A Carmen Fantasy for Double Bass and Orchestra (or Piano)
There is a wealth of material from Carmen that lends itself to interpretation and transcription into music of different styles. Proto has drawn from this opera several times before. The first (1976) being a setting for an eight piece jazz ensemble, later orchestrated to include full orchestra. In 1985 trumpet soloist Doc Severinsen asked Proto for a suite to feature him and his own jazz group with orchestra. Again in 1990 Severinsen asked for a new Carmen Fantasy for a recording that he was making with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. While all of the material for these various suites and fantasies originates from Bizet’s opera, they are all totally different and contrasting from one another.
The Carmen Fantasy for Double Bass and Piano was written in 1991 as a surprise for François Rabbath. The soloist was looking for something different to feature on his recitals but wasn’t sure exactly what. Knowing his style and temperament quite well, as a result of two former collaborations, the Concerto No. 2 (1981) and the Fantasy for Double Bass and Orchestra (1983), Proto thought that Rabbath would find the music of Bizet, cast in an entirely different light, to his liking. He finished work on it in June 1991 and sent it to Rabbath. On July 5, 1991, Rabbath, with the composer at the piano played the premier performance at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The result was such a resounding success that the soloist immediately asked that the work be orchestrated.
The Carmen Fantasy for Double Bass and Orchestra was finished in July 1992. Rabbath played the first performance with the Toulouse chamber orchestra on November 3, 1992. It is scored for 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, piano, celesta, harp, percussion and strings.
The material was selected more or less at random. The Aragonaise, Toreador Song and Bohemian Dance are included in the standard suites frequently heard at symphony concerts, but Micaela’s Aria from Act 2 is a lovely melody that is rarely heard outside of the opera. The Prelude is original and serves as a sort of overture to the suite.
Concerto No. 2 for Double Bass and Orchestras
Program note by Jonathan Kramer
The Second Concerto was composed specifically for bassist François Rabbath. The impetus for the Concerto came from one of the annual fund raising events of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Different musicians offered their services in exchange for donations to the orchestra. Proto offered to write a concerto for "one of the world’s great bassists, to be performed by him with the CSO." An interested patron came forward in the person of Marion Rawson, whom Proto describes as "a wonderful lady, who really loved new music." She had previously commissioned Proto’s Cello Concerto and his Three Pieces for Percussion and Orchestra. The Second Bass Concerto is "dedicated to her memory. It is also dedicated with great love and affection to François Rabbath.
Like most of Proto’s music, the Concerto straddles the worlds of jazz and contemporary concert music. Proto knows orchestra musicians well, and he knows that he can count on certain musicians having had experience playing jazz. There are sections in the Concerto that are to be improvised in a jazz style, there are "vamp" passages, there are written-out passages that must swing, and there are parts to be played "legit."
"I ended up writing a showpiece for orchestra as well as soloist. I don’t like to have the orchestra just sitting there making an occasional peep here and pop there. If you write a piece for orchestra, I believe that you ought to use it. Of course, when the solo instrument is soft, as the bass is, you have a problem of balance. So I decided to ask for the bass to be amplified. We live in an age of electronic technology, so why not take advantage of it.
The work begins with atmospheric chords in the crotales, vibraphones, glockenspiel, piano, harp, celesta and those strings seated near the percussion. Soon the English horn enters with a plaintive melody, answered by the solo bass. The percussion and bass become more active, and then the bass sings a duet with the English horn. After a brief cadenza, the muted brass join in, as the tempo quickens a bit. The orchestra becomes more active, and then the solo bass and English horn return. The movement leads without pause into the next.
Fast runs in the piano, harp, celesta and winds accompanied by rhythmic figures in the trombones, horns and drum set establish the upbeat mood of the second movement. The trumpets enter, and the music swings even more. These melodic and rhythmic ideas are developed, and then the texture thins for the entry of the soloist. The tempo slows down for a jazz section featuring low instruments and percussion. The soloist returns, and there is a beautiful tune in the trombone. The soloist, piano, drums and electric bass begin a vamp; the orchestra enters at a faster tempo, but the improvised vamp keeps going at its own speed. The groups come back together for a restatement of the opening of the movement. At the end there is another vamp at a separate tempo.
