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New Classical Music: Steven Gerber, Adolphus Hailstork

When the Dresser attended a meeting of the New Room Poets’ Workshop at the home of Judith McCombs and Ernst Benjamin last week, she said to Ernie how much she continues to enjoy the music of his cousin Steven Gerber.

She first heard Gerber’s music in January 2005 when the National Philharmonic Orchestra premiered his Clarinet Concerto at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater in Rockville, Maryland. Furthermore she has been walking around listening to Gerber’s Chandos CD Symphony No 1 and other work on her iPod.

“Ernie, what I like about Gerber’s music is its lyricism.” To this comment, Ernie said his cousin’s work was initially influenced by his teachers such as Milton Babbitt, who first made himself known with Three Compositions for Piano, the earliest examples of total serialization in music. (Many music lovers find serialization (using the twelve tone scale) un-listenable.) Then Ernie said Steven would be in DC on January 18 (2007) for a concert by the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic.


When the Dresser looked up the information on the Internet, she discovered that this concert would also feature music by Adolphus Hailstork, whose opera with David Gonzalez We Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story will premiere with the Cincinnati Opera in October 2007. The Dresser, also known as the Steiny Road Poet, spoke with Hailstork in 1998 when she was looking for a composer to work with her on Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. Excited, she contacted the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic to ask for last minute press tickets. The call back came from the Philharmonic’s conductor Ulysses S. James who was impressed that the Dresser knew about Gerber and Hailstork.

The concert featured the first movement of Gerber’s Symphony No. 1 as a Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic 2006 Composition Competition Finalist. Along with classical repertoire (Beethoven’s well known Violin Concerto, Op. 61, D Major for this program) the WMP is featuring one of their contest finalists in selected programs. They are also performing in this 2006-2007 season selected work by African-American composers. In the February 18 concert, WMP performed Hailstork’s Symphony No. 1 in its entirety.

When Gerber was asked to take a bow and provide a few comments, he said that the orchestra got the tempos of his work absolutely right.


What the Dresser likes about this movement is that the brooding minor register moves into a delicate lyricism expressed by the violins and then proceeds to an almost minimalist run that is answered by the plucking of cello strings. There is also something in this movement that reminds the Dresser of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and since it was snowing as the concert begun, the sound of birds in Gerber’s music was most welcomed.

Hailstork’s Symphony played in full reminded the Dresser how hard it would be for the audience, who were asked to make written judgment of Gerber’s single movement. Hailstork’s four movements—Allegro, Lento ma non troppo, Allegretto, and Vivace—provided a landscape of variety. Often the work erupted into conversational interludes such that the violins might alternate with the more resonant violas and cellos. One aspect that the Dresser found intriguing was that Hailstork invoked a folkish, village sound that eventually by the Vivace developed into a sophisticated metropolitan voice, one with authority and power. As the Dresser’s seatmate composer Janet Peachey said and which the Dresser’s agrees, Hailstork made excellent use of the orchestra.

The second half of the program featured violinist Elisabeth Adkins playing Beethoven Violin Concerto. Adkins is the concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra since 1983. She brought a sweet delicacy to this well loved work. The Dresser suspects that a majority of the 75 to 100 people in attendance came because this classical piece was being performed and because it offered an especially talented performer. It seems that offering new classical music, as the conductor’s comment to the Dresser indicates, comes with certain risks regarding audience. To this problem, the Dresser offers this poem:

Loving a Mountain
for Red Eagle

Loving a mountain is not
easy. You will have to take it, stone
by stone, into your hands and your skin
and into the space in your head that is prepared
for mountains. You will need a very large
emptiness, a very large need
in yourself: you will have to be willing to move
impediments (your habits of eating, of reason) out.
To encompass a mountain requires
a twat like a horse-collar, an enormous
appetite; the hole in your head will have to be
made larger, by you. (You cannot expect the mountain
to help.) The winds will conspire to trick you,
under your feet. The trees will ignore you,
the birds throw stones. If you try to move fast, expect
to fall off. You will have to wait till you have become
(in a sense) that mountain.

Loving a mountain is not easy
(or mutual, or useful at all).

Judith McCombs
Excerpt from “Loving a Mountain”
published in The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 19, 2007 12:07 PM.

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