Composers find inspiration in everything from politics to fairy tales. Eric Ewazen, who grew up in Middleburg Heights and attended Midpark High School, finds that his music is often informed by places he’s been and art he’s seen. With those starting points, his composing process is a journey of improvisation that develops into finished work.
Take his piece Ballade for Clarinet, Harp and String Orchestra, which is on the Cleveland Orchestra’s program this week at Blossom Music Center and should sound right at home in that bucolic setting. It’s the first time the orchestra has played music of Ewazen’s.
“I wrote it at the Tidewater Music Festival in Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay,” says Ewazen. “I was in a beautiful cabin with a little upright piano. The water was lapping at the shore. It was simply beautiful. I thought, ‘I want to express this atmosphere’ — to express a serene midsummer kind of day on the water.”
So with that in mind, he began to improvise on the little upright piano in that cabin and sing along. “I wanted to get a sense of gentleness, so the piece has long melodic lines. Then I tried to reflect the lines of the water, with gentle waves. So as I improvised, a line came about that is gently falling — a sense of relaxation, rather than rising, building, growing excitement. That was how it initially came about.”
That was 22 years ago. Ewazen was preparing for the first public concert of his music in a non-academic setting — Merkin Concert Hall in New York City. He had a pickup orchestra built from his friends and students that happened to include the great principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic, Julius Baker, who would play Ewazen’s Flute Concerto. The clarinet piece was written for his friend Jean Kopperud, who gave its premiere at that concert.
Ewazen says the harp has an important role in the piece as well, both as continuo and occasionally emerging as a solo instrument. “The strings and clarinet make one kind of classical sound,” says Ewazen, “but when you add the harp, all of a sudden the color changes. It becomes more Romantic and Impressionistic. It’s a virtuosic piece as well, alternating between lyricism and more exciting parts. Sometimes to make something sound lyrical you contrast it, just like a painter does. So it alternates — sometimes peaceful with a sudden burst of energy. What does that mean with respect to seashore in Maryland? That’s up to the audience.”
The piece reaches the Blossom stage thanks to principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen, who will perform the solo part. Ewazen thinks his Ballade came to Cohen’s attention through his teacher, clarinetist Leon Russianoff, who had played a piano and clarinet version of the piece while reviving his performing career in his mid-70s, after a 35-year absence from the stage (which inspired the legendary teacher to call himself “the world’s oldest child prodigy”). At any rate, Cohen came to Ewazen several years ago with an interest in playing it, and the rest is music history.
Or, as Ewazen says, “Things are coming full circle with this performance. Franklin was a student of the legendary clarinetist, and now he is a legendary clarinetist himself, and both of them have played this piece.”
Ewazen, a pianist, writes for all different combinations of instruments, but for some reason it’s his chamber work for winds and brass that has had the most staying power, with some pieces — especially those written for brass instruments — having worked their way into standard repertoire. This may be the first time he’s been on a Cleveland Orchestra program, but individual members (trombonist Steven Witser, horn player Richard King) have played and even recorded pieces. Ewazen attributes the appeal of his music for winds and brass to his training. After studying piano and composition at Baldwin-Wallace, and counterpoint at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, which — thanks to the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Brass Quintet — places a lot of emphasis on composition for winds and brass.
“There’s a real tradition there,” says Ewazen. “As students we heard that sound and were encouraged to write for these instruments. Writing for wind and brass is very much like writing for a singer. You’re thinking about words and phrases. You don’t have chords and double stops, like you do on piano and violin. You’re thinking about line.”
A sense of place has figured into a lot of his compositions — from the Chesapeake Bay’s influence on the Ballade to a piece for horn ensemble that grew out of a stay in Japan to a work inspired by his Polish and Ukrainian background and the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe, with their onion domes and chanting. He’s also written a piece called “The Great Lakes Octet,” which he scored for trombone choir. Despite the regional connection (it was written for a professor of trombone on the occasion of his retirement from Michigan State University), it has not been played in Northeast Ohio.
Busy and in demand as the composer is (with guest-composer gigs at 120 colleges and conservatories, his music on more than 50 commercially released CDs and members of the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, playing his music), he’s thrilled to have the Cleveland Orchestra play the Ballade and is looking forward to reuniting with a few dozen friends and former teachers when he comes to town.
Here’s hoping his homecoming will result in a composition called “Ancient Bridges of the Cuyahoga,” or maybe “Music for Crooked River, With Lake Effect.”
Cleveland Orchestra, Jahja Ling, conductor, Franklin Cohen, clarinet, Works of Beethoven, Ewazen and Sibelius, 7 p.m. Sunday, August 3, Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, 216.231.1111