"Forests." It's the kind of word one associates with new vistas. And to some extent that's what the piece of that title represents for both composer Henry Wolking and the Utah Arts Festival.
"Linda (festival executive director Linda Bonar) had wanted to start a commissioning process," Wolking recalls, "and she knew of my work through various Utah Symphony performances and other things she had heard. Initially her idea was to feature two Utah composers, myself and Tully Cathey, but from a financial standpoint that turned out not to be practical for the first concert. Eventually it was determined I would be the first person to receive a commission. Then I volunteered to assist in establishing some guidelines for a yearly commission by which a Utah composer would be chosen to create a work to be premiered at the festival by the Utah Symphony, if and when they were available."Thus at Wednesday's opening concert, to begin at 8:30 p.m., the winner of next year's commission will be announced, together with his $5,000 award. But not before festival patrons have heard the world premiere of Wolking's "Forests," the 12-minute piece he produced in response to this year's commission, followed by his "Blues Fantasy" and Cathey's arrangement of Sting's "Fragile."
("Forests" will also be performed Sunday, June 30, at the orchestra's concert at the new Red Butte Gardens amphitheater, at 6:30 p.m.)
Underwritten by a grant from US WEST Foundation, this year's commission has produced a work Wolking describes as "an environmental-awareness work intended to draw attention to the world's great forests."
He didn't have any particular forest in mind, Wolking says, "but forests as a whole," which he has tried to evoke through "a variety of sounds that were directly inspired by meditating in forests."
Most of that took place between May and September of last year in various forests in northern Utah, southern Colorado, central Idaho and northern Florida. Among other things, Wolking says, "I've always been fascinated by Messiaen and his use of bird songs. So every place I went I listened to bird songs and transcribed their calls at accurate pitch." He was especially taken by the redwing blackbirds of Colorado and a pair of owls he heard hooting to each other at dusk in a remote northen-Utah forest.
"What really surprised me when I started analyzing them was how jazzy they sounded," says the composer, who is director of jazz studies at the University of Utah. By contrast the more densely orchestrated sections, he says, "represent wind and various forest noises. When the wind blows, every exposed surface vibrates."
Wolking is no stranger to Utah Symphony premieres. In 1982 the orchestra premiered his Symphony No. 1 ("Lydian Horizon"), which then went on to become a semifinalist in that year's Friedheim Competition. Other works followed, including "Pangaea," premiered in 1988 by the University of Utah Symphony and soon to be released on CD on the CRS label, and "Blues Fantasy," commissioned by Christopher Wilkins and the Colorado Springs Symphony. In addition another "environmentally aware" work, based, according to Wolking, "on the poetic imagery of southern Utah," is to be premiered next October in Chile.
"It's kind of a new direction I'm going in," the 43-year-old composer says, "a style of writing I refer to as `friendly chaos.' Friendly because the harmonic and melodic material is fairly tonal and accessible, chaotic because of its density and almost continuous rhythmic complexity."
One gathers the accessibility factor is particularly important to Wolking. "I feel very strongly," he says, "that music should express something other than intellectual abstraction, to be appreciated by future generations of refined intellectuals. I also feel that unless artists take direct action now to awaken the world to basic ecological and survival issues, there may not be any future generations to admire our handiwork - or future generations to indulge in refinements of any kind."
Other works to be included on Wednesday's concert include Sousa's "El Capitan," the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner's "Lohengrin," Dvorak's Slavonic Dance No.1 and Strauss' "Voices of Spring."
Entry is included in that night's general festival admission: $4 adults, $2 senior citizens, free to children 12 and under.