Saturday, November 21, 2009

Greg Kostraba on "The Toledo Clarinets", With Music of William Grant Still

[ABOVE: William Grant Still (Photo is the sole property of William Grant Still Music, and is used with permission.) BELOW: The Toledo Clarinets”; Greg Klaas, clarinet; Jocelyn Langworthy, clarinet; Shannon Ford, clarinet; Kevin Schempf, clarinet; Chelsea Tipton II, clarinet; Elliott Ross, clarinet; Greg Kostraba, piano; “Sonatina for Clarinet Choir” (11:38), Jerome Moross; “Lyric Quartette” (15:18), William Grant Still; “Quartet for Four B-Flat Clarinets” (10:28), Sean Osborn; “Christmas in the Western World (Las Pascuas)” (18:51), William Grant Still; “De Profundis” (10:43), Christopher Dietz; Cambria CAMCD-1190 (2009)]

Greg Kostraba, D.M.A., is a classical pianist who combines piano performance with Public Radio broadcasting. We interviewed him on his new CD on November 19, 2009.
It seems like kind of a strange reversal of roles to me, after years of calling up and asking you to play "Dances in the Canebrakes" by Florence Price...
(Laughs) That's right!
Which you always did!
Yes, I loved playing it. Your requests were always fun! I hear they've gotten rid of that request show now. I enjoyed doing that one.
Well, we're discussing a Cambria Master Recordings new release, and this is Cambria CD-1190?
Released in 2009, I believe just quite recently, Greg?
October 27th.
And you are the producer of the recording?
That is correct.
So we can ask you about all aspects of the music and the performance. Would you like to tell our readers what your position is in Public Radio?
Well, I am now, for almost a year, the Program Director at WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana, Public Radio for Purdue University. We have an AM and an FM station, and the FM is mostly classical.
Could you briefly describe your previous position, the one in which I came to know you?
Oh sure! I spent 7 years at WGTE-FM, Toledo, Ohio as the Classical Music Director, and I was given lots of free range to do interesting things and to do creative programming. I certainly tried my best to do that, with a live radio program called "Live From FM 91," in which I first had "The Toledo Clarinets" back in 2005, and some other things too, including an hour-long radio special on William Grant Still's music that we did at Bowling Green State University. That was syndicated on 60 radio stations across the country.
Is that right!
If I could back up just a little bit, I believe you have Master's and Doctor's of Musical Arts, is that right?
That's right. I have both of those degrees from the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati.
And are they in Piano Performance?
They are both in Piano Performance, yes. And that's actually where I became acquainted with and interested in the music of William Grant Still.
How did that come up during your studies?
When I started the Doctorate I switched to a teacher, Richard Fields, who was the first pianist to really record William Grant Still's music back in the 1980s. And he was a masterful artist and a consummate musician, and a strong advocate for music of William Grant Still and other African American composers as well. Richard Fields was Black himself and a very, very fine musician, and I miss him dearly. He passed away a few years back, and I still think of him fondly and often.
So he had quite an impression on you?
Absolutely! He steered me toward interesting avenues of repertoire that I hadn't known about before, all of which was superb music! All of which was valuable and really not too much was all that well known. For me in particular he was realy interested in bringing a wide range of musical experiences to my life that I hadn't really had much acquaintance with before. He he knew so much repertoire and so much great music! He had a fertile musical imagination. He had a great knowledge of William Grant Still.
I see.
And he was really willing and interested in sharing that knowledge with all of his students.
Were there others who were also influenced favorably toward William Grant Still?
I believe so. When I went back for occasional master classes with him, there were some of his students that did play the "Three Visions," which were certainly his best-known work for piano.
Yes. And then do I recall correctly that the title of your doctoral work was "The Piano Music of William Grant Still"?
Well, no. I did a lecture-recital on William Grant Still's music for piano and chamber music with piano.
I see.
Focusing on the "Three Visions" and "Pastorela." My goal was to have that on the hundredth anniversary of Still's birth, and I had set up the room and got it scheduled for May 11 of 1995. Something came up and the violinist I worked with wasn't able to do it that day. I was happy to say it was the beginning of the second hundred years after the birth of William Grant Still when I gave that lecture-recital.
Did you have occasion to repeat that lecture-recital?
No, I never had actually. But the lecture-recital format isn't one that tends to work for general audiences. The lecture-recital was about 25-30 minutes of lecture and then 25-30 minutes of playing, and I find when I am performing that people, and part of this came from my radio experience too, that people don't want to sit through 30 minutes of talking, most of the time.
That's not too surprising!
They do want performers to inform them about the music, to enhance the musical experience, but they don't want to be lectured to. The material that I gathered for that I have incorporated into all of my programs which have featured William Grant Still's music. And I've done a lot of chamber music of his, I've done piano and orchestra music of his, and then solo piano music of his as well. So all of that has really stayed with me, but not in the format in which it was originally given.
