MICHAEL COLGRASS: Born in Chicago, April 22, 1932; now living in Toronto

Delta is a triple concerto with violin, clarinet and percussion as the three soloists. The image of a delta – the triangular, fan-shaped region where a river separates into many smaller streams as it approaches the mouth - plays a role in the shaping of the music in that three rivers come together in Ottawa (the Ottawa, the Rideau and the Gatineau), the city for whose orchestra Delta was written. In this context, each soloist plays a different variant of the same music. The convergence of styles also serves as a metaphor for the many different kinds of people living in Canada.

Having passed his 78th birthday last April, Michael Colgrass now ranks as one of Canada’s senior composers. He also holds a unique distinction among prominent classical composers in North America in that he is the only one whose music is well known equally on both sides of the Canadian-American border. His life has divided neatly into two nearly equal halves, first in the United States, then in Canada, where he has lived since 1974.

Colgrass’s musical education was undertaken with such prominent figures as Darius Milhaud, Lucas Foss, Ben Weber and Wallingford Riegger. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1956, he went to New York City where he free-lanced as a percussion player in a wide range of “gigs” ranging from the New York Philharmonic to Dizzy Gillespie’s jazz band to the original West Side Story orchestra on Broadway. Over the years, Colgrass turned more to composing, and now enjoys a career based solely on commissions, which have come from the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, Toronto Symphony and many others. His list of prizes includes a Pulitzer (for Déja vu, 1978), two Guggenheims, a Rockefeller Grant, and the 1988 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music. Recent works include Raag Mala for wind ensemble (2006), Side by Side for harpsichord, altered piano and orchestra (2007), and Pan Trio for steel drums, harp, marimba and xylophone (2008).

Delta resulted from a commission from the National Arts Center Orchestra, which gave the world premiere on October 16, 1979 with Mario Bernardi conducting. Here is the composer’s description of the work:

“In 1979, when I was commissioned to write a concerto for percussion, violin, clarinet and orchestra, I went to Ottawa to meet the musicians and hear them play. During the visit, I was impressed by Ottawa being the meeting place of three rivers (the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau), and this image fused in my mind with the idea of a triple concerto. The title Delta seemed appropriate not only because delta means triangle (being the triangular shaped fourth letter of the Greek alphabet), but because a delta is the mouth of a river that fans out into rivulets of water as it meets the sea. This metaphor describes perfectly the nature of this piece, because the three soloists play their own independent solos, each stemming from the same central theme.

“The idea of rivers flowing through the lives of people of various cultures and through changing times is echoed by the soloists in Delta, who play in a counterpoint of styles that keep evolving and changing. At the opening, for example, the timpani play music in the style of the North American Indians while the violin plays a twentieth-century variation and the clarinet a romantic variation of the same theme. These solos start by interlacing gradually, then overlap in various ways as each explores its own musical style – romantic, modern, jazz, etc.

“The three soloists are situated on stage with their own separate orchestras and change position from time to time to enhance the concept of their individuality and to separate them visually for the listener. I might add that thought the listener will hear various modes of music in Delta, some of which will recall specific styles past and present, all the music in this work is original and nothing is quoted from known works. If any one style predominates, it might be that of the native Indian, inspired by the Ottawa as the central river of the three and the original home of the Ottawa Indians, an Algonquin-speaking tribe. To the listener, I think the overall effect of Delta will be that of a homogeneous mix of styles reflecting the great variety of origins of North American people.”
Robert Markow

© 2010, Robert Markow

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