Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor
Thursday, 06 December 2012 11:04
When Dave Brubeck came to Bowling Green in 2005 it wasn't to play the music that made him famous, it was to hear the music that was his passion.
|File photo. Dave Brubeck during his visit to Bowling Green State University in 2005. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Brubeck, the jazz pianist and composer, died Wednesday just one day shy of his 92nd birthday.
He was best known for leading a jazz quartet whose sophisticated sound defied the norms of the jazz world at the same time it became one of its most popular acts.
Brubeck with his quartet featuring the lyrical yet mordant alto saxophone of Paul Desmond pioneered the college concert. Later his quartet now including master drummer Joe Morello helped pioneer playing in odd time signatures, even scoring a $1 million hit with Desmond's "Take Five." Brubeck's albums found their way into record collections where they were the only jazz.
That was all pretty much in the past when he came to BGSU at the invitation of William Skoog, then choral director.
Skoog, who now chairs the music department and directs choral activities at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., had long loved Brubeck's classical choral works. He sang, conducted, wrote about and advocated for Brubeck's choral works.
So he approached Brubeck about composing something for the university's men's chorus. He got a response from Brubeck asking for information about the ranges of the ensemble's singers. Skoog provided the details along with recordings of the ensemble and then got a telephone call. Could the tenors really sing that high, could the basses really sing that low? Brubeck wondered.
He accepted the commission and told Skoog that for the first time he just wrote what came into his head without worrying about the abilities of the ensemble that would sing it.
What he delivered was "a god-awful difficult fugue," Skoog said. But the men's chorus mastered it much to the composer's pleasure. It became "a badge of honor" among members that they had performed that piece, Skoog said.
The composition featured rhythmically tricked-up melodies - one singer likened them to Brubeck's piano solos - that twisted and turned and bumped into each other with notes that defied resolution.
The fugue "Love Flows from God" is based on a poem by 13th century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg. The text fit with the religious bent of almost all of Brubeck's choral work.
Brubeck was deeply affected by his service in the Army during World War II, Skoog said.
While at BGSU he spoke of serving in France during the Battle of the Bulge. "At the time," he said, "I wondered why we were killing each other. ... Don't any of us ever take seriously what we were handed by God?"
In his later years, Skoog said, "he felt compelled" to write choral works. "He wanted music to make a difference for humanity, make a better world."
Brubeck carried his fame lightly. Once during the composition process, he called Skoog to play him the theme. "Is that going to be OK?" he asked.
Also on the program at BGSU was an a cappella performance of "I Dream a World." It was the first time the fugue section had been sung because it had been deemed too difficult.
After the rehearsals the singers asked if they could talk with Brubeck who was seated back in Kobacker Hall.
He approached the choir and greeted them: "Thank you so much for being so great in singing my stupid songs."
He also expressed concern that he'd written a piece that was too hard for the men's chorus.
Skoog worries that the challenge of Brubeck's choral works will discourage future performances. "It's not an easy get. It's a lot of hard work."
When he performed "To Hope" as a guest conductor in Prague, the orchestra requested its parts three weeks ahead of time.
Brubeck would travel with his assistant Russell Gloyd to hear performances of his piece. The "allure" of his presence, Skoog said, promoted his work.
Skoog recalled his winning personality. During a rehearsal of his "Boogie 1 A.M." the young singers were having a hard time getting the feel of the piece's jaunty swing. Brubeck came dancing down the Kobacker aisle, snapping his figures and finally drumming on the stage to demonstrate rhythm.
The choir nailed the groove.
Skoog said for all their challenges the pieces are worth the work. He remembered in Prague, the audience stood and demanded three encores. "It just speaks to people from a very deep place."
Brubeck's work continues to get recognition. "Music of Ansel Adams" written by Brubeck and his son, Chris Brubeck, was nominated Wednesday for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition.
Skoog said a lasting impression he has was of seeing Brubeck performing "Voice of the Holy Spirit" at the University of Michigan. During a section when the choir sang alone, Skoog noticed Brubeck at the piano, in a posture of prayer.
Skoog thought: "That's where he's coming from."