How did you become in contact with Judith Anne Still, his daughter?
I was so excited about the music of William Grant Still I was buying everything I could find, chamber music and piano music in particular. By 1995 I had been at WGUC, the classical music radio station in Cincinnati, and I wanted to do a radio program, and that was the first radio program I did on William Grant Still, and combined my interest and love for this music and share it with radio audiences. So I had musician-friends of mine at CCM, the Conservatory, come in and play. We had the "Lyric Quartette," we had the "Incantation and Dance for Piano," the "Miniatures for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano." I had Richard Fields come in and play "The Visions" and "The Bells" and it turned into a 90-minute show on William Grant Still's music. As part of that, I sought to further enhance the musical experience, and knowing all this music and loving it so much, I interviewed Judy Still for that radio program. And that was my first contact with her. Richard had wanted me to talk with her for some time and that was the chance to really get that to work out.
What would you say "The Toledo Clarinets" is? What would you call it, a clarinet choir?
It is a clarinet choir, yes, and as part of my wanting to do creative and interesting radio programming in Toledo, I - there are so mnany great musicians in the Toledo area that play with the Toledo Symphony. Kevin Schempf, who teaches at Bowling Green State University, is fabulous! And I just thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to have all these terrific musicians in the same room, at the same time, playing music for clarinets!" And I didn't know much of what was out there for that combination, save the piece by Jerome Moross which is on the CD which I just absolutely adored and wanted to get recorded! Aside from that I didn't really know much of what was out there for that combination. So, I thought, "Let's read through some things, and put together this 'Live From FM 91' radio program."
Who were the other 5 people involved, Greg?
Well, I would say the core members of the group are Georg Klaas, Jocelyn Langworthy, Kevin Schempf and Shannon Ford.
They're all still with the group, right?
Yes, and they're all still in Toledo. Shannon is a free lance musician who teaches at Adrian College. The other three play in the Toledo Symphony, on the Toledo Symphony roster, and Kevin's main job is at Bowling Green state University.
Then you have a couple of others, I believe?
Yes, we augmented that with Chelsea Tipton, who is a fabulous conductor as well as a clarinetist. And Elliott Ross, who's in the Ann Arbor Symphony. The six of them are playing on that one piece together. The rest of the works on the program are for 4 clarinets, and then I was fortunate enough to play piano on one of the pieces on the CD as well.
The "Sonatina For Clarinet Choir," would that be the one where the six are playing?
That's the one for 6, yes.
The two works of William Grant Still, would you like to mention what the first one is?
The first one is the "Lyric Quartette." I've been hearing it a lot more on the radio now, and not just my radio programming but national radio programming as well, for string quartet. It's a lovely work, and I thought it would be really nice to have that one on the CD.
I believe (15:18) is the time?
That's right.
It has three interesting titles for the movements.
Yes, they're all - evidently they were inspired by friends of the composer, is my understanding although it's kind of shrouded in mystery, I think, a little bit. "The Sentimental One" is the first and then "The Quiet One" second and then there's "The Jovial One." What I find is interesting about "The Quiet One" particularly, it's in an Inca melody, and William Grant Still as your readers probably know was fascinated by music from all across the Western Hemispere, folk music in particular, from all different places. So it's not at all surprising that he had an Inca melody included in the "Lyric Quartette."
This seems very timely, since it was just last month that his "Western Hemisphere Symphony" was released for the first time, on Naxos.
Is that finally out?
Yes, it was released about a month ago. There are Symphony 4 and 5. The other one besides the "Western Hemisphere" is the "Autochthonous," which he defines as referring to the people of the United States.
All the people of the United States.
So it's a stage of his recognition of the fusion of musical cultures and as you say, the cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere. Yes, that's available on the Naxos label. I believe this clarinet CD on the Cambria label will also be distributed by Naxos. Is that right?
Right, yes that is distributed by Naxos. When I was pitching this project to various record companies, one of the things that attracted me about Cambria was that they were going to have and they now do have Naxos distribution, so that's going to be worldwide. It's really exciting!
Yes, that's quite an opportunity! The larger work, and perhaps the one that's more relevant seasonally is "Christmas In The Western World (Las Pascuas)." I believe you arranged that one?
Actually I arranged the "Lyric Quartette" and that one for "The Toledo Clarinets."
So the two works of William Grant Still?
Right, again showing my interest and enthusiasm for the composer's music.
Of these 10 tracks it appears that 9 of them are from various cultures and countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as Argentina, Nicaragua and so on, and one of them is actually composed I believe by William Grant Still and his wife Verna Arvey?
