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The CCO Premieres A New Concerto By Local Composer James DeMars.

By Dave Irwin

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  COMPOSER JAMES DeMars has been to the outer reaches of modern music, performing works marked by atonalism and harsh dissonance. And then he stepped back.

"Sometimes people hear my music and say, 'Oh, it's so tonal, it's not cutting edge,' but that's a conscious decision on my part," the composer declares. "I wanted to come back to things that resonated more with myself and with the audiences I was dealing with."

The Catalina Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Enrique Lasansky, will premiere one of DeMars' latest works, Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra, on February 26 and 28. Featured soloist will be Arizona Opera Company principal flutist Linda Lasansky. In attempting to build its audience, the concert will offer free admission for students accompanied by adults. In turn, an adult with a student will receive half-price admission.

Dr. James DeMars has been associate professor of theory and composition at Arizona State University since 1981. His most successful classical work thus far is An American Requiem. He conducted the premiere of that work in 1995 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. However, he's more familiar to listeners outside of traditional classical music, through Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai. Nakai has recorded a number of works by DeMars, including Two World Concerto and Native Drumming.

"My writing is my grand escape," DeMars explains. "I'm a very early riser. I'll get up at 3:30 in the morning and then I write until I go to the university. No matter what, I'll always be writing."

He's performed works by avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhousen and George Crumb, and admires the minimalists. However, it's the impressionists, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, for their orchestral textures and sonorities, who are the touchstones of DeMars' style.

"Those sounds are attractive to me," he says. "I was also trained as a Romantic pianist. My favorite teacher was a Beethoven specialist."

His new concerto is subtitled "Big Two-Hearted River," after the Ernest Hemingway short story. The work is based on a piece that DeMars composed for alto flute.

"It was originally written for alto flute for the National Flute Convention," he says. "Enrique convinced me that there was a future for that piece in another format, for conventional flute. And I was glad for that opportunity because I thought the work needed revision. So I tore it apart last fall and rewrote it for Enrique's orchestra and for his wife, Linda."

In describing the piece, De Mars notes, "I started with the flute sound. I was trying to stay away from what we used to call in college 'the list pieces,' where you'd make a list of everything that was unusual that an instrument could do and make sure to use it all by the end of the piece."

Although technically a concerto, the work combines elements of several forms. The programmatic references and allusions to physical description of rivers and natural landscape recall the symphonic tone poem. The smaller forces and restrained interplay between soloist and ensemble hearken back to the classical concerto grosso.

"It isn't the usual concerto in terms of trying to be very virtuosic with cadenzas and trying to outdo someone else's athleticism," DeMars avers. "This has more concern for creating an integration between the flute and the orchestra."

The work's structure also breaks with the traditional concerto's three movements. "It's in two parts, and each part has a change of heart," he explains. "The title is the form of the work, too. As in the story itself, there's a working out of one's past. A more practical way to say it might be that it presents a duality, a shift from one frame of mind to another. There were a lot of compositional problems created by the dualism."

By writing the concerto without percussion parts, DeMars was able to keep a sense of scale and volume. "There's not a lot of sturm und drang; it's not a passion-pounding sort of piece," he says. "It's more subdued. For my ear at this point, I have enough other pieces with big climaxes and I thought, 'Not this time.' There's also a sense of the impressionists in the formal element of not trying to be overly dramatic, but to find something that flows and works its way out. And of course the idea of the river and fluidity of motion is present through much of it. In some ways, it's like taking a hike in Arizona; like saying, 'I've had it with the city, I need to get away. I need to think about things that are personal.' "

The concerto is part of a program of very audience-friendly works, including one of the 20th century's most popular pieces, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, Op. 11, and also Mozart's amiable Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. With the premiere of the concerto, the Catalina Chamber Orchestra continues its quest towards full-professional status. The approximately 35-member group includes performers from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Arizona Opera, as well as music teachers and other professional musicians. The orchestra was founded by Enrique Lasansky in 1991, and will record its second CD later this year. His wife Linda, in addition to working for Arizona Opera and being the Catalina's principal flutist, also teaches and is a member of the flute/harp duo Reverie.

"I think Enrique deserves a lot of credit for the fact that this work exists," DeMars admits. "I would not have taken the time to create the work had he not been up there saying, 'We want this and we're ready to try it.' I'm impressed with him. He's very good to work with."

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