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Marian McPartland's 'Rachel Carson' In Concert

McPartland performs with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra.
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McPartland performs with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra.

On Nov. 15, 2007, Marian McPartland premiered her composition for symphony and improvised piano, A Portrait of Rachel Carson. This is the Piano Jazz host's loving tribute to one of the environmental movement's early heroes. Carson's book, Silent Spring, was a groundbreaking work exposing the dangers of DDT and environmental carelessness long before such writing was widespread.

Long an admirer of Carson's book and an outspoken environmentalist herself, McPartland penned the tribute and collaborated with renowned jazz and film pianist/arranger Alan Broadbent, who sculpted the orchestrations around McPartland's piano-based compositions. McPartland performed the premiere of this piece with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Donald Portnoy.

Silent Spring Explained

Pianist and composer Marian McPartland has, for years, hailed the work of Carson, in particular her seminal Silent Spring. After giving the book as a gift to her friends and colleagues, McPartland sought to write a composition to honor the influential environmentalist. What began as a semi-improvised piano piece has grown into a full symphonic work, giving McPartland a vehicle with which to fully express her appreciation for Carson's vision, as well as their shared concern for the destiny of the natural world.

Silent Spring begins: "There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surrounding..."

Carson's fabled town is conjured into being with a simple bird-song motif -- the opening line played by the clarinet. The musical portrait unfolds to reveal an idyllic pastoral scene, a rural countryside, and a nearby small town "in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms."

The orchard trees are heavy with fruit, a chorus of birds can be heard, and animals scurry among laurels, ferns, and wildflowers that grow underneath majestic "oaks and maples and birch" that "set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines." The first movement encapsulates a day in this idyllic town, from the first chirp of birds in the morning to the peaceful arrival of dusk.

The second movement emerges in stark contrast to the first. The opening passage -- an aggressive, rigid, and strict musical line carried through the entire orchestra -- represents mankind's march toward progress, as it bears down on the landscape. There is little regard for the life, beauty, and wonder -- nature exists simply "for the convenience of man" and can be controlled. The bird-song motif from the first movement emerges, but it's sadder and more confused, and it occurs with decreasing regularity.

The piece's catastrophic ending comes quickly, dramatically, and with the finality of falling trees. The damage done is irreversible. The bird songs that brought beauty to the town are now gone forever. Next year, spring will arrive in silence.

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