The third movement begins with a low alto flute melody accompanied by six string basses. The line moves to flute and then piccolos, now accompanied by the full string section. Eventually the soloist enters with a lyrical melody. Toward the end there is an improvised cadenza in harmonics for the solo bass, accompanied by flute and percussion.
Percussion start the slow introduction to the finale. The bass enters, playing quarter tones, accompanied by the brass instruments blowing air through their instruments to give a windlike sound. The fast part of the movement starts with the solo bass playing virtuosic runs. The orchestra swings. Then the texture thins for a passage featuring the soloist accompanied by percussion, piano, and electric bass. There is a reminiscence of the beginning of the first movement, followed by a brief passage in which "the pianist should accompany the soloist as one would accompany a singer in a nightclub." A virtuosic splash for the soloist, accompanied by the orchestra, ends the Concerto.
The Death of Desdemonafor Double Bass and Stereo Tape
The Death of Desdemona was composed in 1987. The work evolved out of experiments that I was conducting with a Synclavier Computer Music System. I played a few notes on the double bass and recorded "samples" of these pitches into the computer’s memory. I then "patched" together these notes creating an electronic "double bass" that could be played (triggered) from the system’s own (piano type) keyboard. Having done this I began playing little phrases just to see what the new "instrument" sounded like. Perhaps because I am a bassist myself one of the first phrases I played was the beginning of the famous double bass solo from Verdi’s Opera "Otello". It sounded quite good. In fact I was so pleased with the results that I immediately began mapping out a piece that would enable me to take advantage of this technology in a way that, at the time, was very different from what was typical.
One must realize that when working with a computer music system that has the power and sophistication of a Synclavier, the possibilities of timbre design and modification are almost limitless. While this may seem like a dream-come-true for the composer, it can also become a handicap if not used with a high degree of self-control. It is very easy to get so totally caught up in designing an ever growing palette of new and interesting sounds that one can forget that the reason we need and desire these new "instruments" is to interpret the music that we are supposed to be writing. Time and time again we’ve all encountered works that we considered wonderful examples of orchestration but failed to move us because underneath they were so lacking in musical substance. While this is a serious matter with all music, it is probably even more critical an issue when it comes to electronic music.
With this in mind I decided to challenge myself. My task would be:1: To compose a work for solo double bass and tape.
2: All of the sounds on the tape would be sounds that originated from the double bass.
3: The music would be a fantasia inspired by the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Othello and the fourth act of Verdi’s Opera Otello.
The result was that the timbres produced for the tape were created with the Synclavier Digital Music System. Every sound originated from the double bass. After the instrument was digitally sampled, the sounds were modified with various computer programs to create a wide variety of timbres, from mirror images of the instrument, to sounds totally alien to the original source. No synthesis was used.
Click to view or download a PDF sample of the Music
Fanfare for a Festive Occasion
The Fanfare for a Festive Occasion was commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for the grand opening of Riverbend, the summer home of the orchestra. The first performance was July 4, 1984.
The Fanfare was recorded by the Cincinnati Symphony and is used at Riverbend to signal the beginning of every concert that the Symphony and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra plays.
There are two versions of the Fanfare. The main one is scored for full orchestra and lasts about 1 minute and 30 seconds. The second version is scored for Brass and Percussion and lasts for 30 seconds.
Fantasy for Double Bass and Orchestra
by Jonathan Kramer
The Fantasy for Double Bass and Orchestra was commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra especially for François Rabbath to whom it is dedicated. Written in 1983, the first performances of the work were by Rabbath with the Houston Symphony conducted by Sergiu Comissiona on October 8 and 9, 1983.
The two movement Fantasy is scored for an orchestra of 2 flutes, with the 2nd player doubling piccolo and alto flute, harp, piano, a large percussion section and strings. Among the percussion instruments, the dombec (or tablas or similar hand drums) has a solo role that is largely improvised.
Although he had known François Rabbath playing for fifteen years, Proto first met him in 1978. "Upon learning that he was to be in Cincinnati for the International Society of Bassists’ Summer School, I wrote and asked if he would like to stay at my home during his visit. He accepted. Within a few hours of his arrival, I realized that a great deal of my thinking about the bass was about to be changed." As the friendship between the two artists grew, it became inevitable that Proto would compose for Rabbath.
