies which I also admire very much. When Cockey received a commission to produce a work for the Langroise Trio to play while accompanying a performance at the Idaho Dance Theater, he decided that since he had “done” The Iliad, he would now “do” The Odyssey, a parable for life’s journeys as TheIliad is a parable for life’s struggles.
The result is this work, String Trio #2, To the Wandering Hero of Distant Lands. Its origin as dance music is evident in all the movements. (I never saw the dance performance, I was too ill to attend.) In the first movement, “???????” (“of the man, tell me, muse,” the opening lines of The Odyssey) I see a vivid picture of Odysseus before the War, dancing with his Greek male friends; everything is stirring, virile, joyous, optimistic. They probably wouldn’t be wearing white skirts and pompoms, perhaps wearing nothing at all. The second movement, “Farewell Calypso,” is a lovely, sad adagio, some of the composer’s most melodic music. “The Many Adventures of Our Hero,” not the longest movement, is a vigorous, active, musical picture, a sort of En Saga for trio. “Ithaca,” the longest movement is another adagio, uncertain anticipation, tinged with a sense of nostalgia, perhaps homesickness. Finally “The Hero Returns” is a vigorous, joyous polyrhythmic celebration containing curious interruptions. The three strings manage to sound like a full orchestra of instruments; you’ll swear you hear brass and percussion. This is due not only to the profound skill of the performers but also to the composer’s experience with teaching violin and directing a string orchestra.
Concert Review of Concerto Grosso for String Trio and Chamber Orchestra
– Langroise Trio, Boise Baroque Orchestra, Daniel Stern, cond.
The Cockey Concerto Grosso is in three movements: Introduction and Fugue—Air—Rondo, played without pause. The instrumentation is for strings and winds with harpsichord continuo, with solo string trio. From the first repeated pizzicato chords the style is high Spanish baroque, unlike anything Cockey has previously written, but exhibiting his customary neo-romantic, pantonal, polyrhythmic style. Since the form is not a strict ouverture, contrapuntal passages gradually coalesce into a dense fugality coming to a sharp, slightly unexpected cadence, leading at once to the aria. One who had never been to the movies could not possibly have written this aria, but this aria with its apple cider harmonies and propulsive, slightly off the beat, adagio meter could never possibly be used as a film score. The result is singing music of aching, sensual, beauty; you want it to go on forever. There is a very subtle but uncanny suggestion of the spectral Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers circling forever in a heavenly—Spanish—ballroom. But, as before, it abruptly ends on the first beat of the rondo which sweeps on energetically to a brilliant finale. The audience leapt to their feet to give the artists and the composer a much deserved standing ovation. It should be noted that a lesser composer might not have survived Mozart and Bach as warm-up acts. My advice to you is to remember the name Jim Cockey. I think you’ll start hearing it a lot from now on.
Review of the premier of The Gift of the Elk
From: The Enterprise – Capenews.net
Mr. Fire Crow’s flute playing was lyrical, and powerful, transforming a “folk instrument” into a compelling musical experience.
It was a moving event, and the audience leapt to its collective feet, audibly voicing their approval.
Mr. Pak introduced “The Song of The Elk” with the story about how he had come to commission it, searching the Internet for an authentic Native American work. He found an immediate affinity with Native American flutist Joseph Fire Crow, who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and now lives in Connecticut with his wife. Mr. Fire Crow introduced Mr. Pak to composer Jim Cockey of Idaho, with whom Mr. Fire Crow had collaborated in the past.
Mr. Cockey came out to discuss the work; as it was, of course, the world premiere of the composition. Mr. Cockey explained that the music was strongly influenced not only by Native American music, but by a strong connection to the land. To emphasize that connection, the music was accompanied by images projected above the orchestra, taken by noted nature photographer Glenn Oakley.
Joseph Fire Crow brought his Native American flute, drums, authentic voice, and warm and gracious presence to the performance of “The Gift of the Elk.” Dressed in a striking ceremonial white costume, with long fringe, he had command of the stage during his performance and, at the same time, radiated his genuine love for his people, for all people, for his stories and legends, for the land, and for the music.
“The Gift of the Elk” tells the story of how the Native American flute came to the Cheyenne people and the importance of spreading love with the flute during life and passing on that love, by passing on the flute, at the end of life. It begins and ends with a pow wow theme, includes a traditional Cheyenne welcome, and tells the story of the flute in words and music. Movements express different emotions: Celebration, and Love.
Mr. Fire Crow’s flute playing was lyrical, and powerful, transforming a “folk instrument” into a compelling musical experience. The melodies were not complex, but reflected the cultural uses of the flute in hunting and courting. The audience loved it, mobbing his CD table at intermission, for a chance to buy a CD from him. He has many, including a Grammy-Award winning album and a NAMMY (Native American Music award)-nominated one.
He also played drum (and an authentic Cheyenne drum was used by the percussion section), and sang with heartfelt conviction, in both high and low registers, as if echoing himself. It was not the polished voice of an opera singer, but it was a warm and earthy authentic expression that lent warmth and genuineness to the performance.
The balance between orchestra and flute was good, and the piece gives the orchestra both mellow and grand interludes, accented by photographs of rising suns, expansive prairies, mountains, buffalo, and elk. The woodwinds at times supported the Native American flute melody, while the strings sometimes provided pizzicato and bowed support. The Love song, in particular, was flowing and plaintive, sad, yet satisfying, giving us a sense of coming full circle.
The closing pow wow was dramatic, showcasing the drums and Mr. Fire Crow’s singing. It was a moving event, and the audience leapt to its collective feet, audibly voicing their approval.