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May 4, 1999

Modern Composers[Music of] Eric Funk. Symphony No. 3 for Clarinet and Orchestra ("Hradcany"), Czech Radio Symphony, Vladimir Valek, conductor, Anna Maria Baeza, clarinet; Symphony No. 4 for Contralto and Orchestra ("This Eventide Seems Split"), Op. 75, Warsaw National Philharmonic, Jerzy Swoboda, conductor, Judith Stabler, contralto. (MMC Recordings, CD # MMC2076) 1998.

American composer Eric Funk (b. 1949) represents an unusual blend of American and European heritage. Born in Deer Lodge, Montana (is it possible to be any more American than that), into a musical family, he says his earliest inspirations were Brahms, Puccini, and Stravinsky. And when he says early, he means it -- he began composing at age nine. He studied composition formally at Portland State University with Tomas Svoboda and Sandor Veress, and at Yale with Krzysztof Penderecki. Since 1985, however, he has lived in Bozeman, Montana, where he is on the faculty of Montana State University.

For one personally rooted so deeply in the American west, Funk writes music with a broad scope of vision -- stylistically, politically, and geographically. He has written an opera named "Gorbachev and Yeltsin," and a large-scale work for tenor and trombone choir called Dante: Canto X Paradiso. The subtitle of his Third Symphony, one of the two works on this new album from MMC Recordings, refers to Hradcany Castle in Prague. Though some of his works seem overtly political and inspired by current events, Funk says that his work is in fact more subtle and general than the programmatic references imply. Funk writes this about the Third Symphony:

"Despite its designation as a work for clarinet and orchestra, this work is not a concerto, but rather places the clarinet solo in the position of cantor.' Somewhat programmatic, the work...draws its inspiration from the image of the ghost of a priest who views the city of Prague from a tower window at St. Vitus, the cathedral on the Hradcany Castle grounds. From this vantage point, 600 years of oppression and occupation are observed, with the spirit of the Czech people always rising again, no matter how hard it is pressed down. The solo clarinet plays the part of the priest,' using melodic solo writing with cantus prius factur monody driving a fusion of medieval and twentieth-century harmony.... The soloist...plays the part of a mystic,' [which] translates into the delivery of material from the solo voice which is ultimately transferred to the orchestra. Once each idea is moved from the soloist to the orchestra, the soloist begins to develop new material until the whole of it is secure and the soloist drops into silence."

I don't know if Funk would agree, but after the horrific news reports from Kosovo over the past few months, it is tempting to draw parallels between that situation and the historic plight of the Czechs that inspire this symphony. Funk is not optimistic in his view of the sufferings of the Czechs. Describing the end of his third symphony, Funk says "The work...ends with timpani and bass drum, fading away, asking the question: What now?" Many people ask themselves exactly this question each time they read a newspaper. Though not particularly optimistic, these symphonies are engaging listening.

You can hear Symphony No. 3 by Eric Funk on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, May 6 at 7:00 p.m. as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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