Right! The concluding one in the set, "Sing! Shout! Tell The Story!" is a William Grant Still original and as he writes in the score, "In the style of a Negro Spiritual." It's a great ending to the set! It's not because it's flashy, but because it's solid! It's a solid piece of music, the rhythm has to be solid throughout, he indicates that it has to be done at a certain tempo, or at least it can't be faster than the tempo and I think that's the tempo we strove for on the CD. When we were playing through it in recording it, some of the clarinetists were wondering "Well maybe it should be faster." Once we got through it and we listened to it afterwards, we realized again, he knew exactly what he was doing! He knew exactly what he was talking about and he knew exactly what he wanted. The tempo keeps it from being kind of a runaway train to end it. Instead it ends very excitingly and energetically.
I imagine some people will inquire about the availability of the lyrics. Is there some place they can be directed?
That I don't know because we didn't use the lyrics.
Well, they can ask William Grant Still Music then.
I'm sure they can, yes. Any question about Still's music, go to Judy and you'll get an answer that will be satisfying to you. She's so knowledgeable and so - you know she pretty much singlehandedly has brought his music back into the forefront of American 20th Century composition.
That's really an outstanding contribution! I can't think of an analogy of a second-generation person in a composer's family accomplishing what she has accomplished!
No, no one I know of has been able to do what she has done in that regard.
Today's the opening of her conference that was long-awaited of William Grant Still, "Music and the Arts: Still Our Only Future."
Right. I would love to be down there, but my "Chamber Music Series in Toledo" has a concert on Sunday, so there was no way I'd be able to make it down there and then back up to Toledo, and I still have to get my job done here at WBAA, so I wish Judy the best and I'm sure her conference is just wonderful!
I'm sure it is; we posted a message on the blog from Darryl E. Harris, Sr. that said to people who are attending the Concert tonight to say hello to the Second Bassoonist! He particularly was looking forward to it as a part of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra performing the "Afro-American Symphony" for the first time with that organization in Mississippi.
I'm sure that's true! I'll read that when I've gone off the phone with you.
I think I've basically asked the questions I wanted, but I'd like to give you an opportunity to fill in what else you think readers should know?
One thing that I was thinking about as I was preparing for our interview, what was most fun about doing "Christmas In The Western World" was in terms of all the decisions that the ensemble had to make. In terms of, "Do you take all the repeats or do take one of the repeats?," "Which clarinet will take this line?" because it was originally written for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Which instrument serves the best purpose at a given time for a given song could change from song to song. So generally, the soprano part was taken by an e-flat clarinet, the alto was taken by a b-flat clarinet, and the tenor and bass taken by bass clarinets. At times the second bass clarinet was written down an octave; we dropped it down an octave, to give it a fuller sound. Sometimes we dropped the e-flat clarinet out of the mix, sometimes we dropped one of the bass clarinets out of the mix. It was really an interesting process to see how that all developed over the course of rehearsals, and then over the course of the recording.
Is there an artistic director of the group, is there collective decision-making or what?
I think it's collective decision-making. What was on the CD we kind of arrived at together. Then the kind of artistic decisions like that were all done together. Very collaborative! Everyone knows each other and has played with each other in different contexts for a long time, and it was really a neat process to be a part of!
So you're still a part of the group?
Well, I'm kind of the promoter, the advocate, the CD producer. I'm trying to get performances at various concert venues in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan, and I'm just trying to build awareness of this ensemble and give them more opportunities to perform this repertoire because it's really something they don't normally do on a regular basis. They're symphony players; they're teachers; Shannon Ford plays incredible saxophone as well as clarinet. She does a lot with her saxophone group called "Sax 4th Avenue" and plays jazz with the Scott Grinnell Orchestra in Detroit. So this "Toledo Clarinets" project was an artistic outlet that they didn't have, that they probably didn't even think about until it was brought to their attention that "Hey, this is a great thing to be doing and it's a very exciting process and you should all get together and read through music and start playing."
It must be an enriching part of the careers of the people who participate!
Yes, I think it definitely is!
It certainly helps get some fine music heard in the community!
Right! And it's nice because the clarinet choir, either four or six, there's not that much repertoire for it, and I'm happy to have been able to have contributed a little bit, not only to the advancement and knowledge of the music of William Grant Still, which is something that I've been passionate about ever since Richard Fields introduced me to his music 15 years ago, but also to build up the repertoire for this particular ensemble, this particular clarinet choir type of ensemble.
I congratulate you on your accomplishment! It's certainly a singular achievement as far as I'm aware!
Well, thank you!
Well, once again, Greg, thank you very much for your cooperation and I hope that the recording reaches many people and the music becomes much better known!
Thank you very much! Thanks for all that you do! Your site is incredible and one of the really neat things about having been in Toledo for as long as I have was getting to know your project and your passion for music of African American composers, and it's just really neat!
Well, I appreciate that. That's always good to know.

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