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About this Piece

Composed: 2008-2009

Length: c. 25 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, strings, and solo trumpet (= flugelhorn, cornet, and piccolo trumpet)

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Songs of the Paradise Saloon was commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2008, and was written specifically for TSO Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless. The first performance was December 2, 2009, with McCandless the soloist and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, who has written the following note:

The Paradise Saloon was a bar in 19th century New York that figures in my opera The Inventor, commissioned by Calgary Opera and premiered in January 2011 (libretto by John Murrell).

The opera is based upon real historical events in the life of Alexander (Sandy) Keith Junior, a nephew of the eponymous Halifax brewer. Keith’s character defies quick analysis. He was a sociopath but loving father, an adored husband yet a notorious criminal whose deeds included murder and fraud. His final crime was to blow up an ocean-going liner, killing almost 100 passengers and maiming many more.

In Act I, Keith is on the run and has arrived at the Paradise Saloon. He’s with Mary Clifton, a chambermaid he met in Halifax who is pregnant by him. He is about to abandon her.

In the opera, the bar scene is short but includes many characters whose company I came to enjoy – A Man Who Scratches And Smells and A Woman With A Feathery Fan were my favorites. Songs of the Paradise Saloon is based upon musical material from this scene.

Like any pub, when you look around you see the world. Naturally, there’s a seen-it-all-before barman, a woman writing a letter, a Scotsman wanders in, children wait for hours outside, a couple are deeply in love, Confederate spies, Union soldiers, and lots of loose life with Bacchanalian intentions. The deepest and the most superficial conversations happen simultaneously. Sandy Keith is there and sees everything. He uses and abuses at whim but is always engineering to his own advantage. Listeners might imagine their own scenario.

The work is based upon a brief motif heard at the outset on violas and cellos, again in the central slow section and finally in a blaze of color at the climax of the work. Its character is ambivalent; aspirational yet despairing, passionate but desolate. The trumpet soloist (who also plays flugelhorn, cornet, and piccolo trumpet) never plays the theme, but manipulates it throughout. Fragments of the theme (as if it has been shattered) are used in the 12 variations that follow. The music is laced with post-minimalism, jazz and polytonal elements.

The concerto is dedicated to Andrew McCandless, the TSO’s brilliant Principal Trumpet, who has cajoled, encouraged, and inspired throughout the creative process.

Program note by Bramwell Tovey for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra © 2013