Music News & Reviews

Chamber Fest features new work with deep roots

The seed for the piano quintet that Clancy Newman will premiere Saturday as part of the UBS Chamber Music Festival of Lexington was a melody the cellist had in his head.

The trick is, though, he first heard it when he was 9.

"It's just one of the most extraordinary things," said Newman, the festival's composer-in-residence and a 2004 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient. "It's that moment of inspiration, where your mind is at that moment."

The piece, Dream Sequence, will premiere as part of a Saturday evening festival program that will include works by Franz Joseph Haydn, George Enescu and Antonin Dvorak.

If the melody came to Newman when he was a child, where did the inspiration emerge from? He began playing cello at age 6 and wrote his first musical composition at 7. So what ignited the creative impulse that yielded a full melody when Newman was 9?

"Cartoons," he said. "I would say that maybe it came from the world of cartoons. The melody is spooky in a sort of cartoon-like way. As the piece develops, the melody changes. It becomes almost fugal at times. In other instances, there is almost a jazz influence. There's maybe even a rock 'n' roll influence. It's all over the map."

But then, Newman himself has been all over the map. He holds dual citizenship in the United States (being a native of Albany, N.Y.) and Australia (where his parents live). In fact, he composed much of Dream Sequence during the late winter and early spring in Melbourne.

Similarly, Newman works today out of New York City. He was one of the first students to graduate from a five-year exchange program between The Juilliard School and Columbia University. But he also is a member of the Chicago Chamber Musicians.

"Basically, my life is a lot of traveling," Newman said. "Just in the last year, I've been at home in New York far less than 50 percent of the time. I'm always traveling all over the world. Of course, it's difficult to compose when you're traveling. So since my parents have a house in Australia, I have a place I can stay that is somewhat isolated. I can get a lot of work done there."

Newman has traveled a bit stylistically, as well. While studying at Columbia, he performed in New York, especially in Greenwich Village haunts, as part of a rock band. He played amplified cello. It was a fun experience but also an eye-opening one, and it left Newman with little respect for the business of the pop world.

"I learned a lot from the experience, about the pop world versus the classical world," he said. "It made me somewhat cynical of the pop scene, though. The amount of pressure you seem to be under to sell out and lose your integrity is great. I think it is extremely rare for a pop artist to emerge who hasn't submitted to that pressure in some way.

"I still listened to rock music and enjoyed it. I'm still a fan of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. So it's possible, I suppose, I might have still arrived at some of these same places with my music if I hadn't played in that group."

Newman hesitates before divulging the name of "that group" with which he amped up the cello. Then, somewhat sheepishly, he comes clean.

"It was called Clancy," he said. "But that makes it seem like I was more involved in it than I actually was. Really, the lead singer ran the show. He asked me if it would be OK if the band used my name. I said yes, but I'm not sure whether it was such a cool idea or not."

For now, the former Clancy member and present-day Newman is exploring chamber compositions that offer a challenge for the artist and accessibility for the audience.

Newman will perform his own Pizzicato Piece and join the festival's other musicians for Franz Schubert's Quintet for Strings in C on Friday night's program. On Saturday, he will sit back and listen to his new work.

"There is always a desire as a musician for music that is challenging and interesting," he said. "It's OK to challenge the audience a little bit, too. But I think it's also important to have the audience leave satisfied enough that they will want to enjoy such an experience again. Certainly when I write my own music, I think a lot about that.

"I think the pendulum is swinging now toward music people actually want to listen to. And, judging by history, it will probably swing too far in that direction. Nonetheless, it's definitely important to find that balance between the simple and the complex. But that balance is not easy to find. Not at all."

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