The commissioning of the Fantasy was a result of the successful collaboration between Rabbath and Proto two years earlier (1981) - the Concerto No. 2 for Double Bass and Orchestra, a large, complex tour-de-force that has been described as ".....one of the most exciting, difficult and rewarding showpieces in the symphonic repertoire for a soloist and orchestra." Shortly after the performances of the work, Proto was asked by the Houston Symphony to write another work, of more modest scope.
Both works straddle the worlds of jazz and contemporary concert music. The Fantasy features, in its second movement, an extended improvisation with overtones of both jazz and Indian music. Actually, this improvisation is based on Rabbath’s composition Poucha Das. Such jazz-like passages contrast with other distinctly "straight" sections. The music becomes wonderfully fresh and alive in the hands of a soloist who is capable of playing and improvising beyond what is on the printed page. Both composer and performer participate equally in this music, to a greater extent than in traditional concertos. The music was composed in a spirit of improvisation, and performances should have the spontaneity of improvisation - in the exactly notated passages as well as in the free ones.
The Games of October for Oboe (+ English Horn) and Double Bass
During the fall of 1991 the U.S. was occupied with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. From my perspective it seemed that many of our national leaders were straining daily to reach new levels of ineffectiveness and incompetence. Committee members, all senior members of congress, brought disgrace not only upon themselves but upon the very institution that they were elected to serve. Encouraged by a President whose administration’s political and social agenda left little room for serious discussion of judicial philosophy, the hearings quickly deteriorated to a caricature of a supermarket tabloid.
It was at this time that I was ready to begin work on October. Like many others, I was completely wrapped up in the hearings, which were being broadcast daily in their entirety. I couldn’t keep them out of my mind even if I wanted to. The frustration and anger over the situation kept me from beginning, since I couldn’t seem to muster the concentration to come up with an overall plan for the work. I wanted to scream at those fourteen Senators who made up the Judiciary Committee (for a country that calls itself a "melting pot," it seems ironic that the Committee was made up entirely of white, mostly aging, males): "Why not do something for the good of your country first for a change, rather than the Party or your re-election campaign?!" Realities being what they are, screams such as these usually fall upon deaf ears. The thought then occurred to me: why not speak through the music? Rather than interfering with my work on the piece, perhaps this situation could act as the stimulant to get me started. This, then can be said to be my "scream."
In choosing the overall form and construction of October, I had to figure out how to accomplish what now turned out to be two goals. First, the production of a viable piece of music that could stand on its own merits. Second, to enunciate my thoughts on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings. I thought that if I had a written script to work from, it would at least help me to get started. I began by jotting down some of the statements and dialogue that I had heard while listening to the hearings; the questions of the Committee members and the responses of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. I then put them into a reasonably logical order and had what turned out to be a sketch for the first movement-Charges and Titillation. The next step was how to work the script into the music. Having one of the performers read it, which would seem to be the logical choice, was discarded from the start. For one thing the piece was not only to be written for just two players, but was to be a major work involving a high degree of technical and musical prowess from both. To have them occupied with anything else other than the music would be asking for trouble. Besides, it was too obvious.
After reading the "script" many times, I decided to make a literal translation of it by creating a strict relationship between the letters of the alphabet and the musical pitches. By following this correlation it is possible for one to "read" my script in its entirety.
The Games of October may be approached strictly as an abstract piece of music with no reference made to the program that I have outlined at all. I’ve given indications of tempo and feel throughout the score to make this practical. However, I think that a much more dramatic, emotionally intense performance will result if both players are more sufficiently aware of what they are "saying" as the piece progresses from start to finish.
The Games of October was commissioned by Ed and Peg Gilbert for Linda Gilbert and Paul Ellison. It is dedicated to the memory of Ed Gilbert.
Hamabe No Arashi
In February of 1990 Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Jesus Lopez - Cobos asked me to write a short piece to be used as an encore for the Orchestra’s 1990 tour of Japan. He asked for a "really American sounding, virtuoso orchestra piece with some jazz in it". In the course of our discussion I suggested that it might be interesting to quote or make use of some well - known Japanese folk song. He was warm to the idea so I set out looking for an appropriate tune. My requirements were 1: that the song be so familiar that it would be immediately recognizable to anyone of Japanese heritage and 2: it was the kind of melody that would adapt well to western harmonies. As luck would have it CSO regular, Mrs. Fumiko Tanaka introduced me to several songs that were good candidates. For me, the first choice was the beautiful Hamabe No Uta - "The song of the Seashore".
