Humor, Introspection, Ecstasy

The Impressionistic Tonality of UT Composer Dan Welcher

Humor, Introspection, Ecstasy
Photo By Bret Brookshire

This spring, Peter Bay, music director and conductor of the Austin Symphony, had the bright idea of getting UT composition professor Dan Welcher to take a little trip to New York with him, a sort of classical-music guy getaway.

"We were going to catch a couple of operas at the Metropolitan," recounts Bay.

For the renowned conductor, Welcher isn't only a composer he respects and admires, he's also "a very good friend." In fact, the two have known each other since 1979, when they met at the Aspen Music Festival, and hit it off both professionally and personally. More than two decades later, they now live in the same city. Welcher wanted to make the trip, but he had to decline. He just didn't have the time.

So, how busy do you have to be to skip a trip to the Big Apple with one of your dearest friends -- the guy who had you be best man at his wedding? Well, it's like this: In early March, Welcher flew to Seattle to hear the Seattle Symphony perform one of his early concertos. Upon returning to Austin, he spent the next two and a half weeks preparing for a March 27 performance of the New Music Ensemble (NME), the instrumental group that Welcher founded at UT in 1979, which was performing a piece by Michael Torque with the composer in attendance. Upon finishing up that, Welcher flew to Chicago to hear violinist Paul Kantor and the Orchestra Symphony II perform his 1993 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

When he got back from that trip, he picked up the baton again and started work with the NME on the score for the UT Opera Theatre production of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, which opens the third weekend in April. That's the same weekend his suite Dante Dances is being performed by pianist Anton Nel and clarinetist Richard MacDowell in a Jessen Series Distinguished Faculty concert focusing on the work of UT School of Music composers. And squeezed into his schedule every Monday night, 9pm, is his ongoing gig at KMFA 89.5 FM hosting his award-winning radio program Knowing the Score. And, oh yes, April 13-14, the Austin Symphony is leading off its program titled "The Colors of Myth" with Welcher's Symphony No. 2, "Night Watchers."

In other words, Bay himself is partly responsible for his friend's schedule being as tight as it is and therefore unable to accommodate a jaunt to NYC. The symphony conductor humorously acknowledges the conflict.

"He's extremely busy," chuckles Bay, "but it couldn't be a nicer situation [for Dan]."

Indeed. Welcher holds an endowed chair at the UT School of Music. The ensemble he founded to perform 20th-century music has endured for more than two decades, during which time it's premiered more than 100 works. He's been composing steadily since the Sixties, and had his work steadily performed across the country, in addition to winning awards and prizes from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, the Reader's Digest/Lila Wallace Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the American Music Center, and ASCAP.

To be a composer whose music is getting played, an educator who has established programs of enduring value and had his own work validated by the institution for which he teaches, and a part of his community whose contributions are recognized, reveals an artist who has achieved an enviable level of professional success. Welcher's name may not generate the national or international buzz of a Philip Glass, but to hear Peter Bay tell it, "It's just a matter of time before his name joins Corigliano, John Adams, Steve Reich, as one of the foremost composers of our time."

Now, it goes without saying that there are no overnight sensations in the world of classical music. It's a field that, like the symphonies that come out of it, takes time to get the most from. To feel the full power of a symphony, you have to allow the themes to develop and mature, to grow in richness and complexity.

"The hardest thing to explain about the difference between classical music and pop music is the length," says Welcher. "There's a kind of long-line listening that will help you understand why Beethoven is great that you will never get from a three-minute pop song. There's something about the architecture."

Welcher tells a story from the time he was living in Hawaii as composer-in-residence for the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. He was teaching a symphony appreciation class for senior citizens, and had his work cut out for him; since Mahler's Fifth was going to be performed that weekend, Welcher was trying to get the class to understand the structure of a Mahler symphony.

Explaining the meaning and function of a "scherzo," Welcher made the class sing "Stars and Stripes Forever," then went step by step through the piece's architecture -- how there was an "A" theme, then a second theme, then a tussle ("what march people call the dogfight," he says). After the dogfight, there emerges an elegant new tune.

"Then I took this same template and showed them how the Mahler Fifth followed the same pattern," he says.

