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Nashville Nylon: The Cumberland Concerto for Guitar and Strings
by Roger Hudson
There is so much American music in Nashville. Living in Nashville has been an inspiration for me in that I have become more honest about my own American musical roots. However, before any stereotypical sounds and images come to mind, we sometimes need a reminder that the Nashville of today is not merely a playground for Telecasters and Martin D-28s. The diverse music that emanates from Nashville can have far-reaching influences on the music world as a whole.
For a guitarist and composer like me, Nashville has a multitude of tools available to convert ideas to reality. The nylon-string guitar is the primary tool I use, so I was flattered when Dr. William Yelverton of Middle Tennessee State University commissioned a guitar concerto for classic guitar from me to be premiered with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Little did I know that this Nashville-born concerto would eventually be performed in Europe.
An American in Nashville
Much of the world seems to love American music of all types. It is sometimes perplexing to observe that while many European composers have freely and proudly borrowed from their respective folk traditions (and sometimes American traditions), many American composers seem ashamed or are perhaps incapable of communicating a sense of Americana in their own music. American composers that come to mind as exceptions to this phenomenon are Gershwin, Bernstein, Copeland and Ives. It's no accident that these artists are regarded as among America's most famous composers because they were true to their roots - not in spite of them.
Taking a Cue
If I were still in college, then I might have set about writing a concerto that would please my instructors. If I were trying to tap into a more typical Nashville marketing scheme, perhaps I would have written a Concerto for Telecaster and Orchestra. (Maybe that's not a bad idea!). However being a musician who was brought up on folk and popular music and trained in classical music, the most natural approach for me is to draw from my experiences. Although this may appear as a simplistic revelation, I believe sincerity drawn from experience is the most direct way to communicate with an audience. Audiences often sense sincerity more keenly than any other quality an artist may possess. So when writing the Cumberland Concerto for Guitar and Strings, I figured I would take a cue from America's most successful composers and write from a personal perspective.
Getting to Work
Like most endeavors, getting started can be the hardest part. From the onset, it is important to set guidelines in any project. Sometimes the guidelines can be taken directly from a successful historical example. One of the guidelines that I set for myself was that I write the Cumberland as a guitar concerto by Roger Hudson - not as the guitar concerto by Roger Hudson. I intend to write more guitar concertos. So, with that in mind, I didn't feel the pressure to write a long epic such as Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Instead, I took as my structural model a different European source - the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi. My classical education tempts me to "steal from the best". Vivaldi's concertos are short and can be adapted to various string ensembles. His musical language tends to be concise and not long-winded or grandiose. Vivaldi's concertos are practical. I figured that Vivaldi must have known what he was doing. His concertos are probably performed more than Rodrigo's Aranjuez simply because they can be effectively performed with either a string trio or a string orchestra. In addition, Vivaldi's concertos are not particularly difficult for the soloist or the string orchestra.
From Vivaldi I took structural and basic design cues. I was then free to consider style and content. I certainly was not going to copy Vivaldi's Baroque style! After some thought I was drawn to the idea of fiddle playing - an obvious choice you might say - considering that I live in Nashville. I decided, however, not to use any existing folk melodies that might be recognized. One of the important things that I have learned about myself over the years is that I tend to process my influences pretty readily into my own style. I suppose this is a good quality for a composer, but perhaps not so good for a session player.
Finishing the Work
Thankfully, once I really dug into the Cumberland Concerto (the title came later) I wrote it pretty quickly. As the first and third movements were written first, they are similar in personality. Bill Yelverton was anxious to try his fingers on these and he seemed pretty pleased once he did. The second movement was a bit of a harder sell. Since the first and third were in an extroverted fiddle tune style, they were easy to comprehend. The second movement was an enigma to Bill. All he really had to go on was a MIDI playback version; which did not translate the mood very well at all.
Here is where the roles of composer and performer are delineated. In my mind's ear I knew what it was to sound like and wanted the second movement to contrast with the first and third movements. Bill wanted to trust me but at the same time he was commissioning the work and intended to premiere and eventually record it. He wanted it to be good. I wanted it to be good. I didn't want to change it, and he eventually let me have my way. "Too many cooks in the kitchen…"
The Nashville Premiere: "It's Cool"
In the spring of 2002, Bill Yelverton was scheduled to premiere the concerto with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra during one of their guitar festivals. As the time of the festival drew nearer, there seemed to be some confusion as to whether or not the Cumberland Concerto was slated to be premiered at all with the NCO. The festival was to feature several Nashville guitarists performing in various locations around the city on different nights, including Phil Keaggy, Brent Mason, John Jorgensen, Muriel Anderson, Pete Huttlinger and others.
Considering the star-studded lineup of performers, I certainly did not expect that my new concerto would be placed very high on the NCO's priority list. While the other performers and their programs would guarantee audience approval, the premiere of a new concerto by a relatively unknown American composer was a risky proposition.
There was a rehearsal the day before the scheduled performance. In attendance were the NCO's string quintet, conductor Paul Gambill, Bill Yelverton, and festival coordinator John Knowles. At the rehearsal I got the impression that it was unlikely that all three movements would be performed. I did, however, feel that the decision-makers wanted it to be performed, at least in part, and so were in my corner. I really hadn't done much to earn their respect. I did not have a long, celebrated, Grammy Award-winning career that would redeem me in case my concerto was not well received. I was just another guitar player in Nashville who happened to know how to write out guitar music and string parts.
Rehearsals can be somewhat stressful, especially when musicians of a high level find themselves in unfamiliar circumstances. As the parts were handed out to the string players, I watched as each one scanned the music for obvious mistakes and playability. I kept a low profile. I wondered what they were thinking- maybe something like, "I didn't know guitar players could read music - much less write it." Likewise, what I was thinking was along the lines of, "This music isn't that hard, I hope they don't butcher it." It was a crucial moment. After answering some minor questions regarding the score, Bill, Paul and the quintet began rehearsing the piece. There is really nothing as exciting for a composer as hearing his/her creation being performed for the first time by competent musicians. After the final chord of the first movement all that I remember hearing was Paul Gambill's pronouncement, "It's cool!"
The next night the premiere of the Cumberland Concerto for Guitar and Strings was realized. All three movements were performed and the audience's response was enthusiastic. I felt that I had earned some measure of respect - a "feather in my hat".
European Premiere: "Famous in Romania"
The typical life of a new work by a young composer is depressingly short. Usually the premiere performance is mediocre and the piece is never heard again. Although the NCO and Bill's premiere of my piece was not "perfect" by any means, it certainly was not a poor performance but rather an energizing one. So I was happy when Bill informed me of his plans to perform and record the concerto in Romania with the Black Sea Philharmonic. This "second chance" gave me some time to make some minor revisions and also gave Bill some time to learn the piece better. I was also afforded the luxury of meeting a few times with Nashville conductor Carol Nies.
Once Bill, Carol and some colleagues had arrived in Romania I began hearing reports about the progress of the rehearsals. Apparently the Romanians really liked the piece but were at a loss as to how to describe the style. These are the kinds of comments most composers welcome - a combination of attraction and mystery. A few days before the concert in Constanza, Bill informed me that the Romanians had decided that the style was "Celtic". Considering my heritage, I accepted the association. Of course, the Celtic label is fitting in that the Appalachian fiddle style that I drew inspiration from has Old World roots. After the performance, Bill described the vibrant reaction of the Romanian audience and humorously suggested that this Nashville composer was "famous in Romania".
All the best,
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