I set out to work in March. the only problem I thought I had was what to do about the "....jazz in it". I wasn’t sure exactly how far to go, so I played it safe and wrote a bright, pretty straight-forward piece, flavored - Arron Copeland style - with some jazz elements. I used Hamabe No Uta in a simple romantic style as a middle section, repeated the opening and added a coda to close. I was finished in less than a week and quite pleased with myself for coming in over two months ahead of deadline. Since I had finished so quickly and had some time on my hands I decided to synthesize a performance of the piece to play for Maestro Lopez - Cobos. It would be a lot easier for me than playing it on the piano and with the help of my Synclavier a lot more "orchestral sounding".
I looked forward to meeting with the Maestro to play him the new work. When the moment finally arrived I presented him with the score and put on a tape of the synthesized performance. I studied him as he listened and followed the score. When the 6 minute piece had finished he remarked, "It’s very nice, but too simple". I couldn’t believe it. "Simple" was one adjective that I have rarely heard when my music is described. I asked what he meant by simple. He said that for one thing he expected some jazz. I said, "wait a minute, do you mean jazz, jazz? The real thing? Rhythm section, IMPROVISING!? He said, "Yes!". He also said he also expected a lot more virtuoso orchestral writing. At this point I wanted to make sure that I was understanding him correctly so I played a tape of the finale of the suite from my ballet Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts. This piece pulls out all of the "jazz stops" in an orchestral setting. He said, "That’s what I want!"
The only solution was to start out from scratch again. Ordinarily I would not have been too happy at having to rewrite an entire piece. However in this case I was more than happy to do so. For one thing I knew that we had some really good jazz improvisers (trombonist Paul Piller and saxophonist Michael Andres) scheduled to play on tour with us. This, coupled with a good rhythm section made up of CSO regulars and what promised to be an ample amount of rehearsal time allowed me to throw caution to the wind and approach the new piece very differently. Rather than simply quote Hamabe No Uta or write a pretty arrangement of it I decided to utilize the melody, in various forms, throughout the piece. To those unfamiliar with the melody I’ll offer the following road map: After a rousing introduction, the song is introduced by the solo alto saxophone and immediately taken up by the strings in a fairly conventional manner. After that it’s time to swing!
Hambe No Arashi was given its first performance on October 25 in Gifu, Japan. It was subsequently performed in Nagoya, Tokyo, Osaka, Matsudo, Chiba and Miyazaki. To say I was a bit nervous before the first performance would be a huge understatement. Besides the usual butterflies that a composer experiences when a work is performed for the first time, I was worried about how the Japanese people would react to how I treated one of their most popular melodies. This was also to be an encore to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, not an easy act to follow. Now an encore is supposed to bring down the house at its conclusion. Polite applause simply won’t do. I was playing the piano for that first performance and I must admit I missed quite a few notes because I was busy looking at the audience to see if I could tell how they were taking it. Would they even recognize the tune? After the wild introduction I looked pleadingly into the audience as the opening strains of Hamabe No Uta slipped elegantly out of Michael’s alto saxophone. Was that a smile that I saw beginning to grow on that until now polka - faced man in the front row of the first balcony? Did his companion really turn to him and smile back? As I scanned the audience I began picking out more signs of recognition, especially as the first violins picked up the tune and began to sing. Great, they hear it! But what will they think about the next section? I really have to get my mind back on the music. I really shouldn’t keep watching the audience. The performance went well. In fact very well considering it was a premiere. A piece like this takes a few plays before it settles in, especially the jazz section. As the ending approached my mind raced. How would they respond? As the final chords decayed the applause erupted. Not the polite kind either. The house exploded as it was supposed to! By the way Hamabe No Arashi translates to "The Storm at the Seashore." After one hearing there shouldn’t be too many questions why.
Seasons - Sinfonia Concertante
for Tuba, Percussion, Flutes and
by Jonathan Kramer
The New Seasons owes its existence to a curious set of circumstances. Proto showed a score of his 1979 composition The Four Seasons to Maestro Jesus Lopez-Cobos, hoping for a performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The older piece is scored for tuba, percussion, strings, and electronic tape. The conductor was interested. But then Proto listened to a tape of the piece, which he had not heard or thought about for years. ’I decided that, since the opportunity had presented itself and all of the performers were in agreement, it would be much more interesting to write a new piece.’ Because the performance had already been scheduled and the soloists engaged, Proto was committed to writing The New Seasons for a similar ensemble.
