The SFS commission for a concerto for English Horn has largely to do with my long association with its English Horn player, Julie Ann Giacobassi, though I had never written a piece specifically for her. But she had been a strong advocate of my previous pieces for the lower end of the oboe family and knew my orchestral compositions composed for the SFS.
Her interest and advocacy of my pieces for oboe d'amore and English Horn led to a recording she made, together with her colleagues Geraldine Walther and Doug Rioth of Musica d'amore for oboe d'amore, viola d'amore and harp. (Fish Creek blurb). This recording came to the attention of MTT who soon contacted me asking for a concerto for English Horn. The result is Bellini Sky, a work I was delighted to compose.
The Bellini in the title is not Vincenzo Bellini, the 19th c. Sicilian opera composer, but rather the 15th c. Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini whose masterful oil paintings I came to love while I lived and travelled in Italy. What always struck me about his art was the perfect rendering of light, particularly skies with clouds. And those landscapes came back to me when I returned to California to live in the Bay Area, where the skies so closely resemble those Bellini painted, particularly in the Fall and Spring.
That atmosphere always suggested to me harmony, and the combination of English Horn, strings, harp and very gentle percussion seemed perfect to realize it. The transparent texture would be ideal to set off the solo line of the English Horn.
In the first movement, "Bellini Sky", the opening contrasts the fluorishes of the harp, marimba and strings with the lyrical melodic line of the English Horn, often using alternate fingerings to produce color in the line. The middle section has a quietly unfolding texture in the vibraphone and strings accompanies a longer sustained line in the English Horn. Out of this the Bellini Sky music emerges in the strings: quietly moving chords gradually dropping in register. A gentle rising line in the English Horn ends the movement.
The second movement, "Ricordanza (Passacaglia)" was written in memory of Luciano Berio, my Italian mentor who died two years ago. Berio loved to overlayer music of different types and so I made a triple layer of counterpoint, one in the percussion, another in the strings and the third in the solo English Horn (based on a melody from the native people of British Columbia). These levels of music repeat until a middle section interrupts with flourishes from the vibraphone and harmonic glissandi in the strings, setting off an English Horn cadenza. The passacaglia returns, with an offstage oboe echoing the solo English Horn line and a brief recall of the Bellini Sky music in the strings.
"Toccata/Bellini Sky II", the third movement, begins with a fanfare for the strings that will recur as a ritornello, one based on the textures of the 18th c. Concerti Grossi of Corelli, yet another Italian influence in the piece. Alternating with this, the English Horn soloist and principal viola exchange phrases of a flute call from the Plains Indians of Nebraska, recorded over a hundred years ago. The middle section here has a canon between vibraphone, harp with an obbligato solo in the English Horn. The strings restate the Bellini Sky music, leading to a conclusion based on the fanfare that began the movement.
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