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National Public Radio

Performance Today broadcast
March 11, 1999

NPR Interview with Russell Peck: RP
by WDAV, radio station at Davidson College, Announcer: A

A:
WDAV, a public radio station at Davidson University just north of Charlotte, North Carolina, celebrated its Twentieth Anniversary last week by giving a gift to the world. The station commissioned North Carolina composer, Russell Peck, to write an orchestral piece. WDAV then presented the world premiere last Friday as part of its first live broadcast of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. The piece is called “Voice of the Wood” and it is unusual for more than the way it came into being. It is scored for the rare combination of four cellos and orchestra. Russell Peck says that he wanted to take advantage of the cello’s ability to sing.

RP:
They cover the entire range of the human voice. They are really exactly the same from soprano down to bass, so that makes them very special, and that is one of the reasons it was most attractive to me.

A:
Did you arrange them in sort of a soprano-alto-tenor-bass way where they are playing different registers all the time, or did you mix them and match them?

RP:
I tried to do all of those things that would be most effective, and one of them is to actually have them play in a harmonic fashion, playing close harmony. So, in that sense when they were playing in close harmony I did have them arrayed in a kind of top to bottom, 1-2-3-4, like a quartet of vocalists, for example, and then when they play independently and play their contraputal parts, they weave in and out, and sometimes a second player is on top, and they have little solo passages for each one, also, so there was a lot of variety in that way.

A:
Could you explain the title, “Voice of the Wood,” for us?

RP:
There are two features to it. Of course, I am a hiker, I enjoy the woods, so there is a kind of, that aspect to it, but in addition, really, when you see four cellos on stage you are impressed by these four large and beautiful boxes that are resonating with the musical sounds produced by the strings, so that really it is the “Voice of the Wood” in a sense that you are hearing when you hear the cello, and that is the aspect of it that I relate to the most.

A:
This was a piece commissioned by a radio station, WDAV, to celebrate its Twentieth Anniversary, so this is a classic example of an occasional piece, as it is called. Over the years, there have been some occasions where occasional pieces really took off and entered the repertory, say the “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky, but for the most part occasional pieces appear and then disappear. How do you feel about writing this sort of occasional piece? I know you do it quite a bit. What is your feeling about that?

RP:
Well, the question really I think revolves around whether the occasion is being dealt with in the work. There was nothing about this particular piece that reflected the fact that it was a Twentieth Anniversary of a radio station. I could have called it “Air Play” and actually thought about that, but there was no feature of it that connected it specifically to an event. I have had orchestras suggest to me that they wanted to commission me to do a piece that would somehow connect with that city or for some particular time or some historical feature of that particular city, and I have resisted all of those suggestions because of just exactly what you were talking about it. I feel that occasional works do rarely take off in the repertoire and become imbedded in the repertoire, and I try to write works that will have a long life and be suitable for many orchestras that have no reason to be particularly interested in the circumstances that brought the work to life.

A:
And you have no qualms at all, in fact you are very forthcoming about the fact that you like to compose in a style that will communicate with audiences.

RP:
That is true. The word accessibility is used a lot in this context and actually I find it disturbing because I think that great composers of the symphonic past, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and others, they took accessibility for granted. What they were trying to do, not what they were trying to do but hoping for really was a tremendous positive response from their listeners, and that is what I am hoping for, also, and so accessibility is a word that suggests that contemporary music is some kind of black box with sort of frosted windows and you have to scrape with your fingernails to try to get a peek inside, and that is not really the way I think about it at all. Like I said, I take accessibility more for granted and try to shoot higher than that.

A:
Russell Peck, thank you, thanks very much.

RP:
Thank you very much.

A:
North Carolina composer, Russell Peck, whose “Voice of the Wood,” a concerto for four cellos and orchestra, premiered last week at a concert by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. I am very happy to report that Russell Peck got that tremendous positive response he was talking about. At last Friday’s premiere, the audience was on its feet just moments after the music ended. Here is what they were clapping for, “Voice of the Wood,” in two movements called “Prelude” and “Fantasia.” Peter McCoppin conducts the Charlotte Symphony with soloists Alan Black, Alexander Kramer, Tonya Beckler, and Janis Nilsen who were seated in a semi-circle on specially crafted risers just in front of the conductor’s podium.

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