In the 14th century, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of “Aprille with his shoures soote,” linking, in the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales,” the month of April with nature’s abundance and the torrents of spring. If alive today and living in the Walla Walla Valley, Chaucer might well turn his pen to celebrating a month of musical abundance.
Music in the Valley
April 6, 3 p.m. — David Fleming, senior voice recital. Whitman College Music Building, Chism Recital Hall
April 11, 4 p.m. — Michael LeFevre, classical guitar. Whitman College Hunter Conservatory, Kimball Theatre
April 12, 3 p.m. — Will Ekstrom senior composition recital. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 12, 7:30 p.m. — Alexandra Still (guest artist), flute, and Lisa Bergman, piano. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 13, 3 p.m. — Katherine Lee senior violin recital. Whitman, Kimball Theatre
April 13, 7:30 p.m. — “A Night of Dreams Come True” (Disney Songs performed by Walla Walla University voice students) Melvin K. West Fine Arts Center Auditorium, WWU. Free.
April 15, 7:30 p.m. — “A Little Summer Night Music” (Walla Walla Symphony and the Blue Mountain Audubon Society). Whitman, Cordiner Hall. Charge.
April 18, 4 p.m. — Whitman College Fridays at Four series, guitarist Michael LeFevre. Whitman, Kimball Auditorium.
April 18, 7:30 p.m. — Phoebe Horvath senior piano recital. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 19, 3 p.m. — Spring concert of Whitman College Chorale and Chamber Singers, Jeremy Mims conducting. Whitman, Cordiner Hall
April 20, 3 p.m. — Whitman College spring chamber music concert, Amy Dodds directing. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 23, 7:30 p.m. — Whitman College Wind Ensemble concert, Gary Gemberling directing. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 24, 7:30 p.m. — Whitman College Jazz Ensemble concert, Gary Hemenway directing. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 25, 4 p.m. — Jeremy Mims (piano) and Craig Allen (voice). Whitman, Kimball Theatre
April 25, 8 p.m. — PRISM Concert (A program featuring solo and ensemble performances presented by the Walla Walla University music department as part of the alumni homecoming events.) WWU Church. Free.
April 26, 7:30 p.m. — Minseon Song senior flute recital. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 27, 3 p.m. — Erik Feldman senior composition recital. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall
April 27, 7 p.m. — WWU Steel Band Concert, with guest artist Tom Miller. Gesa Power House Theater, Walla Walla. Charge.
April 30, 7:30 p.m. — Whitman College Brass Choir spring concert. Whitman, Chism Recital Hall.
Both Whitman and Walla Walla University offer a number of programs covering the musical gamut from pops to jazz to classical to you-name-it. As the 2013-14 term comes to an end, schools scramble to find dates for all their music students to give recitals as soloists and in ensembles, resulting in many afternoon and weeknight recitals. In this way that artifact of 19th century education — the school year with summers off — enhances Chaucer’s rich natural spring.
But the theme of nature in music, or music in nature, is what draws my attention here.
Scholars have long debated the questions of music’s origin in human culture. There are no known cultures without music, and the evidence from archaeology is that instruments date back to at least about 40,000 years ago, the time of the great cave paintings. Music, we should say, is part of human nature.
Some believe that it has its origins in our attempts to imitate the sounds of nature: birds, rivers, animals, the wind in the leaves. My view is slightly different, but that will have to come some other time.
Those who consider this belief will definitely want to attend the Walla Walla Symphony’s April 15 concert, “A Little Summer Night Music,” co-presented by the Blue Mountain Audubon Society. Perhaps giving us summer music in April is a sign of the orchestra’s optimism.
The concert opener is Frederick Delius’s “Two Pieces for Small Orchestra,” the first of which is “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,” a piece that hardly needs explanation. Delius, an Englishman (1862-1934) spent most of his life in a village in France, leading a quiet contemplative life. He had been sent by his father, a prosperous business owner, abroad to manage family firms, first to Florida and then to France.
But in Florida. Delius spent his time absorbing the spiritual music of African American laborers, and in France he went out into nature to take in the peace of the riversides and hamlets. His father eventually gave up, allowing Delius o turn to music as a career.
Of “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,” it has been written: “These exquisite idylls, for all their composer’s German descent and French domicile, spell ‘England’ for most listeners.” I agree. Listen, and you will hear the voice of England speaking of nature.
Also on the Symphony’s “Summer” program is a piece truly inspired by summer, Samuel Barber’s masterwork, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” This sets a text by Barber’s friend, the author James Agee, who was a childhood neighbor in Knoxville, Tenn., and a contemporary. The text recalls a boyhood summer evening in a year that was, coincidentally, a turning point for both men, whose fathers were dying in that year, and both boys were in their fifth year of life.
It is a story of childhood wonder — on the grass beneath the vast canopy of stars — and awakening to the human world, to mortality. When the work premiered in 1948, some critics thought the text unsuitable for music (it is prose, not poetry). But listen for the deep and compelling partnership between words and music, even to the point of conjuring up the rocking chairs on the Knoxville front porch. Remarkably, Barber wrote the entire piece in about 90 minutes, making only a few modifications afterward.
And then there is Aaron Copland’s signature piece, “Appalachian Spring.” It’s a celebration of American life that was much needed the year it was composed, 1944, during the darkness of World War II. A set of variations on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” it purports to depict a communal house-raising in the Pennsylvania of the early 1800s. Listen for the bride and groom; the older, wiser and sadder neighbor; and the revivalist preacher teaching of the terrible nature of human fate. There’s that word “nature” again.
At Whitman College, the Spring Choral concert features a few English pieces — Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Purcell — plus an original composition by our own Kristin Vining. Also performed will be “La Muerte del Angel” by Piazzolla, a deeply moving work some may recall from a performance at the Chamber Music Festival last June. To jazz it up a little, we’ll hear “Kpanlogo Fever,” a choral version of a West African dance piece.
Classical guitar master Michael LeFevre will do a concert of solo and ensemble works at the April 18 Fridays at Four concert at Whitman. At Gesa Power House Theatre, Walla Walla University’s ever-popular Steel Band will perform April 27 with guest artist Tom Miller, a world-renowned performer, composer and publisher of steel drum music.
John Jamison teaches in the Quest program at Walla Walla Community College and serves on the board of the Walla Walla Symphony. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.