RIVER OF PONDS (1986) Op.25

Opus number: 25

Title: River of Ponds

Instrumentation: cello and piano

Date written: 1985, London, American Academy in Rome

Length: twenty-five minutes

Commissioner and dedicatee: Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish

Premiere performance: Bruce Coppock, cellist, Randall Hodgkinson, pianist, Boston Chamber Music Society, April 29, 1988

Important subsequent performances: Andrés Díaz, cellist, Larry Bell, pianist, Jordan Hall, Boston, February 10, 1994; Eric Bartlett, cellist, Larry Bell, pianist, St. Stephens Church, New York, February 22, 1998, National Association of Composers USA (NACUSA) concert; Boston Conservatory, April 10, 1998; Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens, New York, May 15, 1998. Pamela Frame, cellist, Robert Weirich, pianist (Silver Lake movement), March 23, 1996, Eastman School of Music, Kilbourn Hall, Rochester, New York; Eric Bartlett, cello, and Lary Bell, pianist, April 10, 1998, The Boston Conservatory, and January 17, 2002, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.

Recordings: Eric Bartlett, cellist, Larry Bell, pianist, North/South Recordings #1018; Andrés Díaz, cellist, Larry Bell, pianist, for WGBH-FM in Boston; New England Conservatory Firestone library

Program notes:

I. Black Creek

II. Wyatt Earp’s Pond

III. Silver Lake

“River of Ponds” was completed in the summer of 1986 at the American Academy in Rome and was commissioned by and dedicated to Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish. Title itself is drawn from a series of paintings by Frank Stella, who was the Painter-in-Residence at the AAR during my Rome Prize Fellowship.

The underlying theme of Stella’s “River of Ponds” is a reflection upon his own childhood and the fishing trips he made with his father. The movement titles of my “River of Ponds”–”Black Creek,” “Wyatt Earp’s Pond,” and “Silver Lake”–also refer to my memories of childhood in North Carolina. In order to evoke childhood memories, it seemed to me important to write music that would evoke a specific time and place.

The first piece, “Black Creek,” is based on an original melody. This melody first occurs as a vague recollection from the past and the center of the movement contains a clear presentation of this theme as a vivid memory. The end of the movement dissolves as it began. G major and B major are contrasting tonal areas that grow out of the intervals of the theme itself. “Black Creek” is the name of a small town near where I grew up and the first house that I remember living in, in Lucama, NC, was on Black Creek Road.

“Wyatt Earp’s Pond” is a nickname given to a fishing hole practically within sight of where I went to high school. This title has a humorous connotation and the movement could be thought of as a scherzo; a scherzo with two trios. In the trios the hymn tune “Softly and tenderly” is quoted. All of the music in those movement, including the hymn tune, is based on what I would call “interval themes;” that is, there are four themes and each one contains three intervals that exhaust the supply of twelve possible intervals.

The last movement, “Silver Lake,” is a double variation form. The first theme is similar to the old hymn tune “The Old Rugged Cross,” stated in a slow and somewhat grandiose manner. The second theme is drawn from the first movement; however here the theme is dance-like and driving usually grouped in rhythmic units of seven. The recurrence of both themes suggests a rondo finale.

Reviews: [recording] “The other big work, River of Ponds for cello and piano, was inspired by Frank Stella’s series of paintings with that title. Here Bell produces reminiscences of his boyhood in three movements named after fishing holes of his youth. Hymn tunes show up in the second and third movement with the third movement being a double variation on The Old Rugged Cross. The juxtaposition of the famous hymn tune with what sounds a bit like Schroeder’s jazzy Beethoven (from the Peanutstelevision cartoons) is very entertaining. There is one place in the last movement where the music appears to get stuck rather the way a phonograph needle would periodically stick when playing a record, which is out-and-out funny.

“The performances center around Eric Bartlett, a member of both the New York Philharmonic and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The recorded sound is very good. This is a fine release.” –John Story, Fanfare May/June 1999

“Larry Bell, who holds the doctorate from Juilliard, has won a long list of prizes and grants, and teaches at the New England Conservatory. This disc offers four compositions which differ widely in moood and performing forces.  . . . River of Ponds derives its title from a series of paintings by Frank Stella. Bell states that ‘the underlying theme . . . is a reflection of his own childhood and the fishing trips he took with his father.’ Special interest and insight are present when the composer participates in the performance–in this case, Bell is piano accompanist.

“The music once again combines traditional and modern sounds–an intriguing and satisfying union. The performances are first-rate (Bartlett is Acting Associate Principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic). It is exciting to find new and rewarding literature for cello!” –Jocelyn Mackey, Pan Pipes, Fall 1999

“The longest and most enjoyable piece is River of Ponds,  a three-movement sonata evoking fishing trips taken by the composer and his father in North Carolina. For some reason this work manages to evoke the images that other works only hint at: it is really quite beautiful, humorous in places, and basically a positive experience.” –David W. Moore, American Record GuideVol. 63, No. 3 May/June 2000

           River of Ponds dates from 1986. The title is drawn from a series of paintings called River of Ponds by Frank Stella, one of which aptly adorns the cover of this release. The composer mentions that the titles of the three movements of the piece refer to his childhood in North Carolina. Black Creek is based on a folk-like, though original melody. The second movement Wyatt Earp’s Pond (a nickname given to a fishing hole near where the composer grew up) is actually a Scherzo with two trios, the latter quoting a hymn tune. The concluding Silver Lake is some sort of varied Rondo partly based on material from the first movement. A substantial piece of tuneful, warmly lyrical cello writing with a hint of Americana sometimes calling Copland to mind.

Larry Bell’s music is contemporary, though very tuneful and warmly lyrical, and – above all – very accessible. Eric Bartlett who enjoys a long association with Bell’s music is a dedicated performer in these fine works, and the composer is obviously also a very fine pianist. A very fine, enjoyable release on all counts. -Hubert Culot, MusicWeb.uk, (Jan. 2003)


Reviews: [performance] “The two most appealing were from the pen of Larry Bell: ‘River of Ponds’ for cello and piano and String Quartet No. 2. The former takes its title from a series of paintings by Frank Stella, who was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome at the same time as Bell, but it also refers to places and memories of the composer’s childhood in North Carolina. Consisting of three parts, two of them incorporating hymn tunes and the third based on an original melody that turns up throughout the work, it is a solid, old-fashioned piece of writing.” –Arthur Hepner, The Boston Globe (May 2, 1988)