Black and Blues | The Young Lutherans Guide to the Ochestra

Black and Blues

Minneapolis Star and Tribune
Saturday, May 5, 1984
Chamber Orchestra plays concert of British 'new music' by Michael Anthony
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen

One American joined his British colleagues, Randall Davidson, whose "Black and Blues" was given its world premiere Thursday night.

Davidson's "Black and Blues," on the other hand, draws its inspiration, as the title suggests, from Afro-American sources: jazz rhythms. Also, it uses a device or two associated with the music of Charles Ives: the sudden emergence of a folklike or popular tune in the midst of busy or dissonant passages. It is, at any rate, a most striking and beautiful piece of music. Davidson is a managing composer of the Minnesota Composers Forum. His piece was commissioned by Jeanyne and John Slettom.

The work opens in a languorous sultry mood with soft, rather Latin-sounding percussion effects and hand-clapping from the orchestra. After some pages of development, a consoling theme takes over in the strings and is eventually sustained by a bluesy violin solo and finally by soaring passages for the two horns.

This is music of subtlety and surprising emotional depth. Davidson has found a way of writing sweet and deeply lyrical music that is not in the least saccharine, a way of sounding uncomplicated while suggesting an entire emotional landscape. It came as no surprise that "Black and Blues" was received enthusiastically by the audience.

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Friday, May 4, 1984
'Black and Blues' uses Ivesian polyphony by Roy Close
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen
"Black and Blues" is an ambitious 20-minute work. Its three movements, according to the composer, were inspired by (and take their titles from) the writings of Loren Eiseley; each evokes a passage described in one of Eiseley's accounts of Midwestern life.

The first movement, "Crane Dancing," takes its cue from a description of a man who unaccountably finds himself in a courtship dance with an African crane; Davidson's music emphasizes the juxtaposition of opposites, most notably percussive as opposed to smooth sounds. The second movement, "Willy," is a blues-tinged portrait of an elderly black man. It includes a lovely violin solo that was handsomely played by John Kennedy. The finale, Judgment of the Birds," is -- as you'd expect from its title -- filled with the chattering and chirping of the high-pitched woodwinds.

"Black and Blues" impressed me as a strong piece. Its inspiration seems to flag a bit midway through the finale, but elsewhere it is consistently lively and engaging. The opening movement, with its Ivesian polyphony, is a particular delight, while the slow second movement provides a splendid frame for the elegant violin solo that occupies the heart of the work.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Tuesday, October 21, 1986
Three premieres provide interest for CSU program by Robert Finn
Cleveland Chamber Symphony conducted by Edwin London

The other Cleveland premiere, "Black and Blues" by Minnesotan Randall Davidson, is in three sharply contrasted movements each with programmatic significance relating to the composer's life and reading experiences.

The first movement has an air of Ivesian collage about it, with different things going on a t the same time in different sections of the chamber orchestra. Jazzy intimations of pop music are superimposed on calm string harmonies; there are sudden alternations of loud and soft, and the end comes abruptly -- all very much in the Ives tradition. The middle section, an elegy, is a romantic interlude for strings, suggesting the tonal world of Samuel Barber. The last movement, which has something to do with birds according to the program notes, is all romantic sighs and woodwind twitterings -- a piece of unashamed mood-painting. It is as though Respighi had moved from Italy to Minnesota.

The Lincoln (Nebraska) Star
Wednesday, May 9, 1990
Chamber Orchestra's season finale excellent by John Cutler
Nebraska Chamber Orchestra conducted by George Hanson

Davidson's "Black and Blues," a 1984 work, deals with two books by Loren Eiseley. The first movement, "Crane Dancing," requires the listener to relax and reflect as a crane courtship comes to mind. But Davidson noted in his pre-concert talk that cranes can't see things close to them. The music is an account of a crane which misinterprets Eiseley for a mate and starts a courting dance.

"Willy" is the second-movement elegy for an old man facing death who Eiseley describes in his "All the Strange Hours." Strings produced gorgeous textures and intonation with no mistakes. The final scenario is "Judgment of the Birds," involving a black raven and a fallen song sparrow. Complex rhythms and augmented chordal textures mark Davidson's homage to Eiseley's writing about nature's hardships.

Excellence keynoted the "Black and Blues" superlative rendering. The small Kimball crowd lavished applause on conductor, orchestra and composer.

The Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra

Los Angeles Times
September 12, 1995
Keillor Weds Folk Humor, Classical Music by Lynne Heffley Hollywood Bowl conducted by Philip Brunelle

...Insults were meted out in equal measure in the centerpiece, "The Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra," where it turned out that the only proper instruments for a young Lutheran to play are percussion -- "you learn a lot of patience" -- and the harp -- "an instrument for a very nice person with powerful forearms."

