Commissioned by the Colonial Symphony, Paul Hostetter, Music Director and Conductor
First performed in 2006
Published by: Dunsinane Music
Composer's Note: My inspiration for Smiling Dennis is the great bass clarinet virtuoso Dennis Smylie. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Dennis over the past several years owing to our mutual affiliation at Montclair State University. We would meet unintentionally in the halls and begin conversations regarding all manners of topics: from the colorful history of the bass clarinet—and bass clarinetists—to the furious appetite of the New Jersey groundhog. Dennis inevitably finds the humor in things—he revels in discovering the comic story that can often be found, just underneath the topic. When Maestro Hostetter asked me to compose a new piece during his initial season with the Colonial Symphony, and mentioned the possibility of a work related to “humor,” I immediately thought of the Dennis. When I spoke with Maestro Hostetter the following day, I had already conceived of the title (very unusual for me—I’m much more a musical/visual thinker than a verbal one) as well as the overall musical narrative.
Smiling Dennis is a concerto in one movement for one bass clarinetist and twenty string players. Somewhat unusually, each performer has a unique musical assignment—that is, the string players are not aligned into their typical alliances of “first violins,” “second violins” and so forth. This permits a more complex string texture, allowing each performer to assert his or her individuality. Indeed, the notion of individuality is essential to this concerto, as it often is in concerti. For example, Smiling Dennis begins with the bass clarinet not quite obeying the conventions of tuning to the orchestra. Rather than simply take the “A” offered by the Concertmaster, the soloist playfully performs a gently descending series of notes. Offered another “A,” the soloist repeats this gesture (though with a different descending series). This exchange occurs four times. In the final one, members of the string orchestra join the soloist in the first significant statement of one of the central melodies. The bass clarinet completes this introductory section alone, playing all the way down to a low “A,” a third below the lowest note in the celli. Following the introduction, Smiling Dennis consists of six sections, somewhat along the lines of a dance suite: an energetic Allegro, a lyric Arioso, a forward Piú mosso, a light-hearted and syncopated dance, a even more energetic passage for strings alone, and finally a modified return to the introduction. In the return, the string ensemble is no longer at all oppositional to the soloist. Rather, in response to the soloist’s gentle cajoling and supportive commentary, the strings accompany—with pleasure, you might say—the quiet, individual playfulness of the bass clarinet. The work ends with a return to the soloist’s substratum “A,” accompanied quietly by the strings.