There is no electronic tape in The New Seasons, nor are there any wind instruments other than flutes nor any brass. Yet the piece is extraordinarily colorful. Proto’s vast experience as a string player has enabled him to imagine wonderful sonorities for his modest ensemble. Part of the timbral variety comes from the division of the instruments into what is essentially two orchestras, on the two sides of the stage (with the solo tuba and percussion out front). Each orchestra comprises first and second violins, violas, cellos, basses, and two flute players (who also play piccolo and alto flute), plus orchestral percussion (in addition to the percussion soloists. The score indicates that the two orchestras are to be seated to mirror one another. This spatial correspondence is translated into sound when the two ensembles answer each other in dialogue.
The music, darker than many of Proto’s compositions, features extreme virtuosity in the tuba and, in the second movement, a solo cello accompanied by an improvising jazz bassist. The solo percussion players are also kept quite busy. Moods change rapidly, creating a kaleidoscopic and rhapsodic effect.
Although it utilizes only traditional orchestral instruments, The New Seasons is a product of the technological age. Proto composed it using his Synclavier, which is a dedicated computer that acts as both a synthesizer and a music copier. After composing the music, Proto played it into the Synclavier’s memory by means of a piano-like keyboard. He was then able to print out a beautifully produced score, a complete set of parts for the orchestral musicians, and - using digitally recorded orchestral sounds - a tape of the piece before it had even been performed. This tape may not have the presence, excitement, nuance, or subtlety of a true orchestral performance, but it provides a remarkably useful approximation of how the piece actually sounds. This tape proved useful for both conductor and soloists as they learned the piece. Proto views his use of technology as an aid to the composer, not as an influence on the music. It is analogous to a writer’s use of word processing and desktop publishing.
Ode to a Giant for Narrator and Double Bass
In September of 1992 I was asked to write a short piece that would serve as the required work for the solo double bass competition that was to be held by the International Society of Bassists during the summer of 1993. As often happens in situations such as these, one searches and waits, sometimes for the longest time, for an idea, a thought, perhaps a motif or theme to set the compositional process on its way. At the beginning of January 1993 I began thinking about what type of piece I would do. I was given some general guidelines by the ISB board members such as the approximate length and the level of technical prowess that the better contestants would probably possess. In all other matters I was left to my own devices.
On January 6, 1993 we lost one of the great musicians and indeed, statesmen of the past half century, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie. While I was fortunate to have played with him only a couple of times in my life, he left a lasting impression upon me that went far beyond just sitting in at a jam session, playing in concert or learning the "flat fives" and "sharp nines" of his tunes. His influence upon the musicians of not only his own generation but of each of those succeeding, continues to be felt today.
On that sad day my immediate thought was that I would like to do something, say something, to express my feelings, my thanks to Diz not only for being with us for those 75 years but for leaving with us a treasure-trove of both musical and non-musical riches. But what to do? How to say something meaningful? The answer to both of these questions turned out to be quite easy. Indeed, it was staring me right in the face. I had to compose this new piece for the ISB competition. Why not write something for Diz?
While Dizzy’s influence is felt mainly in the Jazz world, I believe that he - along with many other innovators that have helped so much to give the U.S. a unique musical voice - should be lauded for his contribution to our artistic temperament as a whole, not just those areas for which he is best known.
One of my pet peeves is that even today as I write these words, our music schools and conservatories are still segregating students by musical styles. The most talented students are given intensive training in developing techniques that prepare them extraordinarily well for the performance of "serious" music rooted in the 18th or 19th century. However in musical matters beyond these borders things deteriorate rapidly. It’s both amazing and pathetic that a young (and not-so-young) instrumentalist might do a respectable job sitting in an orchestra playing a Mozart or Brahms Symphony, or in a chamber music ensemble playing a Beethoven Trio, a Schubert Quintet or even Hindemith Sonata. But ask that same player to play in a large Ellington, Basie or Gil Evans type of ensemble or perhaps a smaller group like those of Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan or Max Roach, and you’d be greeted with shock. Even leaving out the entity of improvisation, cries of "I can’t play jazz!" would resound off the far corners of the room.
