Sounds of battle: Duke ensemble to premiere ‘Song of the Morrigan’

Feb. 13, 2014 @ 01:50 PM

Duke University composer Paul Leary’s composition “Song of the Morrigan” takes its inspiration from a character in Celtic mythology. Morrigan is a goddess associated with battle and fertility, and Leary said he wants the piece to convey that “martial quality,” to give listeners the impression of a battlefield.

“It’s loud -- tonally driven but dissonant,” Leary said in a phone interview. The piece has “a lot of percussion. It sounds like artillery at times. I’m interested in how to present that kind of imagery in a piece,” he said.
The Duke Wind Symphony will premiere “Song of the Morrigan” in concert Thursday in Baldwin Auditorium. At a rehearsal of the piece in Baldwin this week, director Verena Mosenbichler-Bryant reminded the ensemble of the importance of articulation to playing the piece well. “Remember what Paul said about the articulation,” Mosenbichler-Bryant  said. “We need to play short, short, short.”
The recent completion of acoustic renovations to Baldwin amplify that challenge, Mosenbichler-Bryant said. The sound renovations allow the hall to be “tuned” to the needs of different ensembles. Those capabilities work well with lyrical pieces: “It’s ideal because the sound gets carried out into the audience,” she said. (The group also will perform composer Morten Lauridsen’s arrangement of a choral work, which during this rehearsal illustrated her point about the acoustics.) But those ideal qualities pose a challenge with a piece like “Song of the Morrigan” where notes and rhythm are more exacting, she said. Because the symphony rehearses in Baldwin, the musicians have learned how to adjust their sound to the acoustics, she said.
The composition has great rhythmic drive that comes through in this rehearsal. A percussionist could be seen at times running between different instruments, reinforcing Leary’s concept of battlefield imagery.  
As a composer, Leary said he “puts on different hats,” and his list of pieces reflects his eclecticism. He has arranged and orchestrated works for Jon Anderson, Crosby, Stills and Nash and other musicians. He also has written music for instruments and electronics – “Number Stations” for alto saxophone and stereo electronics, “Waves of Mu” for stereo electronics, among others. He also has an interest in Renaissance and early Western music, which he said is reflected in his choral pieces like “Dum Medium Silentium’ and “O Nata Lux.”
“Song of the Morrigan” is his first composition for wind symphony. He earned his Ph.D. in composing from Duke and knew Mosenbichler-Bryant, and the composition, which was written for her ensemble, grew out of that relationship, he said.
In addition to the Leary premiere, the concert marks the first time the Duke Wind Symphony and the Durham Community Concert Band will be sharing the stage, said Tom Shaffer, concert band director. He and Mosenbichler-Bryant have played together in different ensembles, and Shaffer calls Mosenbichler-Bryant “a great conductor to watch.”
The concert band will be performing five pieces, among them composer Mark Camphouse’s 1992 piece “A Movement for Rosa,” based on the life of the civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Shaffer first played the piece about six years ago with another group.  “It depicted the civil rights movement so well. … It’s a very emotional piece,” he said. The piece, according to program notes, is in three sections that depict Parks’ early life, the civil rights struggles, and her “quiet strength and serenity.” It begins with a pastoral melody, then becomes more dissonant and rhythmic, then returns to a more pastoral feel.
Shaffer asked the band members to go back and look at some of the photos from the demonstrations during the 1960s that depict important milestones in the movement. “I’d like to convey the story that there are still a lot of problems going on, and if I can get that story across in music then that’s good,” Shaffer said.


WHAT: Duke Wind Symphony with Durham Community Concert Band
WHEN: Thursday, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University East Campus