River of Ponds


(N/S R 1018)

The Black Cat
Fantasia on an Imaginary Hymn
River of Ponds

Featuring Eric Bartlett, cello
with Robert J. Lurtsema, narrator
Sarah Clarke, viola
Larry Bell, piano


River of Ponds (#1018)
Larry Bell – The Black Cat, Caprice for solo cello, Fantasia on an imaginary Hymn, River of Ponds

The Black Cat harkens back to the monodrama made popular in the nineteenth century by such Liszt melodramas as Der Traurige Monch. Richard Strauss’ later monodrama Enoch Arden, recorded by Claude Reins and Glenn Gould, helped inspire my adaptation of the ghost-story setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s familiar tale of murder and madness.
I augment the monodrama’s typical narrator-and-piano instrumentation to include a cello. The cello represents the cat; the piano portrays the man telling the story and also sets the climate for the individual scenes. The cello has its own leitmotifs, for example, the tritone glissando that mimics a “meow” similar to the effect found in Ravel’s animal opera. The music is based on the opening melody in G-sharp minor (frequently necessitating the F double-sharp scull-and-crossbones on the page). Although the narrator’s part is not notated musically, I carefully connected the words with the accompanying music. Poe’s characteristic blend of the horrible and the ordinary is not without moments of humor – after all, a grown man is driven crazy by an innocent small animal!

The Black Cat (1987) was commissioned by and is dedicated to cellist Eric Bartlett, who, along with the composer, is a cat lover.Caprice for solo cello was written in 1978 and is dedicated to Scot Williams. The piece consists of several basic character types that are at first presented separately and then later in combination. The juxtaposition of these cross-cut strands of music produces a kind of ironic counterpoint of characters; hence the title Caprice.The Fantasia on an Imaginary Hymn for cello and viola was commissioned by Joel Chronic for his 1983-84 six-concert series at Juilliard and the Library of Congress entitled “The Cello: A Twentieth-Century American Restropective.” The work was composed at the American Academy in Rome in 1983. The New York and Washington premieres were played by Krosnick and Samuel Rhodes in March 1984. Later the Fantasia was played on concerts of the Juilliard String Quartet. Eric Bartlett and Sarah Clarke gave the Fantasia its Boston and European premieres.

In an interview with Perry Goldstein, Krosnick says of this piece: “Larry Bell has organized his serial structures in diatonic ways – that is, with the same building blocks with which traditional tonal music is made. Rhythmically, however, and in terms of its polyphony, it is contemporary in its complexity and careful detailing. The two instruments in Larry’s piece often represent two different characters, juxtaposing different kinds of music simultaneously, much like in the Carter Sonata. And yet, the organization of the materials and the materials themselves clearly come from the emotional world of Larry Bell. The music is often lyrical, sweet, playful – quite American sounding, containing the lilt of Southern folk music.”River of Ponds was completed in 1986 at the American Academy in Rome and was commissioned by and dedicated to Joel Krosnick and Gilbert Kalish. The tile itself is drawn from a series of painting called “River of Ponds” by Frank Stella. Stella was the Painter-in-Residence at the AAR during my Rome Prize Fellowship (1982-83).

The underlying theme of Stella’s River of Ponds is a reflection upon his own childhood and the fishing trip he took with his father. The movement titles of River of Ponds -“Black Creek,” “Wyatt Earp’s Pond,” and “Silver Lake” – refer to my memories of childhood in North Carolina.

The first piece, “Black Creek,” is based on an original melody. This melody first occurs as a vague recollection from the past. 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.

“Wyatt Earp’s Pond'” is a nickname given to a fishing hole near where I grew up. 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.

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, driving, and usually grouped in rhythmic units of seven. The recurrence of both themes suggest a rondo finale.

Larry Bell


Bell Tones for Cello (CD review)

Larry Bell . River of Ponds [ The Black Cat. Caprice for Solo Cello. Fantasia on an Imaginary Hymn. River of Ponds ]. Eric Bartlett, Robert J. Lurtsema, Sarah Clarke, Larry Bell . North/South Recordings.

How else can one describe the mellow baritone of Boston radio personality Robert J. Lurtsema narrating The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe to Larry Bell’s lithesome cello/piano music (performed by Eric Bartlett and the composer) but as… Haunting?Bewitching? Sinister? Vivid? Dramatically appropriate? All of the above, and the frequent F-double-sharps on the page (skull and crossbones — ha! ha!) add to the effect. Lurtsema’s booming morning pro musica voice doesn’t hurt either (the narrator a composer himself with songs, a film score, chamber pieces, and a bassoon quartet adapted for Julia Child among his credits). But the line, “I buried an ax in her brain” certainly does. Ouch. But the music remains considerably less painful — quoth the reviewer: downright beautiful. Bell has a Southern tone to his writing, touching on American folk tunes and hymns, even quoting “The Old Rugged Cross” in the third movement of his River of Ponds , the title selection on this North/South recording. Throughout, Bartlett and Bell perform blazingly. And the solo cello Caprice and duet Fantasia on an Imaginary Hymn (where the cellist is nicely joined by violist Sarah Clarke) come off very fine as well.

Mark Alburger- 21st Century Music

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