Splitting pairs

On Thursday, July 15, the 14-year-old Cactus Pear Music Festival will premiere composer Timothy Kramer’s Three Pairs Suite, a venturesome, tuneful piece of music that will impress and delight with its balance of exuberance and formality, tradition and novelty. Imagine Bach, his wig somewhat askew, dropping into the halfpipe at the local skate park, and you have some idea of what’s in store.

Kramer, a professor at Trinity University since the first half of the preceding decade, has long been a vital member of San Antonio’s classical music community — his work has been commissioned and performed by the SOLI Ensemble and the San Antonio Symphony, among many others — but his status as a local fixture will, alas, soon change. After the performance, Kramer is bound for Illinois College, where he will chair the Department of Music and, not incidentally, join his wife, a faculty member there since 2002, and thereby end the vagabondage all too often mandatory among the professoriate.

Three Pairs Suite is strong evidence that the loss is ours as well as Trinity’s. Commissioned by Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, former concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony and the founder and artistic director of the Cactus Pear Music Festival, the piece is intended, as Kramer says, to be “something sweet and something prickly.” Composed for its eponymous pairs of instruments (piano and percussion, cello and violin, clarinet and flute), the suite offers a compelling series of contrasts and juxtapositions over the course of its six movements, which are patterned loosely along the lines of a baroque suite. Among Kramer’s strengths as a composer — from the perspective of listeners and musicians alike — is his penchant for writing music that draws fully upon the particularities of color and tone of each of the instruments in his arsenal. Although some movements highlight an instrument, or pairing of instruments — flute and clarinet in the “Variations,” strings in the “Intermezzo,” percussion in the “Musette” — within movements, and across them, Kramer never loses sight of the whole. 

“Kramer obtains great colors and textures with his combination of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments all represented,” remarks Sant’Ambrogio. Of the work as a whole, she says, “`it` has a clear formal structure with great energy in the fast movements, and lovely poise in the slow, meditative movements.” 

The suite revolves around its central “Intermezzo” movement, which was, Kramer told me, the first part of the piece he composed, the kernel from which the finished work grew. The intermezzo alternates between a triple-meter rhythmic motive Kramer adopted from a courante (French for “running”) in one of Bach’s “French Suites,” and a contrasting rhythm that arrives to qualify and elaborate upon the first, without breaking stride. Marked in the score as “a bit sinister,” the movement reminded me of the ominous turn a conversation can sometimes take, the sense of precariousness and danger that can arrive suddenly and impress itself upon a gathering. It is an exhilarating, vertiginous piece of music.

By way of contrast, the suite’s second movement, “Nocturne,” is more straightforwardly lyrical in nature. Kramer described the movement to me as “neo-populist.” I was reminded in a general way of Chopin’s “Berceuse,” more by the tenderness the two works share than by any overt resemblance. Cycling through the circle of fifths — a harmonic movement so fundamental to Western harmony as to have almost the force of a syllogism — the movement showcases a lovely, soaring melody played by the flute against a darker backdrop grounded in a series of chords played by the piano. 

Kramer’s suite was originally commissioned to be a part of last year’s festival, but the economic crisis forced its postponement until this summer. In 2009 it was to be performed along with Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and elements of Three Pairs Suite reflect this earlier pairing. In particular, the opening notes of the suite’s overture, with their open-throated, unabashed melodiousness, recall Copland’s celebrated composition. Yet this passage soon begins to alternate with a highly charged allegro section that anticipates some of the more frenetic and rhythmically playful movements to come. 

You can listen to a digital realization of Kramer’s suite on the web at aeneaseditions.com/ThreePairsSuite/. This version, created by the composer Brian Nelson, a former student of Kramer’s at Trinity who is currently finishing his doctorate at Rice University, was constructed from Kramer’s score with a sequencer and a vast library of digitized samples of real orchestral instruments. It’s a demanding and painstaking process, Nelson told me, rather like conducting in slow motion. Having listened to Nelson’s realization many times, I’m impressed by how good — how human and warm — it sounds. Yet nothing can compare finally with hearing the suite performed by top-notch, flesh-and-blood musicians, music being as much a space to enter into and inhabit as it is a means of conveyance. •

Paired to Pear-fection
feat. Satie, Kramer, Dvorák
7:30pm Thu, Jul 15
$22 ($5 students)
Coker United Methodist Church

The Cactus Pear Music Festival
Jul 8-18

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