Oh yes, many of our conservatories now have Jazz departments. And some, judging by some of the fine players that have emerged from them, are beginning to do a credible job. However, while many of these players are stylistically comfortable with Ellington, Basie, Gillespie, etc. most would find themselves in deep trouble with Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
With these thoughts in mind, I drew up a rough set of guidelines for myself to follow while putting the piece together. Being a competition, the applicants had to be given the usual technical challenges-fast playing, expressive playing, double stops, harmonics, etc. I decided however, that the biggest challenges that I would issue would be musical ones. I wanted to craft a piece in which the contestants would be forced to explore beyond the notes on the printed page. Since this was to be the required work for the "classical" contestants (there was a separate competition for jazz players. The I.S.B. segregates just as well as our conservatories!) what a great opportunity to try to find a player who could not only play all of the notes, with great technical flair, sound and intonation, but one capable of looking deeper into the music, to find out where the inspiration might have come from. While following these guidelines I had to, at the same time, keep in mind that this piece was my salute, my testimonial, my parting words to Dizzy.
I didn’t have to think about it too long. I decided that I would try to invoke an ambience of Dizzy within the atmosphere of the piece. Without overtly using any melodies that Diz was associated with, would it be possible to create a feeling of his musical presence? More importantly, would any of the contestants be able to feel his presence just by studying and playing the music-without having read these program notes or communicated with me? Happily, the answers to these questions were positive. Once the initial idea came, the piece was finished in a few days. Of the contestants in the competition only three realized what I was up to, and one of them-Rick Vizachero-won the first prize.
The original version of the (competition) piece was for solo bass without the poetry. Ode to a Giant is a revised version of that work. During the summer of 1993 I met the talented American Poet John Chenault. Having similar feelings as I about Dizzy, he crafted the moving text which is published as part of the edition.
The Voyage That Johnny Never Knew
by Larry Dickson
Frank Proto’s The Voyage That Johnny Never Knew, written in 1990, offers some imaginative orchestral variations on the classic American folk song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." It is meant to be a musical voyage of sorts, one that takes the listener to a variety of tonal landscapes. According to the composer, "Johnny begins at home and visits some familiar places including Italy, Germany and even Baghdad before returning home via Hollywood." The piece is characterized by an impressive array of orchestral colors; dramatic passages featuring certain sections of the ensemble, including oboes and English horn, percussion and brass; a lovely cello solo, which makes an effective contrast when bracketed by the robust symphonic textures preceding and following it; and an overall sense of fun, a musical vigor that is often associated with Proto’s program music. The composer has said that "musically, this piece is intended to be a good time both for the audience and the performers. If it is played with the style and energy that it demands, it should put a smile on the face of both the hardened serious music listener and the regular pops devotee."
The composition opens with mysterioso effects created by flutes and vibraphone, a plaintive trumpet and thick minor chords from the winds. The percussion section lays down a quasi-military rhythm suggesting the more traditional associations with this old American song. But a quick turn of musical events moves the listener to the Middle East as oboes and English horn take up their exotic version of the folk melody.
One of the more amusing passages of this musical "voyage" is the lively Tarantella which follows. The vigorous interplay between the first and second violins pushes the melody in unexpected directions and the zestful Italian twist is a pure delight to hear. Then French horns announce a brassy fanfare accompanied by forceful percussion. After a flourish of woodwinds, the solo cello plays an extended cadenza which leads to a brief waltz passage, as a gentle harp accompaniment is added.
This quiet waltz is followed by a woodwind interlude, after which a strident fanfare of chromatic brass signals still another change of musical scene. With its strong echoes of Wagner, this new section is marked in the score as "Tempo di Walkure." Somehow the melody of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," now carried in the brass section, seems completely natural in this Germanic setting. If Johnny is returning from war, he’s wearing a helmut with horns in Proto’s version. The American composer Charles Ives, ever the experimenter, in his Second Symphony felt free to quote from Wagner’s Walkure as well as a number of well-known American folk songs, so possibly it is not such a stretch from Ives’ use of "Turkey in the Straw" (or "Yankee Doodle" in his Fourth Symphony) to Proto’s transformation of "Johnny."
A percussive interlude of snare drum, field drum and tympani precedes an interaction of piccolo and flute, and gradually the orchestra builds to the concluding grandioso, where the theme is given the full Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer treatment. This splashy finale signals a spectacular end to a memorable symphonic journey.
