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ISSUE 118 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/25/2005

Merritt's cool composure

By Carl Schroeder
Staff Writer

Friday, February 25, 2005

An adventurous Feb. 18 program in Urness Recital Hall introduced St. Olaf to the creative output of Justin Merritt, the college’s new assistant professor of music theory and composition. Nearly 40 students and faculty members combined their talents to present a varied recital of Merritt’s recent chamber instrumental and vocal works.

The recital opened with "Invocation," a vigorous brass work in which seven performers, spread throughout Urness to create a surround-sound effect, passed a Gustav Mahler-inspired fanfare motive back and forth.

The performers responded to the unique requirements of “Invocations” with vigor.

"Getting the cuing [between parts] to work out was a challenge, but then the piece became a lot of fun to perform," said Assistant Music Professor Martin Hodel, who played the solo trumpet part.

"A Gauze of Misted Silver," the next piece, was one of three programmed works inspired by the writings of Amy Lowell, an early twentieth-century American poet. Composed for string quartet and harp, this work’s highlight was its subtle second movement, a sonic kaleidoscope of gently shifting rhythms played by pizzicato strings.

Harp and strings were also employed in the next piece, "Sunshine," which incorporated two sopranos and more of Lowell’s poetry. Unusual chord clusters and harmonic dissonances enlivened this striking but unsettling work, ably conducted by Carl Holmquist ’05.

The program continued with "Bar for Hans Sachs," a virtuosic flute solo performed by Music Instructor Margaret Rowland. This innovative work, constructed around the traditional German bar form, organically incorporated pitch bending and other extended flute performance techniques.

In the following work, the evocative "A London Thoroughfare, 2AM," a Lowell text describing a desolate cityscape was sung by Music Department Chair Dan Dressen and accompanied by horn, violin and piano.

The recital concluded with "Lamentations," a powerful four-part choral work setting Biblical text to a rich tapestry of vocal timbres.

"The intimacy of ['Lamentations'] is striking," said Matthew Olson ’06, who conducted the piece. "There is so much attention paid to detail and text-painting."

The youngest-ever winner of the prestigious ASCAP Found-ation/Rudolph Nissim Award for music composition, Merritt arrived at St. Olaf in fall 2004, replacing Music Professor Peter Hamlin, who left St. Olaf last spring for a position at his alma mater, Vermont’s Middlebury College.

Merritt believes that today’s composers can draw on past works and idioms while exploring new musical ground.

"A piece doesn’t have to be incomprehensible to be new," Merritt said. "I think you can be original while communicating in a musical language that the audience understands."

Although his composition recital marked the first campus performance of his music, the St. Olaf community won’t have to wait long to hear more from Merritt. His orchestral work "Lachryme," a movement of his still-in-progress symphony "Cosmon-omicon," will be performed at the St. Olaf Orchestra Spring Concert on March 13 in Skoglund Center Auditorium.

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