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Pan Journal

December 18, 2016: Mariko Anraku, harp; Emmanuel Ceysson, harp; David Chan, concertmaster; Catherine Ro, violin; Dov Scheindlin, viola; Rafael Figueroa, cello

Melinda Wagner’s catalog of works embodies music esteemed for its exceptional beauty, power, and intelligence. Wagner received widespread attention when her colorful Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Since then she has composed such major works as her Trombone Concerto for Joseph Alessi and the New York Philharmonic, a piano concerto entitled Extremity of Sky for Emanuel Ax and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), and Little Moonhead for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as part of its popular “New Brandenburgs” project. Emanuel Ax has also performed Extremity of Sky on tour with the National Symphony and with the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Toronto and Kansas City Symphonies.

Championed early on by Daniel Barenboim, Wagner has received three commissions from the CSO, most recently Proceed, Moon, which the CSO will premiere under the baton of Susanna Malkki in 2017. Melinda Wagner’s works have also been performed recently by the American Composers Orchestra, the United States Marine Band, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the American Brass Quintet, the Empyrean Ensemble, and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Wagner’s many honors include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Wagner received her undergraduate degree and an honorary doctorate from Hamilton College, her master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and her Ph.D. and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Pennsylvania.

A passionate and inspiring teacher, Melinda Wagner has given master classes at many fine institutions across the United States, including Harvard, Yale, Eastman, Juilliard, and the University of California–Davis. She has held faculty positions at Brandeis University and Smith College, and she has served as a mentor at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Wellesley Composers Conference, and Yellow Barn. Ms. Wagner is currently on the faculty of the Juilliard School.

Wagner composed Pan Journal in 2009 on a commission from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for harpist Elizabeth Hainen and the Juilliard String Quartet, who gave the premiere on April 26 that year at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center in the Perelman Theater. The title refers to the Greek god of pastures, forests, flocks, and herds, who in one famous myth invented the Pan flute or Pan pipes after chasing the wood-nymph Syrinx, who had been changed into a reed to escape his amorous advances. According to the composer, however, “the title came to me long after the piece was finished.” She continued: “I just liked the idea of ‘documenting’ a day in the life of a mythical being. . . . I never think in terms of a ‘story’ when I’m composing.”

“Pan Journal,” says Wagner, “is rather mercurial and a bit volatile,” which speaks to Pan’s range of character, from love-lorn to impish. “Its form is loosely arch-like, with the work’s greatest intensity accumulating around its center. It opens with a slow introduction based on a cello melody that is referred to later in the piece and closes with an evanescent coda. I wanted the harp and the strings to be equal partners here so that they could play off one another, so, since the strings can easily sustain tones and play chromatically while the harp’s plucked notes fade quickly and can only be chromatically altered by using the foot-pedal mechanism, I made much use of several techniques—tremolo, pizzicato, glissando, etc.—that they share.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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