2 concerts feature McConnell compositions

Heidelberg University is to host a pair of weekend concerts featuring original compositions by Douglas McConnell, a professor in the school of music. Guest artist Gail Levinsky, saxophone, is to perform in both recitals.

The first is at 7 p.m. Friday in Brenneman Music Hall.

Levinsky is to team up with another guest artist, Chi-Chen Wu, on piano. They are to perform the local premiere of “Happy Endings,” a suite McConnell composed for tenor sax and piano.

Wu is to depart Saturday for the University of Wyoming, where she is assistant professor of piano and coordinator of collaborative piano.

Levinsky, though, is to stay in Tiffin to perform another piece by McConnell, “Your Morning Rises as a Song,” during his wife Joan’s organ recital at 3 p.m. Sunday in Trinity United Church of Christ.

The McConnells explained how the guest artists were chosen to perform in Tiffin.

“Gail came to Mississippi State in the 1990s. … Doug had already been there three or four years, so Gail joined the faculty and we became friends with her,” Joan said. “Chi-Chen is a much more recent addition to the acquaintances. She worked with Gail in Pennsylvania.”

Soon after Levinsky arrived at Mississippi State, she asked McConnell what he had written for saxophone. At the time, he had no music for that instrument. She expressed an interest in collaborating with him to write some pieces for saxophone.

Their efforts produced a number of compositions and led to a friendship that has lasted to the present day.

“We’ve always stayed in touch. Joan and I moved to Tiffin in 2000, and Gail at that same time went to Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.,” McConnell said. “One of my more successful pieces (with Levinsky) was ‘Langston’s Lot,’ a song cycle for tenor voice, alto saxophone and piano, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. … Gail commissioned that piece with another colleague, down in Mississippi.”

In 2011, Levinsky and McConnell composed a work called “Happy Endings,” because Levinsky wanted something new to play at a March 2012 music conference in Arizona. The piece needed to relate to a specific theme, and she requested something for piano and tenor saxophone.

“There’s a lot of literature for the alto saxophone and not as much for the tenor,” McConnell said. “I started thinking about things I was interested in that would fit that theme. Somehow, I came up with the idea of honoring a composer who has been influential to me, that being Kurt Weill.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, Weill was in New York writing songs that have become standards, such as “September Song” “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and “Lost in the Stars.”

Before that, he had composed music for “The Threepenny Opera” and other stage productions in his native country of Germany.

Of Jewish heritage, Weill left Germany with the rise of Hitler, living and working in France before coming to the United States.

McConnell’s “Happy Endings” takes its title from a quote in a Weill composition.

“It’s a four-movement suite that is my tribute to Kurt Weill and his musical style … as one composer emulating or celebrating another,” he said.

The music imitates pieces Weill wrote in Berlin. In his research, McConnell has learned Weill wanted to write music that appealed to ordinary people, rather than to elitist opera audiences.

A classically-trained composer, Weill incorporated political commentary and social justice issues into his compositions. Few of Weill’s productions are staged any more, but many individual songs have survived.

In a time before stage musicals became popular, Weill was an innovator.

“I think what he was looking for was something in between to bring the best of all those worlds together,” McConnell said. “He comes up with a category that sometimes people call ‘music theater.’ It’s not purely an opera, but it’s not really a musical either.”

Because conference presentations are limited to about 25 minutes, McConnell only wrote four movements for the “Happy Endings” suite. He intends to write a “Part II” with a focus on Weill’s American period.

“The music is mine, composed by Doug McConnell, so I don’t want anybody to misunderstand. But every now and again, there is what I call ‘a teaspoon of Weill’ thrown into the recipe. I might take a little three-note motif from a song and work and develop that as a composer. That way, I feel more connected to the man whose life and career I’m trying to memorialize,” he said.

The tactic also avoids copyright issues.

The movements featured in Friday’s concert are “The Song of Human Frailty and Woe,” “Novelty Song,” “Torch Song” and “The Beggar’s Scherzo.” The fourth movement actually is an English folk tune.

McConnell said it was part of an 1800s play called “The Beggar’s Opera” and was adapted for “Threepenny.”

“I used that because it was engaging and lively,” McConnell said. “At the conference, Gail and Chi-Chen, who are coming here, gave the premiere. They gave a wonderful performance of it there. Unfortunately, they didn’t have recording set up. I was angry when I found that out.”

With the two of them together at Heidelberg, McConnell is going to see that “Happy Endings” is recorded.

Levinsky and Wu also are to play piano and saxophone pieces by Gustav Mahler, Franz Liszt and Fernande De Cruck during the first half of the concert.

McConnell plans to give a short lecture about Weill before they perform his composition to conclude the recital.

Joan’s concert Sunday is primarily for organ, but Levinsky is to perform on saxophone for two pieces.

“I can’t remember how I started putting this together, but I had in mind a couple of pieces from the first half of the 20th century. Then Doug said, ‘Well, Gail’s going to be here. What if you did something for organ and saxophone? That’s unusual,'” Joan recalled.

As the plans went forward, McConnell wrote “Your Morning Rises With a Song” for Joan and Levinsky to perform.

He also suggested his wife devote her recital to organ literature from the early 1900s to the present. Usually, she selects a wide range of music, so an all-modern program was something different.

“Organ literature goes back to the 1400s … and I usually try to play something from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s … to hit all the centuries,” Joan said. “There’s so much fabulous music for us to play, both in church and in concert.”

The earliest pieces on the program are by Marcel Dupre (1920) and Percy Whitlock (1933).

From there, the music jumps to the 1970s with “Adagio pour Solo instrumental et Orgue” by Suzanne Haik Vantoura. Levinsky is to play saxophone for that selection.

Joan calls the adagio “a slow but beautiful exploration of melody” by the Jewish-French composer.

“During the Nazi occupation, she and her family moved to southern France and she began her study of the melodic accents of the cancellation marks in the Bible,” Joan said.

Other pieces on the program are by living composers. Dan Locklair’s “Rubrics” (1988) is based on instructions printed in red in the Episcopal bible. Joan said the piece is contemporary and tricky with shifting metrical accents.

She also will play two movements of Calvin Taylor’s “Spiritual Suite for Organ” (2002) and her husband’s 2013 “hot off the press” composition.

“We recently lost a good friend, former colleague, Leanne Fazio … Leanne was also a colleague at Mississippi, so Doug, Leanne and Gail were all on that faculty together. This piece is in memory of Leanne,” Joan said.

The title comes from the hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

Although the melody has many different hymn texts, in the Church of Christ, “Your Morning Rises With a Song” is a phrase from one of the verses. The melody line is repeated during the song with variations in the meter and mood.

“The tune is shared back and forth between the two instruments,” Joan said. “It’s very free at the beginning, and then it becomes very rhythmic, as that tune is very rhythmic. There is a big, glorious finale.”

Joan said she and Levinsky had one extended rehearsal together during fall break when Joan drove to Pennsylvania. They will have another intense practice here before the concert.

McConnell has not yet heard the work performed.

Both concerts are free. For additional information, call (419) 448-2073.