The Voyage That Johnny Never Knew was composed between December 1989 and January 1990. The work is a set of unusual variations on the old folk tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
Traditionally, when creating a group of new variations on a well-known tune, we usually hear the original melody presented first in a style that is so familiar to that tune that it can’t possibly be mistaken for anything but what it is. With this "voyage" it is quite possible for an inattentive listener not to recognize the original melody until the very last variation of the piece, since it is not until then that Johnny is finally played in a setting that is stylistically, at least close to what we are used to hearing.
Johnny’s voyage takes him to places that seem familiar but more often than not in an unconventional way. After a quiet introduction a soft solo snare drummer is heard in the distance. What seems like a military mood is set up by the low brass and violas with the horns and celli playing the tune for the first time. Is this the Johnny that we are all expecting? Not quite.
After a short shout by the full orchestra we arrive at our first port of call. But where are we? Is it Beirut? Or could it be Baghdad? We’ll let the oboes and English horn help you to decide.
Our next stop is surely one that we’ll recognize. This Tarantella which pits the first and second violin sections against each other could take place in Napoli or Rome.
The following two locations (variations) which are combined into one are not so easy to locate. One is a fanfare featuring the brass section. The other starts with a cadenza for the solo cello and ends with a romantic waltz-like section before returning to the fanfare, this time featuring the woodwind section.
There will be no doubt as to Johnny’s next stop. With apologies to Wagner, I just couldn’t resist. After Johnny’s bout with the Valkyries a short interlude by the percussion section sets up his final march home.
Johnny’s voyage is intended to be an orchestral show-piece but at the same time one that is good fun for the listener. Is it too demanding for a pops concert? Too light for a subscription? Perhaps for some. But if it is played with the style, vigor and energy that it demands, it should put a smile on the face of both the hardened serious music listener and the regular pops devotee.
String Quartet No. 1 - 1977
Program note by Nancy Malitz
Few contemporary American composers are comfortable with the thoroughly American traditions of jazz and pop music, but Proto, a bassist, has been straddling the classical and popular worlds since he was a child.
A member of the Cincinnati Symphony since 1966, Proto has had his own jazz ensembles and has been writing music for both groups for years. There was a time, not too long ago, only a few symphony musicians - usually bassists and percussionists - were comfortable with the jazz idiom, but Proto has seen that change. Although few classically trained musicians actually improvise, many now recognize a Count Basie lick when they see one, and some can approach one of Proto’s melodies with the stylistic understanding they have when they read Mozart.
Although this is Proto’s first quartet, it is not his first attempt to mingle American traditions which have influenced him since childhood. His Concerto No. 1 for Double Bass and Orchestra (1968), which has been described by critics as "a contemporary classic," draws upon the bass’ legitimate position in both classical and jazz worlds, as do his Nebula, for Bass, Piano and Tape (1975), his Trio for Violin, Viola and Bass (1974) and his Sonata 1963 for Bass and Piano. His concertos for cello and for percussion are also infused with elements of the American folk, rock and jazz cultures.
The Quartet begins with a tornado of ferocity - great sweeping scales and swirling sonorities - but within seconds there is a hint of the rhythmic punctuation that signifies the foot-tapping world jazz. The first movement includes some use of the human voice, not as a separate instrument, but as a coloristic device - to add "Croon" to the chords above which one instrument or another plays a quasi-improvisational line. At times the cello is asked to play quasi high-hat and drum rhythms - Proto gets a good effect by asking the cellist to use a pencil instead of a bow on the strings and to vary the pitch just a bit by sliding the finger gradually along the fingerboard. Later, the cello plays something akin to a jazz break, a link between sections like a cadenza, with the other instruments playing remote high harmonics.
There are three movements, played without pause. The first dies into the second on an extended pianissimo. The middle movement is changeable, but primarily contemplative. Proto’s colors are unusually varied, are there is marvelous opportunity for each instrument to develop lingering, improvisatory lines. The finale holds a genuine 12-bar blues built upon an uneven beat pattern (13/8). It is broadly, wholeheartedly treated, but the movement also contains the sudden shifts between contemporary jazz and quasi-rock idioms that characterize the entire quartet. The work embraces these American traditions without apology, enriching one tradition with the rhythms, the colors and the techniques of the others.
