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February 22, 2000

Modern ComposersDaron Hagen. Night, Again & other works for wind ensemble and solo instruments. Baylor University Wind Ensemble, Michael Haithcock, conductor. Robert La Rue, cello soloist. (Arsis, CD # 112) 1998.

This collection of works for wind ensemble had a somewhat unorthodox genesis. Although composer Daron Hagen has created an extensive and varied catalog of works, including symphonies, concertos, operas ballets and many chamber works, when he was approached by Michael Haithcock about the possibility of doing an album of works for wind ensemble, he didn't have enough works for winds to fill an entire album. Hagen and Haithcock pursued the idea, however, and the composer agreed to consider re-orchestrating some works for large wind ensemble. The result is the Cello Concerto and Night, Again. The other two works on the album, Concerto for Flugelhorn & Wind Ensemble, written in 1994, and 1997's Sennets, Cortege and Tucket, were written initially for winds.

Daron Hagon as born in Milwaukee in 1961, but has lived and worked in New York since 1984. He began his composing career with large-scale orchestral works, but in recent years has concentrated on opera and other vocal music. The story of the beginning of Hagen's career is one to give hope to stage mothers (and fathers) everywhere: At the age of fifteen Hagen was allowed to conduct the premiere of his first composition for orchestra, in Milwaukee. Hagen's mother "sent a score and tape of the piece to Leonard Bernstein, along with a letter asking for the maestro's guidance." Bernstein replied with enthusiastic encouragement, and that favorable reaction by the Maestro was partly responsible for Hagon's later admittance to the Curtis Institute of Music, where his career blossomed.

As the album's title suggests, three of the four works in this collection are at least partly inspired by Hagen's life-long insomnia and the many long nights he spent in what he calls the "intense, introspective solitude of the smallest hours [that] can be absolutely terrifying." It is at these times, he says, "that certain of life's conundrums bear down with inescapable force," and many of his compositions are ways to deal with those "conundrums." The Cello Concerto, from 1997, "takes place," says the composer, during the course of a single, feverish, sleepless night." The concerto is in three movements, and is in rondo form. "The overall mood" of the piece, says the composer, "is one of somber introspection laced with dance-like sections." The opening section begins with a military-type tattoo pounded out on tympani, giving way to a two-voice section with cello and clarinet. More voices are then heard in a plaintive, restless, swirling melody that gradually builds in intensity until it is interrupted by a return of the tattoo. After a brief section in which the second theme is stated and developed, the first movement returns to the initial theme, stated now by full ensemble.

Though the second movement of the concerto confines itself to a single theme, it is the most structurally complex. In mood, the middle movement corresponds to midnight of the insomniac's long night of "somber introspection." It is guaranteed to keep the listener awake for at least 25 minutes.

You can hear Concerto for Cello & Wind Ensemble by Daron Hagen on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, February 24 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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