The Kansas City Star
Saturday, September 23, 2000
Keillor's homespun humor melds with KC Symphony by Paul Horsley
Kansas City Symphony conducted by Philip Brunelle

Onstage for the first half was the Kansas City Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Philip Brunelle, assisting Keillor in "The Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra." A play on a similarly titled work by Benjamin Britten, this deft arrangement by composer Randall Davidson featured Keillor's humor at its best, with voice-over commentaries on the peculiarities of the instruments of the orchestra.

"The English horn has a tendency to honk," he said, as that instrument swelled above the rest of the orchestra. "You wait for your big solo, not knowing what will come out -- music, or some sort of National Geographic special."

The trumpet was singled out for its volume: "You have to blow so hard you may not be able to remember your own Social Security number...Of all the people who have died at concerts, most of them keeled over during big trumpet solos. And most of them were glad to go."

And so it went. The violin was a "Jewish instrument," not for Lutherans. "There is no Itzhak Hansen," he pointed out, "no Jascha Petersen."

Instruments noted as "appropriate for Lutherans" were the percussion battery (because the long waits between isolated notes are fitting for Lutheran patience) and the harp ("it takes two hours to tune, and 20 minutes to go out of instrument for a saint.")

Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, March 14, 1990
Keillor's Prairie Home Symphony by Martin Bernheimer
Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Philip Brunelle

With a little help from Randall Davidson, his resident composer-arranger, and Philip Brunelle, his inspired conductor-accompanist, he warbled Carmen's Habanera, incorporating proper yuppie plugs for Powdermilk Biscuit Croissants...Best of all, and in keeping with the omni-pious leitmotif, Keillor offered "A Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra."

"To each person," the simple narrative began, "God gives some talent, such as writing, just to name one, and to many persons He has given musical talent, though not as many as think so." There followed a bright, instruments and their varying degrees of suitability for the meek. "The violin," we learned, "is a problem for any Christian because it is a solo instrument, a virtuoso instrument, and we're not solo people. We believe in taking a back seat and being helpful. So Christians think about becoming second violinists. They're steady, humble, supportive. But who do they support? First violins."

Even more useful was the description of cellists. "They are so sweet. They look like parents at a day-care center zipping up their children's snowsuits."

The august members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic listened attentively. When needed, they played con brio.

It was a lovely evening.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Wednesday, November 30, 1988
Keillor's humor resonates to the tone of Walt Whitman
Seattle Symphony conducted by Philip Brunelle

[Garrison Keillor] had a hot band of about 90 musicians backing him up much of the time and more than a little help from his friends Philip Brunelle and Randall Davidson (as conductor and composer, respectively). The peak of the evening, in musical as well as narrative terms, arrived just before the intermission. This was the world premiere of "A Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra," written by Davidson with no apologies offered to Benjamin Britten. Where Britten centered his "Young Person's Guide" with a fine theme by Henry Purcell, Davidson uses "Jesus Loves Me" to a devastatingly funny effect.

Imagine the Rev. Bowdler, who cleaned up the language of Shakespeare, set loose amid the trombones and violas, and you have an idea of what Keillor's script for this piece is about. One by hilarious one, each instrument is excluded from those a good Christian could contemplate learning to play. People undress to oboe music in the movies after all, and cellists hold their instruments in the most peculiar way, and second violinists can't be trusted because their part of the score is so easy they stay out all night in bars rather than practicing.

Only the percussion section and the harp escape calumny -- the first because it teaches one divine patience between cues, the second because it's so damn hard to move the instrument. "You can't run around with a harp," Keillor intones. Meanwhile, Davidson's very clever score is chasing through sardonic changes on hymn tunes and seemingly by accident doing a fine job of demonstrating the tone colors of an orchestra.

Erie Daily Times
Monday, June 17, 1991
Keillor, symphony serve tuna casserole by Eugene Smith
Seattle Symphony conducted by Philip Brunelle

And with the help of a composer named Randall Davidson, who was supposedly in the audience, he did an extended parody of Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." Keillor's version was titled "A Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra." It was the cleverest piece of the evening: a poking-fun exploration of each instrument, with reasons why most are unsuitable for a Lutheran who might be considering a career as a musician.

