THE ASCENT OF THE EQUESTRIAN IN A BALLOON (1995)
Commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, Music Director,
through a grant from the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund
Piccolo (doubles Flute), 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, English Horn, E-flat Clarinet, B-flat Clarinet, Bass Clarinet (doubles B-flat Clarinet), 2 Bassoons, Contrabassoon, 4 Horns, 4 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, 2 Timpanists (4 drums each), Cymbals, Piano 4-hands, and Strings
Most of my pieces have fanciful titles, and this one is clearly no exception. I find that having a vivid image in mind helps me focus on the thematic and emotional issues of a piece, and I also hope that the title helps invite the listener into the music. The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon refers to a late 18th century engraving that I have been quite fond of since childhood. It depicts an early ballooning experiment in which a fully caparisoned horse mounted by a red-coated rider ascends into the clouds on the platform of an ornate hot-air balloon, the rays of the sun bursting all around. Apart from simply enjoying the image, I have also come to see it as a metaphor for the act of composing concert music: perhaps not the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B, but the trip is worth the effort.
Another subtext that the piece developed during the process of composition arose from its being dedicated to my son, Sandy, on the occasion of his second birthday. As the music began to take shape I realized that it described the nightly ritual of getting him off to bed. The first section with its high energy brass and timpani, punctuated by tutti orchestral 'swipes,' represents the free-for-all of before-bed play. The march that interrupts all this bustle is me trying to change the subject by carrying him up to bed. Shortly, the strings float through playing fragments from a favorite old American lullaby, "Soon as we all cook sweet potatoes." The music calms considerably, and sleep seems to be in the offing. But then, as parents of toddlers know, comes the second wind: bassoons break in with a lively new theme and play resumes, with even more energy than before, as layer piles upon layer. But, as with all second winds, the excitement ends just as abruptly as it began, with the music suddenly drifting off towards the ceiling.