The String Quartet No. 1 was commissioned for The Blair Quartet by the Blair School of Music in Nashville. The work has been performed internationally as well as recorded by the Blair Quartet. Their recording was awarded a Recording of Special Merit by Stereo Review. In 1982 the composition was chosen by National Public Radio to represent the U.S. at the International Rostrum of Composers/UNESCO meeting in Paris.
Program note by John Stevens and Jonathan Kramer
The Trio for Violin, Viola and Double Bass was written for three former members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; violinist Larrie Howard, violist Mary Olson and the composer, bassist Frank Proto.
The three friends had been playing string trios together just for fun and relaxation for some time when they were asked by David Thompson, then an announcer at radio station WGUC to record a Music Cincinnati 1 hour chamber music concert. Since most of the repertoire that they had been playing was originally composed for violin, viola and cello or 2 violins and cello, they thought that it would be nice if they had at least one piece that was written expressly for their combination.
In looking at the few pieces that, at the time, were available that included the bass rather than a cello they couldn’t find anything that they thought would compliment the other repertoire that they were planning to perform on the program. After some discussion the three decided that Frank should compose a new piece for the ensemble and that the premiere performance would be on a Music Cincinnati program in July of 1974. Since it’s publication the work has been performed hundreds of times worldwide.
As his large number of works for orchestra indicates, Proto likes big sounds. But how does a composer who prefers full sonorities compose for just a trio of three string instruments? One way is by thinking not of three individual sound-producers, but of twelve, each instrument (violin, viola and bass) has four strings, and often several of them are vibrating at once to produce rich textures and full-bodied counterpoint. Since Proto understands string instruments intimately, he knows how to get several of those strings sounding at once. Thus the Trio abounds in double, triple, and quadruple-stops (respectively, two, three and four-note chords played by individual instruments) and also in polyphony — separate melodies played simultaneously on each instrument.
Each of the Trio’s three movements has a particularly interesting middle section. In the rhapsodic first movement, there is an incessant repetition of a dissonant note pair (actually played nearly five hundred times in succession!) While the violin continues this obsessive repetition, the other instruments play sometimes incisively, sometimes freely (the bass part is partially improvised). The second movement’s middle section is marked slow 4 — quasi funk. The mixture of Italian and English in this label corresponds to the combination of jazz-like licks in the bass with more "legit" playing styles in the other instruments. This passage leads to a violin cadenza, accompanied by (but not coordinated with) a bass improvisation. The violin solo in the middle section of the third movement is marked Blues: sempre non vibrato. Here Proto creates a fascinating sonority, as he asks the violin to play its tune consistently on two strings, sounding at first in unison and later in octaves. This section continues with a solo bass improvisation based on a twelve—bar blues progression.
Quintet for Piano and Strings - 1983
Program note by William Schrickel
The Quintet for Piano and Strings was commissioned by The Minneapolis Artists Ensemble. They played the first performance on April 8, 1984 at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The score is dedicated to them.
This quintet is cast in three movements, the last two of which are linked. The first movement opens with a viola cadenza that is alternately lyrical and dramatic. The entire ensemble enters, and a mysterious, volatile dialogue between piano and strings ensues. The piano and double bass usher in a faster, jazzy central section with the viola providing a driving ostinato rhythm. Echoes of Count Basie can be felt in the swinging piano lines. The momentum of this allegro is abruptly halted, and a muted recapitulation of the opening tutti leads to a short coda which evaporates in a descending pizzicato flourish.
The second movement is in modified arch form. The opening features the four strings in unison alternating with a contemplative solo piano. A cello cadenza follows, derived from the viola cadenza which opened the first movement. A violin solo serves as a link to the central section (Dances 1 and 2). The core of the movement pits the strings (in rhythmic unison) against the piano, and this violent interplay is contrasted with several more playful sections. The arch is completed with another solo in the violin which leads back to the hushed dialogue between piano and strings.
The material which led to the cello cadenza in the second movement now introduces the double bass solo which opens the third movement. Ruminating on ideas from the opening viola cadenza, the bass progresses from a subdued initial pronouncement to a dramatic lyrical statement. A short, violent bridge leads into a long central allegro section. A syncopated solo for the piano and an abbreviated recapitulation lead to the propulsive, insistent coda.
A successful performance of this work depends upon achieving the delicate balance between mastering the music’s technical difficulties and performing it with the requisite feelings of ease and improvisation.