Turns out, there was a plumber in the class, who told Welcher that he didn't care much for Mahler, told him he'd never been able to sit through a whole Mahler symphony, but he was game and went to the first performance. Afterward, he found Welcher and told him that he loved the scherzo -- didn't know about the rest of it, but he loved the scherzo -- and that he might come back and hear one of the other performances.

"He came back the next night by himself," remembers Welcher. "His wife didn't come, but he did, and after it was over, he came backstage and was all shaken up. He said, 'I don't know what it is about that music, but I'm all creepy-crawly all over.' And then he said, 'I might come back again.'"

And he did. He came back the next day and heard the matinee performance, and came back afterward wanting to know the best recording of this symphony. In one week, the plumber had gone from "I can't sit through a Mahler symphony" to being so moved that he wanted to listen to it at home. Once he'd tuned into the architecture of the music, he could feel what it meant. And so it is with Welcher's career.

The 'A' Theme

It's 1979, and Welcher and Bay are at the Aspen Music Festival.

"He was teaching composition and playing bassoon, I had a conducting fellowship" recalls Bay. "He invited me to come by and listen to some of his music. I knew his work already through recordings. I thought it was very, very beautiful and exciting."

Believe it or not, "beautiful" and "exciting" were not terms applied to a lot of composers' work in the Seventies. At that time, the dissonance and atonalism that did so much to shape 20th-century music (and empty the concert halls where it was played) still held sway where new music was concerned.

"Almost every composer my age or older will tell you about being in grad school in the Sixties or Seventies, and having these professors who all came out of Columbia telling you that you had to write 12-tone music," explain Welcher. "If you didn't, you wouldn't get the grants."

That apparently frightened a whole generation of composers into writing music that was harsh and inharmonious just to put food on the table. Dan Welcher wasn't one of them. He was part of the minority that could see an end to the reign of atonality -- which has come about in recent years -- and he wrote accordingly.

"Composers have come around to being tonal once again, but Dan never really left tonalism," notes Bay. "In his music, there are moments of angst and tension, but there are just as many moments of humor, introspection, ecstasy."

Humor, Introspection, Ecstasy
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Bay sets Welcher's music in the tradition of the Impressionists: "There are many shades of color to his music."

Those colors earned the young Welcher some notable praise. Writing about the orchestral piece, The Visions of Merlin, John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune said Welcher's "orchestration is rich and evocative, its colors so vividly imagined one can almost touch them." A few years earlier, the critic Royal S. Brown was so inspired by Welcher's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra that he wrote in High Fidelity, "On the basis of this work, I would say that Welcher is one of the most promising American composers I have ever heard."

Welcher was all of 26 years old at the time, and when he looks back on that music now, he's conscious of the distance between the person he is now and the person he was then. The piece that was performed in Seattle was from that period.

"I was really in a post-Shostakovich phase," he says. "He had just died, and this was kind of a memorial to him."

Listening to it now is, he says, "like looking at some of my students. I remember how I was then. I see this kid who's talented but kind of sloppy. I thought pieces from then would be considered juvenalia, but they aren't."

Some of them were recorded, he notes, and there are people who have those recordings and like them, and that music survives.

"There are things I would change, but I've tried that with some pieces, and it doesn't work. To alter them is to ruin them."

The Second Theme

Georgia O'Keeffe watercolors. Poems by e.e. cummings, Annie Dillard, and James Agee. Dante's Inferno. Hawaiian mythology. Indian mythology. The Peace Corps. Isaac Newton. All are subjects of works by Dan Welcher. Bay calls Welcher "one of the most well-read people I know," someone with a "kaleidoscope of interests" that is reflected in his music.

"He's written about things that are so far-reaching," marvels Bay. "He's written about JFK, he's written about Merlin. There are Hopi Indian chants in Night Watchers. He's written an opera from a story by O Henry. His first symphony has a Korean folk song in it. ..."

Bay's voice trails off.

"With all of those various interests, one wonders how he can put it together into a cohesive piece of music. But he does."

