Opus number: 35

Title: Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Instrumentation: violinist/narrator and piano

Date written: 1991, Boston

Length: seventeen minutes

Commissioner and dedicatee: Joanna Jenner

Premiere performance: Joanna Jenner, violinist/narrator, Larry Bell, pianist, Bennington College Chamber Music Conference and Composers’ Forum of the East, August 1, 1992, Bennington, Vermont

Important subsequent performances: Joanna Jenner, violinist/narrator, Larry Bell, pianist, Boston Conservatory, October 20,1992; Greenwich House in New York, October 22, 1992.

Recordings: Joanna Jenner, violinist/narrator, Larry Bell, pianist, recording  for WGBH-FM Boston; tape at Boston Conservatory; CD recording in progress

Program notes:  Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is based on an essay of the same title by Lewis Thomas. The work was commissioned by and is dedicated to the violinist Joanna Jenner, who requested an unusual composition in which the violinist would also speak as a narrator. The work can also be performed with a separate narrator. The first-person text I selected deals with the long and fearful shadow cast by the threat of nuclear annihilation, a prospect of death of not only the earth and all of mankind but also a “second death” of all that has ever been known and experienced. The essay makes frequent reference to music and I have incorporated several quotations. The work is based on the opening measures of the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: These measures act as the basis for continuous variations whose effect is unrelieved conflict.

Reviews: “Composer-pianist Larry Bell has been on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory since 1980; his annual new-music recital has been a tradition there for nearly a decade, and last year he was chosen to write a piano quartet to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Conservatory. Outside the school, a number of leading artists and institutions have performed his music over the years, notably the Juilliard Quartet and the Seattle Symphony.

“Recently Bell seems to be trying to up the ante a little. Tuesday evening three prominent New York free-lance players, all of them members of the popular conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and pianist Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta joined him for an all-Bell program at the Conservatory, which is being repeated in New York tonight.

“There was a good crowd in Seully Hall, which was a good thing; if that resonant space is not full, you emerge, tingling, at concert’s close, knowing how the clapper in the bell must feel at 11 o-clock of a sunday morning.

“There were four works on the program, the most challenging of which was the first, which dates back to 1983. ‘The Fantasia on an Imaginary Hymn’ for viola and cello was commissioned by Joel Kronsick of the Juilliard Quartet. Less a dialogue than two simultaneous, mediated monologues, the piece mediates [sic] on a hymn-like tune that is never fully stated, but it is clearly a hymn that has left the bound covers of a book and entered the folk-culture; the twists, turns and swings of its hamonies and rhythms are subjects of the simultaneous twofold meditation. The performance by violist Sarah Clarke and cellist Eric Bartlett was excellent, and persuasive.

“This was followed by something odd, ‘Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,’ for violin and piano; the violinist doubles as a narrator, speaking a text adapted from an essay by Lewis Thomas. There is a great tradition in music of spoken text with musical accompaniment, the melodrama, but the idea of a violinist who speaks as she plays must be new.” Richard Dyer, The  Boston Globe, October 22, 1992 “A mixed all-Bell program at the Boston Conservatory”