Accessible Songs

Stephen Paulus comes to Tucson for a sing-along and a couple of concerts

Call Stephen Paulus' house in Minnesota to arrange an interview, and he's more than agreeable.

"Any time works for me," he says. "I'll be here, just writing music."

That kind of dedication has resulted in more than 350 Paulus works for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles, solo voice, keyboard and opera. Within the next few days, Tucsonans will get to hear a trio of them.

Stephen Paulus' Tucson weekend begins Thursday evening, when the prolific composer will premiere a new work, "Dylan Thomas Songs," as part of a Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert. The concert repeats Friday night. TSO fans are already familiar with Paulus, who has served as the orchestra's composer in residence.

On Saturday morning, Paulus will conduct an entire audience of vocalists in two of his choral works at St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church. Anyone who shows up for the free sing-along will be invited to chime in on Paulus' "Pilgrim's Hymn" and "Psalm 84," both of which were composed in the last dozen or so years.

There will be no chance for rehearsal—just spontaneous performance, which delights Paulus.

"These pieces are not angular or atonal or in 12-tone or anything like that," Paulus explains. "They are primarily tonal works, but they have some refreshing colors in them and will be pretty accessible for most singers.

"The person who is putting all this together is Kenneth Kelley, who commissioned some of my works a few years ago for the First Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, N.J. And now he's in Tucson, and Ken wanted works that were relatively accessible and that were relatively straightforward things."

The free event is being presented by the Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Paulus, 60, has written in a great many styles for a wide variety of venues—from the Seattle Children's Chorus to the TSO, from the New York Philharmonic to the Cleveland Orchestra, from middle school bands to opera.

"I like the variety. It keeps me on my toes, keeps me sharp. You never get stagnant or bored," he says.

He has created nine operatic works for the dramatic stage, including the acclaimed The Postman Always Rings Twice. Among his many chamber works, he composed a piece for the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music in Tucson.

He also keeps busy creating music for soloists.

"I'm writing a violin concerto for the Cleveland Orchestra," he says, "and I just finished a cello concerto for Lynn Harrell, one of the world's most renowned cellists."

Paulus says he is thrilled whenever he gets the chance to work with TSO and George Hanson, the symphony's music director and conductor.

In addition to Paulus' "Dylan Thomas Songs," the TSO Classic Series concert—dubbed Strauss, Listz and Poetry—will include Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs." Soprano Elizabeth Futral will sing on both the Strauss and the Paulus.

The orchestra, conducted by Hanson, also will play Giuseppe Verdi's La Forza del Destino and Franz Liszt's Les Préludes, a work that inspired its own new musical form, the symphonic tone poem.

"Dylan Thomas Songs" is an orchestral setting for three of the Welsh poet's best-known works, "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night," "This Side of the Truth" and "And Death Shall Have No Dominion."

All of the poems deal with death, "but not in a gloom-and-doom sort of way," Paulus says. "They are more contemplative."

Paulus read the poems multiple times until their innate musicality became apparent. "I know that sounds kind of hazy, but the musicality is there. It has to do with the flow of the words and the way they sound."

The biggest challenge in creating a work such as "Dylan Thomas Songs" is to keep the orchestra from overwhelming the singer, Paulus says.

"You have to figure out how to use the whole orchestra and not make it look like they are just accompanying the singer. I mean, they're all there to play; you have to figure out the best way of using the power and not have it overcome the lyrics."

Hailed for her stunning singing, Futral has performed works by Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, Glass and Previn.

Paulus has worked with the singer before.

"She was one of four soloists in my work 'To Be Certain of the Dawn,' which premiered this last March," he says. "I've been in touch with her while she's been learning the (Thomas) work. She's very enthusiastic about it, and I know she's going to give a great performance."

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