Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evan Kuhlmann talks about his compositions

Evan Kuhlmann's arrangement of Richard Strauss' "Don Juan" for eight musicians is one of the featured works in tonight's special concert for donors to the Oregon Symphony. Kuhlmann plays contrabassoon in the orchestra's woodwind section.

I asked him about his composition for this evening's concert, and our email exchange follows:

What led you to arrange a Richard Strauss piece? Do you have a special interest in his music?

Kuhlmann: Partially, I just wanted to see if it would work! I was inspired in part by Franz Hasenohrl's "Till Eulenspiegel Einmal Anders" - which reduces a Strauss tone poem to only five players. But I do have an interest in Strauss' work especially as it has some of the best bassoon and contrabassoon writing in the orchestral repertoire. Strauss orchestrates superbly for winds and brass, and really expanded the scope of wind writing at the time "Don Juan" was written. It was widely considered to be unplayable for years after the premiere. The parts we will be playing are even more difficult than the original, so it's also a showpiece of sorts.

Don Juan a fairly long work. Do you arrange all of it or condense it or just arrange part of it?

Kuhlmann: It's unabridged - for better or for worse. An earlier version of this arrangement was performed with cuts, but I felt that it just didn't work. The structure of the piece is not only very well crafted, but it tells a story too. I hate to abridge programmatic music.

Your arrangement uses 8 instruments. Is there a particular reason for that?

Kuhlmann: It's sort of a variation on the traditional classical "harmonie" ensemble - pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. Although this ensemble isn't very popular now, it was an instrumentation utilized by composers as popular as Mozart and Beethoven. I first arranged the piece for that instrumentation - but altered it so it could also be performed with the Reinecke 'Octet,' which is a really lovely piece of music. The alteration is to have one flute and one oboe as opposed to two oboes. I felt this also expanded the range of color in the ensemble. The earlier, truncated performance of this arrangement at the "Woodwinds @ Wallowa Lake" camp in Northeastern Oregon used two flutes, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, bass clarinet, french horn and alto saxophone - pretty odd, but that's what we had on hand.

How long did it take you to write this arrangement?

Kuhlmann: About a month, although it took at least that long to proofread the parts/score and prepare everything for printing.

Is this your first composition or arrangement or do you have other pieces?

Kuhlmann: Far from it! I've been writing and arranging for as long as I've been playing music. Bassoon quartet, rock band, large jazz ensemble, a cappella chorus, orchestra... I kind of just go with what I hear. This culminated in receiving a Graduate Diploma in Music Composition from Juilliard last year.

Are you dedicating more time to composition and less to performing?

Kuhlmann: Well, I do have a bit more time on my hands since we hired a new principal bassoonist at the symphony, Carin Miller, who I'm sure you already know is a superb addition to the orchestra. This has allowed me to have a little more time to dedicate to composition. Ideally I would focus on both equally, but because I have a full-time job playing in the orchestra, so that always gets priority at this point.

Who are your composition teachers or influences?

Kuhlmann: Most recently, Robert Beaser at Juilliard. He is an excellent teacher and a brilliant composer. I happen to like his material, which is more of a subjective judgement, but I think that the impeccable skill of his construction is undeniable. I recently purchased my own study score of his piece "Chorale Variations" for orchestra, and every time I listen through it, I learn something new. He was also a teacher who believed in the possibility of a composer-performer, something which was depressingly hard to find at times. There are a few other scores that I feel I am constantly learning from; Sibelius' 5th Symphony, Adams' "Naive and Sentimental Music," and Marc-Andre Dalbavie's "Color" are a few other orchestral scores that I've been studying a bit lately.

Do you have some pieces that will be performed somewhere in the near future?

Kuhlmann:: I have several originals that I'm kicking around, and way too many requests for pieces than I can handle, but have been mostly preoccupied with arrangements lately. Still, there are some very exciting things on the horizon. I can't say too much yet - but I'll keep you posted!

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