“Puckett is adept at moving between extreme points on the tonal spectrum for expressive effect.”Opera News
a concerto grosso for string quartet and orchestra (also see wind band version scoring)
commissioned by a consortium led by University of North Carolina Greensboro
SCORING (orchestra version)
piano/celesta (1 player)
percussion (3 players)
SCORING (wind band version)
2 alto saxophone (1 doubles soprano)
piano/celesta (1 player)
percussion (4 players)
What makes the construct of the short story itself so unique among other literary devices is the demands placed on the author to create a meaningful narrative. They must describe the relationships between characters, present a conflict, and resolve it in a remarkably short span. It takes a deft writer to cleverly craft within these restrictions, and yet some have pushed the genre further by creating collections of stories that seem at first disparate, but eventually are revealed to be intertwined. Much like these painstakingly crafted works of literature, Joel Puckett’s Short Stories is a study in structure. On the surface, it bears the appearance of eight vignettes strung together into a concerto for solo string quartet and orchestra. Upon listening, however, the work’s movements reveal themselves as inextricably linked through a layered thematic language that plays out through a sort of “game of pairs.”
The external movements of the work serve as a frame story, not unlike Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Haunted, which the composer cites as an influential on the structure of the work. Between the external movements, Puckett presents three pairs of linked movements. Each of these sections highlights two of the solo voices, featured at the section’s conclusion with a virtuosic duo cadenza. The final internal grouping—the sixth and seventh movements—takes the independent duo cadenzas and superimposes them. It is only at this climactic moment that we hear that the concerto’s primary theme—the basis for both the first and last movements—is the combination of the elements within these cadenzas. In a sense, the entire work evolves from the constituent solo playing of its stars.
The opening—amusingly titled “Somewhere near the end”—introduces the notion of pairs in its own way. There is diametric conflict between both the soloists and the ensemble as, until the end of the movement, the two groups play almost exclusively in isolation. The harmonic language likewise poses friction, first hinting at the unbridled optimism of D major, and almost immediately thereafter shattering it with a tempestuous dissonance of extended harmonies in G minor. The effect is that of a series of dramatic wailings that set the stage for the players.
The first internal section, comprising the movements “Introit” and “The Priests,” is based on ancient liturgical materials. The introit itself is a part of the Proper of the Catholic mass, and this placid movement also presents a part of the Mass’ Ordinary by way of a “Kyrie,” passed from instrument to instrument in the movement’s center. The dramatic beginning of “The Priests” is a stark contrast with its bold chorale scored largely for brass, and the rhythmic ostinato from the low strings (“Regina Coeli”: a reference to the antiphon to the Virgin Mary). Complex mixed meters dominate the pulse as a punchy homophonic accompaniment supports the vivid rhythms of the soloists.
The contrasting middle pairing (“Recitative” and “mother and child”) has a basis in Baroque opera, modeling a recitative and aria. “Recitative” serves mostly as an introduction, with a sparse accompaniment of vibraphone, celesta, and harp. The opening of “mother and child” expands the instrumentation to include the woodwinds and horns, dancing about gracefully with a patient, yet lilting tempo. This middle section is the longest single segment of the piece, and harmonically the most static, as it floats past slowly in a cloudy, dreamlike E-flat major. The gentle caress of the violin duet is both captivating and endearing throughout.
The tonal center of E-flat remains for the sixth movement, but little else is held as the pleasant dream of the middle section is roused by “sonno agitato”—literally, “restless sleep.” This movement, solely for the ripieno, harkens back to the most tumultuous moments of the first movement. The pulse quickens unrelentingly and the ensemble spills over, out of control, into “The Bridge,” a cadenza for the concertino. Here the previous duo cadenzas are pressed into conflict with each other in a manner that seems incompatible and dissonant. As the soloists play together, however, the argument between them is sated and they begin to find a synergy in their florid and virtuosic variations. The energetic realization of the work’s opening motive ushers in the ebullient “Ma Fin” (a nod to Machaut’s rondeau “Ma fin est mon commencement”—literally, “my beginning is my end”). This finale starts with a return to the first movement, but this time, the soloists come together as one and, with a battering of thirty-second notes, breaks through the restlessness of the ensemble and forces them back on track into the brilliant opening, finally moving together toward their happily ever afters.—Jacob Wallace