Sunflower Suite (2003)
for sextet (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion) [14:30]
Prologue: Nature rarer uses yellow
I. A Fifth of a Miracle
II. riverbank sunset Frisco tincan vision
III. Pile the bananas on planks.
IV. ¡Girasol de Fuego!
V. Weary of Time
Sunflower Suite takes Van Gogh’s ‘canvas all in yellow,’ his still life of fifteen sunflowers in London’s National Gallery, as a starting point for exploring the spectrum of shades of character associated with the color yellow: bright, loud, stark, bold, vibrant, irreverent, capricious, revelatory, blinding, redemptive… The image of the sunflower recurs throughout, refracted and transformed through the eyes of ‘visionary’ poets such as Dickinson, Ginsberg, Lorca, and Blake.
Imagine the prologue as a painter sifting through a bag of paints, considering various colors (the fragments of unrelated music that emerge from interspersed noise) before ultimately settling on yellow with the explosion that opens ‘A Fifth of a Miracle.’ The clarinet delivers the manic ‘sermon’ of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’ in the second movement, where a four note chord (D-E-B-C#), analagous to the dead sunflower that triggers Ginsberg’s revelation, is progressively invigorated until the movement’s frenetic climax.
‘Pile the bananas on planks’ is Wallace Stevens’ rallying cry for raw, unmediated expression in American art; a mocking waltz is interrupted by irreverent, quasi-tropical interjections and a bass clarinet cadenza. A mischievous piccolo paints blossom patterns in fireworks in the dancing ‘¡Girasol de Fuego!’, while a muted cello sings a yearning wordless setting of William Blake’s transcendental ‘Ah, Sunflower!’ to close the suite.
Sunflower Suite was written for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series and was premiered in the summer of 2003, the sesquicentennial of Van Gogh’s birth, by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra on June 19th at London’s Royal Festival Hall and repeated June 20th at the National Gallery.