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Musings: A symphony for Raven

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2011 - In his voluptuous tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"), composer Richard Strauss makes fun of music critics in general and in particular the persistently negative Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick. Critics are portrayed in the music by chattering strings, and show their imaginary faces in the second part of the massive piece, titled "Des Helden Widersacher" ("The Hero's Adversaries").

As far as I know, musical portraits aren't routinely drawn at all, much less when some dignitary or another retires from his or her office. Rather, what's usual and even expected is a flattering representation, a traditional likeness in a nice gold frame that's drawn or painted.

Thus a portrait in sound is a singular distinction. And if the "sitter" is convinced the musical portraitist is not only accomplished but friendly, there is the possibility of fascination or even joy in having one's portrait created musically -- especially if the portrayal is intoned not by Strauss's chattering fiddles but more euphoniously, played by an instrument appropriate to the sitter's self image.

Jeanne Cairns Sinquefield has committed herself to music both personally and philanthropically. She plays the bass violin in several ensembles; and with her husband, Rex, devotes substantial financial resources as well as time and enthusiasm to the development of young musicians and fledgling composers, and provides patronage for performances of their work.

Sinquefield has contributed substantial sums of money to the University of Missouri; and is particularly interested and invested in its original music program. Besides money, she brings a certain joie de vivre and encouragement to it.

"I can't tell you how much this energizes people in Missouri and around the country," she said.

It occurred to her that one of America's most committed scientists and environmentalists, on the occasion of his retirement from a position of prominence in St. Louis, was deserving of an especially commissioned portrait in sound.

The scientist is the internationally respected and frequently honored Peter Raven, now director emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Raven, in addition to his scholarship and his persistent and ringing warnings about population growth, habitat destruction and climate change, has served the St. Louis region at the Missouri Botanical Garden for almost 40 years. To honor him, there will be a gala celebration at the Garden on Sunday (April 17).

The idea developed after Raven visited the Sinquefields' Osage County retreat, the Sinquefield Reserve, a particularly beautiful spot on the Osage River. Jeanne Sinquefield said a "Sound of Art" concert she sponsored was fresh in her memory, so she told Raven, "We should have some music written for you." Apparently he thought it was a good idea, too.

Jeanne Sinquefield took the matter up with Stefan Freund. Freund is an active and versatile young musician who not only teaches but is a virtuoso performer as well -- and a devotee of contemporary music. At Mizzou, he is associate professor of composition and music theory and director of the innovative "Creating Original Music Project" that has been responsible for cultivating a growing population of young composers in Missouri. Freund thought Raven music was a great idea, too, Sinquefield said.

Out of all this has sprouted "The Garden Symphony," a work in four parts commissioned by Sinquefield in honor of Raven's four decades at Shaw's Garden. The Mizzou New Music Ensemble will perform it at the Garden party.

Four composition students produced the piece. Clarinet player Stephanie Berg's movement was inspired by the Climatron's Tropical Garden. The Children's Garden informed Laura Griggs's work; the Japanese Garden was muse for David Witter. Michael Anderson's composition sprang forth from the Botanical Garden's English Woodlands display.

The idea of the portrait of Raven in sound was handed over by Sinquefield to Mizzou's W. Thomas McKenney.

McKenney is professor of composition and music theory and director of the electronic music studios at the University of Missouri. The oboe was chosen as the instrument most expressive of Raven. At the concert, oboe teacher and virtuoso Dan Willett, who is an associate professor and associate director of the School of Music at Mizzou, will play the double-reed Ravenesque instrument. The composition is something of a duet, however; Willett will be accompanied by computer-generated electronic music.

McKenney said the Raven piece is a complex score of influences.

"First I looked at this name -- Peter Raven. Each name is composed of five letters. The organizational basis, at the beginning at least, was on pentatonic (five tone) scales, and in addition one of the prominent meters is 5/8," he said.

McKenney also knew of Raven's roots in China. He was born in Shanghai in June 1936.

"I was invited to give lectures in Shanghai a long time ago," McKenney said, "and when I was there I visited traditional instrument factories. A number of instruments were tuned to a pentatonic scale. All this seemed appropriate to me as a basis for this piece."

The audience Sunday will hear the music and decide if it registers as "Peter Raven" appropriately and accurately. Besides all the music at the fund raiser, the Garden's amazing library of botanical literature will be dedicated to Raven at a private ceremony in honor of him and his years as president and director. The collection is known all over the world, and is important for a number of reasons, one being its size -- it occupies five miles of bookshelf space, and includes more than 200,000 journals and monographs, and 6,000 rare book volumes.

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