This weekend, February 5 and 6, the Minnesota Sinfonia is presenting my Suite Populaire, a new piece for chamber orchestra. Last year, the Sinfonia put out a call for works no longer than eight minutes. That the McKnight Foundation offered support made it all the more attractive.

Minnesota Sinfonia at the Basilica with statues of saints aboveI arranged four short piano pieces written over the past twenty years. The suite was an unexpected pleasure to write. It was the first time I’d orchestrated my piano music, but it was fun, and it gratified my out-sized sense of economy. The strictures for this project were tight, though: single winds; optional percussion; no string divisi; not least: “conservative” in style. The Sinfonia (pictured in rehearsal last night at the Basilica) gives concerts in the schools as well as a series of free programs in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, so the “accessible” tag was only right and natural. Three other composers were selected from the call for scores: Tony Hauser, Jocelyn Hagen and Jeremy Cochran.

Orchestrating piano music is not without its challenges. The notorious one is that “the orchestra has no pedal”; that is, the sustained tones the piano would normally generate with the damper pedal must be composed into the orchestration. That’s why you hear a languorous, disembodied bassoon in Chopin’s E-minor Concerto, and why the horns provide stable fifths and octaves—called “pedal point”—in every Haydn symphony.

Jane Van Dyk with horse and cabins

Jane Van Dyk with Honeybunch

In 1996, the American Composers Forum commissioned The Belford Waltz as a one-page piano solo in honor of Elinor Watson Bell, one of Minnesota’s most beloved musical citizens.  Mrs. Bell’s home was named Belford. The four-note theme—E-B-E-L—makes her presence very clear.

Heard on the Lake is a tone-snapshot, a moonlight canoe ride on a Montana lake dedicated to my dear Billings friend Jane Van Dyk . I’ve enjoyed several memorable vacations with the Van Dyk family at their beloved Moose Lake retreat in the Pintler Mountains.

The Mystic’s Prayer is an orchestral setting of a poem by Scottish writer William Sharp (1856–1902). “Lay me to sleep in sheltering flame, / O Master of the Hidden Fire!” You might say Sharp was keen; he was better known under his pseudonym: Fiona McLeod.

Suite Populaire closes with Dave’s Reel, but I’m not the Dave of the title. I sang with Dr. David Buran in the Plymouth Congregational Church Choir, and our community suffered a great loss when he died in September, 2014.

David Evan Thomas and Ann Buran standing two-shot

The idea for Dave’s Reel came while listening to folk music on the web. Cléa Galhano told me about David dancing at a party just a week before his death. I put [folk] and [dance] together and came up with a joyous romp. Dave’s Reel is dedicated to David’s wife of sixty years and my dear friend, Ann Buran (with DET, left).

I was delighted to hear the Minnesota Sinfonia in rehearsal last night at the Basilica. The concerts this weekend feature a fabulous young violinist named Eric Silberger playing Sarasate, and music by Sibelius and Voříšek. More about the concerts here.


 Minnesota Sinfonia in Concert

Friday, February 5 @ 7:00 PM: Johnson High School, 1349 Arcade St. Saint Paul, Minn.

Saturday, February 6 @ 2:00 PM: Basilica of St. Mary, 1600 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, Minn.