San Mateo Times
Friday, January 13, 1989
Lake Wobegon's brief visit to San Francisco by William Glackin
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle

"A Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra" was a lengthy, successful piece which managed at the same time to be funny about music and funny about the solemn conservatism of the Norwegian Lutherans in Lake Wobegon -- one of Keillor's favorite subjects. One by one, the instruments were examined and dismissed as not suitable for Christians. "Ask yourself, if Our Lord had played an instrument, which one would He choose? Probably not a French horn." The oboe is to sensual, the flute to showy, and besides, "to spend your life with your head tilted, blowing across a tiny hole -- it's not really normal, is it?"

The string bass is slow, stolid, reliable, "which makes it tempting to German Lutherans." The first violin is a problem because it's a solo, virtuoso instrument, "and we're not a solo people. I'm not even sure we're a duet people. Most first violinists believe the conductor secretly takes his cue from them."

He settled at last on only two instruments for the true Christian: the triangle, because it makes for patience, waiting for the rare opportunity to play; and the harp, because "it keeps you humble and keeps you in the house, you can't run around very much. It's like an elderly parent in poor health -- hard to get in and out of cars."

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Tuesday, October 19, 1993
Offbeat repertory given enthusiastic playing by David McKee
Minnetonka Symphony Orchestra conducted by Roger Lars Hoel

Hoel's affectionate interpretation actually made a more persuasive case for the musical side of the piece than does Philip Brunelle's with the Minnesota Orchestra on the "Loyalty Days" album. The concluding harp solo by Betty Dahlgren was particularly eloquent. Dan Westmoreland's reading of the narration wisely avoided emulation of Keillor inflections and found its own voice.

N.B. Tony: The next two reviews should also be listed under "The Radio Announcer"

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Monday, June 10, 1989
'Lake Wobegon Loyalty Days' lets Keillor, orchestra shine by Michael Anthony
Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle

The two major pieces of the evening were "The Young Lutheran's guide to the Orchestra" and "The Radio Announcer." the former makes allusion to Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" but asks the question: should a young Lutheran want to become a musician, which instrument should he take up? The clarinet sounds too snooty, the oboe much too sensual. The problem with cello is the way cellists put their arms around the instrument. They look like parents at a day-care center zipping up snow-suits. Keillor ultimately recommends the percussion instruments -- like Lutherans, percussionists must be ever so patient -- and the harp. Playing the harp keeps you humble and, most important, it keeps you home at night because it takes so long to tune.

"The Radio Announcer" is a sweet, wry tale about Keillor's early days working as a classical-music DJ at a college radio station, which allows for ample quotations from the music that he put on the air. Both pieces are clever. The text of "The Young Lutheran's Guide," which Keillor and Brunelle premiered recently at the Aspen Festival, needs to be trimmed a bit, but Davidson's music is both skillful and funny. A highlight of "The Young Lutheran's Guide" was a duet for Keillor and piccolo player Addele Lorraine: a blues version of "Jesus Loves Me."

Eugene (OR) Register-Guard
Tuesday, June 27, 1989
Keillor gives classics Lake Wobegon spin by Paul Denison
Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle

The program began with Randall Davidson's hilarious tongue-in-kitsch Piano and Orchestra Bench Overture, followed by Davidson's arrangement of Cowboy Song: "Yippie-ti-yi," with Keillor whooping it up as a Manhattan cowboy writing hard across a range where humorists James Thurber, S.J. Perelman and E.B. White once held sway.

A highlight of the first half was the premiere of "The Radio Announcer," Keillor's speak-sing sketch confession that he "went into radio for love." That is, he became the host of a five-hour, seven-nights-a-week classical music program on public radio station WUWM (nicknamed "womb" and located in the basement of the women's gymnasium) to woo a girl in his American literature class.

At WUWM, Keillor played Bach's B Minor Mass, "in its entirety, without commercial interruptions," when he needed time to cram for a test or write a paper. To impress the girl, he also played avant-avant garde works including Ingmar Carlson's Four Choruses for Seriously Ill Orchestra on Themes by Soren Kierkegaard, "opus posthumous."

All the time, he was enjoying "the pure beauty of being invisible and speaking to her and imagining that tonight would be the night" when she would fall in love with his sophisticated voice.

Sacramento Bee
Thursday, January 12, 1989
Keillor's a welcome companion: Poet of the 'Prairie' proves you can go home again by William Glackin
San Francisco Symphony conducted by Philip Brunelle

"A Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra" was a lengthy, successful piece which managed at the same time to be funny about music and funny about the solemn conservatism of the Norwegian Lutherans in Lake Wobegon -- one of Keillor's favorite subjects. One by one, the instruments were examined and dismissed as not suitable for Christians.