Big Grenadilla

2006, 15' concerto for bass clarinet and chamber orchestra

Big Grenadilla was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, with myself as soloist. The concerto is traditionally a heroic form, which doesn’t jibe well with an egalitarian approach to music.   But given the chance to be at stage front amid New York’s finest musicians, it would be foolish to squander the occasion.  “Big Grenadilla” is my second bass clarinet/large ensemble work: five years ago, I composed and performed “Drill,” for bass clarinet and wind ensemble, casting myself in the role of drill sergeant, leading the troops through a vigorous basic training.  But in this work, among colleagues, the soloist and conductor are first among equals, leading a boisterous band, er, orchestra.

Bass clarinet is the instrument I know best, thrust into my hands in high school, and never far from me since.  Musicians and their instruments, in hand and mouth, mind and body: metaphors come quickly.  It’s a life partner, and I write for it as I would write for another musician, ideally using my music to reveal the instrument’s own physical and spiritual character.  Of course this is ventriliqual, the story I tell myself.  In practical terms, the vocabulary of the music is contoured to the acoustic characteristics of the horn, rather than the other way around. 

Grenadilla is a dense, strong dark wood that is often mistaken for ebony.  It continues to grow in abundance on the African steppe.  It is the primary wood for many instruments, including the bass clarinet, whose bottom joint alone is a single piece 30 inches in length.  Big grenadilla, yearning for its living, rooted reality, with the orchestra providing the dreamscape.

Big Grenadilla was premiered in Carnegie's Zankel Hall. 60 years earlier, in that same building, Woody Herman premiered Stravinsky’s pocket-sized “Ebony Concerto”.  Title aside, I claim no conscious connection to this masterpiece, but simply bow my head in homage.  It is the Kilimanjaro of my own African landscape.  We steppe-dwellers continue to gaze up in awe.