I believe the Shakespeare truism goes that brevity is the soul of wit. I’m not completely sure that it isn’t the other way around. There is something deeply satisfying about hearing a piece that doesn’t beat around the bush; it’s one of the reasons why it’s easy to love a good concert overture. Whether it’s Beethoven’s Egmont or Dvorak’s Carnival, or delightfully clipped ruminations on fireworks by Stravinsky (and later Knussen), or the modern marvels of transport in works like Honegger’s Pacific 231 and John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, I love sitting down for a concert and being promptly and efficiently dazzled. These classic works take their task, the fêtes en miniature, deadly seriously, and don’t mince their notes while charming us, yes, to bits.
Imagine my surprise: it’s a tough job, saying a lot by saying a little. With no time to explain oneself, the musical distillation process is best kept to the sketches. I went about it by looking at the words I’d chosen for the title (yes, those Netherworldly blue blazes, and part of one of my favorite examples of that very important linguistic sub-category: the ever-useful exasperation idiom) and re-interpreting them as I liked, with hellish abandon. The piece’s eight minutes unfold variously as orchestra intrada, with different sections introduced in sequence, starting with the low strings, percussion and clarinets (after marking, point by point, a new trail by peeling back bark on a tree, revealing the torchlike blaze), noble fanfare (after the German blasen, to blow), and wild, distracted, self-satisfied romp (what the …, indeed.).
Pondering blue, my thoughts tended toward the subtle, and the sensual. Perhaps a cool breeze or a visual cue—the gentle bobbing of boats of different sizes, all tethered to the same dock somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea—might make itself apparent. While considering the musical blue, I gravitated, among many other places, toward Jazz: toward blue notes, toward luscious complex harmonies. Unlike many concert composers of the 20th and 21st centuries and several close friends, I’m not a Jazz aficionado in any deep sense. But my admiration grows for the musical ethos of someone like pianist Bill Evans, of doing something for the hedonistic pleasure of hearing it, of lingering (or even wallowing) in great washes of cool blue sounds. I’d be surprised to hear someone point out a jazzy moment in this piece; any presence of homage is intended as a spiritual, not a literal, one.
Blue Blazes was commissioned the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, DC, Christoph Eschenbach, Music Director, through a grant from the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works. I dedicate it to Maestro Eschenbach and the dedicated musicians and staff of the NSO with gratitude.
— Sean Shepherd
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.