Thursday, March 1, 2012
New Mexico State University’s Warner Hutchison Contemporary Arts Festival
By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service
LAS CRUCES, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- Living History: According to a popular online dictionary the meaning is, “An activity that incorporates historical tools, activities, and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time.” Nice definition. But what if the history and the person are still living—not dead—and, therefore, not just a recreation of some past event? I guess this person would truly be “living history.”
On Tuesday, February 14, I was honored to drive Dr. Hutchison down to Las Cruces, New Mexico, from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The reason for the 3½ hour drive was to attend the Second Annual New Mexico State University’s Warner Hutchison Contemporary Arts Festival, held February 13-15.
I can summarize the day’s event into three parts: History (the drive down), Culture (the concert), and Remembrance (the drive back).
During the “History” portion of my day, Warner and I discussed the chronicle of his career, from his childhood in Florida and Colorado, to his budding career as church musician, composer, and professor. On the surface, this sounds like a fairly normal rise. But when you add the names of composers such as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, George Crumb, Leonard Bernstein, and Milton Babbitt to the mix, the drive became a fascinating look into the lives and music of the 20th century.
When discussing his mentor, composer, Roy Harris (1898-1979), Warner talked about his teacher’s interaction with Nadia Boulanger, the famous instructor of George Gershwin, Phillip Glass, Elliott Carter, among dozens of others. Warner told me that Harris, after writing his Clarinet Concerto for Boulanger, said the clarinetist playing the piece had difficulty with the parts. But when he finally got it right, after all objections, “ran around kissing everyone” for the fact that he played it properly: “A very French thing to do.”
Warner discussed the amazing mental capabilities of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). When meeting the composer and music theorist, Babbitt was quick to recite many of the pieces Warner had composed by name and date. Warner was dumbstruck at the precision of his mind.
Concerning Leonard Bernstein, he relayed the story of how Bernstein composed his Mass at the same musical colony in New England that Warner composed some of his music. After finishing the piece, Bernstein left a check for a new Steinway piano.
Warner discussed his own music, as well. His first composition was written while at Bible College entitled, “Three Impressions of Lavender,” a romantic piece written for a young lady. Other musical works such as “Apocalypse I and V,” “The Desert Shall Bloom as the Rose,” “Lincoln Mass,” and many others were explained to me with careful thought and interesting insight.
The “Mass for Abraham Lincoln” is a requiem mass, first published by Seesaw Music in New York. It has eight movements. Though the Mass follows traditional Catholic forms, it inserts excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches as text. The mass is for two performers—prepared piano and tape—amplified through speakers.
Warner also discussed one of his most popular pieces, a standard trombone work, “Sonatina for Euphonium (or Trombone) and Piano,” stating,” It is still used as a performance piece.”
The “Cultural” portion of our day consisted of our time at New Mexico State University. After a tour of the facility (the Edith and F.E Atkinson Recital Hall)—which Warner helped build, meetings with former students and professors, and a dinner at Applebee’s, we sat through the first half of the evening’s program.
The opening piece, composed by Warner, was entitled “Homage to Jackson Pollock (1973).” The composition was written for percussion, mixed tapes, narration, and visual slides, with text provided by poet Vladislav Novak, called “Honor to Jackson Pollock.” Dr. Fred Bugbee, the host and founder of the Arts Festival, performed the piece with great skill, emotional impact, and power. As the piece progressed, 34 images of Pollock’s work were shown on a screen, adding to the force of the performance. Toward the end of the work, which ran around 15 minutes, Dr. Bugbee successively turned off the lights surrounding his percussion, finishing off in a meditative and contemplative fashion. Applause erupted.
The final piece Warner and I heard was written by James Grant, guest composer. Grant is from Canada, and was at the New Mexico State University to discuss the process of composing as well as to perform some of his pieces. Using the poetry of Denis Levertov as text, Mr. Grant composed a work named “Dragonfly Dresses and Blue Shoes.” As a choral work, the piece was a superb integration of both modern compositional styles and classical choral harmonies and expressive beauty.
During the intermission, I was able to get a sense of how much Warner Hutchison means to folks in Las Cruces. After signing autographs, standing for pictures, and greeting well-wishers, I was approached by several people thanking me for bringing him to the performance.
One professor, a former student, said, “This is the best Valentine’s Day present I have received. You don’t know how much this means to us. Thank you.”
The final portion of our day I call “Remembrance,” and occurred during our drive home.
He told of the time he spent with Prince Charles while in England, stating that the future king was, “A very nice gentleman, receptive to our group, giving us over an hour of his time.”
Warner discussed his love for God and the artistic process, referencing his essay, “Vision and Reality: Spiritual Impulse and the Creative Composition Process,” several times along the way.
He also talked about his travels, friends, and his family whom he dearly loves.
I sat enraptured by the stories, events, and people Warner spoke about. Though many of the composers (and people) he spoke lovingly about are no longer with us, the memories they etched in Warner’s mind still resound, living on through the music and stories of touched lives.
As we drove toward Albuquerque—around 12:30 in the morning—from our full day in the southern portion of the state, it began to snow. I had to slow down. Snowplows were out.
As I listened to Warner reminisce about the first cars he owned and a couple of accidents that he was involved in, I purposely slowed down even more. Not because I was scared of having an accident, but because I wanted to hear more stories, more living history from a man who has traveled a grand journey on earth.
It’s difficult to put your arms around the depth and breadth of a person’s life—seven hours in a car surely can’t do it. But I’m thankful that I spent those hours with living history. What better way to navigate life and learn of God’s gifting to a particular individual?
Maybe next time I’ll volunteer to drive him to New York!
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