One way Welcher seems to do so is through a deliberate and thoughtful approach to the material. Case in point: Symphony No. 2 "Night Watchers," which the Austin Symphony is tackling this weekend. It's a four-movement symphony that was commissioned for the centenary of Flagstaff, Arizona. Welcher looked at the city of Flagstaff, which is home to the Lowell Observatory, through which the planet Pluto was discovered, and decided to make the work "all about star-gazing."

Thus, Night Watchers' First Movement, "Putting up the Star," evokes the Big Bang, taking the listener into the astronomical world of primitive humans and incorporating Hopi chants into the score. The Second Movement, "Music of the Spheres," jumps ahead to Ptolemy and his belief that the heavens revolved on invisible spheres, its musical messages rooted in mathematics. The Third Movement is called "The Delight of God," and paints a musical portrait of Isaac Newton, while the Fourth Movement rockets into the early 20th century, when Percival Lowell was studying the "canals" of Mars through his telescope in the Arizona desert.

The symphony ends with the scientist and the primitive man both looking up at the stars with the same wonder. There's an elegance to the design of the work that makes it sound cohesive even when you haven't heard a note of it. And according to Bay, who conducted the work when he was with the Erie Philharmonic, the music lives up to those expectations.

"There are beautiful melodies in this symphony, and I knew when I took the job with the [Austin] symphony that I wanted to play this piece in my third year," enthuses Bay. "I wanted to work up to it. This to me was the centerpiece of the program."

The Tussle

In the late Eighties, Welcher got a big commission from the National Endowment for the Arts for the Cleveland Quartet.

"I thought because it was a major commission for a major quartet, that I should put everything into it," he says.

So he did: all the emotions, colors, and tricks of the compositional trade went into it. He even put in some -- shudder -- 12-tone music. ("I still use that technology when it suits me," he offers.) The end result, is "kind of angry all the way through -- it's notice-me music." He calls it his "thorny, hard-to-get-to-know-me phase."

Welcher sees that use of dark, intense emotions as a temptation to which many young composers fall prey. Looking back, he can see it in his own work, and the longer he works with young composers, the more he sees it in his students at UT.

"Ninety percent of what they write about is turmoil," he says. "It's fueled by this kind of one-size-fits-all angst. I tell my students that it's a lot easier to write about angst than it is to write about good humor. What's hard to do is to be genuinely witty, to be affectionate without being cloying."

It's a life lesson that his students may not be able to absorb yet, but one that's made a difference in the composer's approach to his own work. That said, Welcher acknowledges that he's no longer out to change the world from the concert hall. He's come to see the role of the composer as a very sophisticated entertainer.

"Mozart wrote that way," states Welcher. "His most effective pieces start with charm."

That way, once he's won you over, he can turn a corner into darker places and you'll be willing to follow him, explains Welcher. At the end of the day, you might be tired, you might not feel like being challenged by a composer, but if that composer can pull you in, he or she can reveal something darker or more complex, and you'll stay with him.

"I think what sets great composers apart is that they figured out a way to be entertaining and profound at the same time," says Bay, "and Dan's music fits both of those qualifications."

Bay senses a shift in his friend's music over the years. With the earlier works, "it took several hearings to get the essence of the piece," but now, he says he gets the essence of it the first time through.

Humor, Introspection, Ecstasy
Photo By Bret Brookshire

"I wouldn't say it's less complex," ventures Bay, "but he's figured out ways to make his music even more expressive and his ideas seem even more direct."

The Elegant New Tune

"In 1999, I had the most productive year I'd ever had," states Welcher. "I had two huge commissions."

In February 1999, he premiered an oboe concerto titled Venti di Mare with the Rochester Philharmonic under the direction of -- no surprise here -- good friend Peter Bay. A month later, he premiered JFK: The Voice of Peace, an hourlong oratorio for narrator, solo cello, chorus, and orchestra with the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston, cellist Paul Tobias, and narrator David McCullough.

While both were major works, the latter has proven to be a real watershed event in the composer's life and career. Just convincing the Handel & Haydn Society that he would compose a work that would not be too modern (in that pejorative sense) and that would pay due respect to the president was a major achievement. Then the actual creation of the piece was a yearlong process, and it was the last project on which he collaborated with Ann McCutchan, his wife of many years, before their divorce.

It was an enormous challenge, but for Welcher, it was also an enormous opportunity, not so much in terms of career recognition as to make a statement, a big statement that would move people.

"I like being able to move people," the composer says. "You can do it in a cheap way, and you can do it in a lofty, sort of Beethoven-esque way, and I think I fall somewhere in between."

The premiere was quite an occasion: a hall full of Peace Corps volunteers and members of the Kennedy family in attendance. As it was being performed, Welcher says he could feel a wave of emotion coming from the audience.

"I couldn't speak for about 20 minutes afterward," he admits.

In writing that piece, Welcher says he came to a new understanding about himself as a composer, in that he shouldn't be afraid of emotion, and that if people give him the time to make such a statement, that's where his talent lies. Bay has yet to hear the piece live, but Welcher played a recording of it for him.

"It's a stunning piece," says Bay. "I heard it only one time, but I was so moved that I knew I had to present it here in Austin."

Just when that might happen isn't set, but Houston Masterworks Chorus has the Houston premiere of the work set for May 19, with Austin's Craig Hella Johnson conducting.

Not long after the premiere of JFK: The Voice of Peace, Welcher had an offer that might have taken him away from Austin. The University of Louisville knocked on his door and asked him to join its faculty. Given the dramatic shift in his personal life and what felt like the start of a new chapter in his professional life, it seemed like a reasonable time to move. Given that the local community had already shown its faith in him, Welcher decided to stick around.

UT did its part, as well, awarding Welcher the Lee Hage Jamail Regents Professorship in Composition, an endowed position through which Welcher says he doesn't need to worry about money any longer. That, in turn, prompted him to approach the folks at classical radio station KMFA about starting a program devoted to new music. He wanted it to be in prime time and he wanted complete creative control. KMFA was intrigued enough to try it out for 13 weeks, and soon, Welcher was on the air every Monday, hosting Knowing the Score.

"The first 13 weeks were quite successful," according to Welcher.

The proof of that success came at the end of that trial period, when the station was having a pledge drive and people called in, saying they were pledging for the first time because of Knowing the Score. That got the station's attention. Then the program won an award, a national award: the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Radio Broadcast Award, for which Welcher was flown to New York.

"There was this big ceremony at Lincoln Center, and they put medals around my neck, and we came home with plaques to put on the wall, and now KMFA looks at Knowing the Score as one of their most important shows."

Of course, with that kind of attention, someone is going to come up with the idea of syndicating it. Welcher says that's already happened and that he vetoed the idea.

"If I do that, I can't use the show to promote local events, which is what I do," he explains. "I can't say, 'If you liked this piece of music, you might go to the Austin Lyric Opera production this weekend.' This community has been very good to me. It's time to give something back."

So Welcher is here for a while, staying busy. He'll suggest that the current spate of activity is abnormal, that it will fade.

"It's just karma," he says. "You go months on end when you think the world has forgotten you, and then in one day you get three e-mails [about performing your pieces]. One thing I've learned is I can't control it. An unexplored facet of being a composer is, if you've got a lot of pieces -- and I've got about 90 pieces out there right now -- sooner or later, a few of them are going to catch on."

Sooner, says Bay, who maintains that Welcher is just a step from greatness.

"Maybe his time has come," muses the Austin Symphony conductor. "I hope so."

Maybe the next time Bay asks his friend to New York, it will be to hear a Welcher symphony at Carnegie Hall. n

Symphony No. 2, "Night Watchers," by Dan Welcher, will be performed by the Austin Symphony April 13-14, at Bass Concert Hall.

Dante Dances by Dan Welcher will be performed by Anton Nel, pianist, and Richard McDonald, clarinetist, in the Jessen Series of Distinguished Faculty Artists UT Composers Evening April 21, 8pm, at Jessen Auditorium.

Dan Welcher will conduct the New Music Ensemble and UT Opera Theatre performing Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia April 20, 22, 27, 29, in the McCullough Theatre.

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Dan Welcher, UT, Peter Bay, Austin Symphony Orchestra

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