Music » Music Features

Giving Alec Wilder the credit he’s due

Tony Caramia and Mark Kellogg play locally composed works


Among composer Alec Wilder's autobiographical papers is a story of kismet that begins in the Main Hall of the Eastman School of Music. Wilder's writings betray the anxiety he felt every time he walked through Eastman's Gibbs-Street entrance, as a lesson-taker and not a registered student.

            "It wasn't a habit of mine to spend any more time in the Main Hall of the Eastman School of Music than it took me to walk from the entrance to the elevator," he writes in a chunk of papers labeled "Retrospect." "I was incapable," he writes, "of introducing myself to the bright-eyed music students milling around the hall."

            Still, Wilder was lingering around the entrance one spring day when a stranger approached him. The man asked Wilder if he'd like to be in a movie. His name was Remsen Wood, and he was playing talent scout for James Sibley Watson. Wilder was skeptical until Watson's name reached his ears --- he had always wanted to meet him. Wilder agreed to star as a lovelorn butler in a film called The Dinner Party.

            Trombonist Mark Kellogg and pianist Tony Caramia will be performing Wilder's works alongside songs by two other composers with Upstate New York roots --- Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen --- on Sunday. "Wilder probably had the most colorful background," Kellogg, associate professor of trombone at Eastman and the lead trombonist in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, says. "He was a real meanderer."

            Each story, poem, photograph, and manuscript inside the enormous Alec Wilder Archive at Eastman's Sibley Music Library gives a feeling for the man as a nomad and genius. Wilder studied at Eastman for a short time, but learned, as he puts it, only "a little counterpoint and composition. No orchestration or theory."

            Wilder's frustration at his incomplete musical education shows in another story from his autobiographical papers. He was attending the final rehearsal of the first orchestral piece he'd ever written. Howard Hanson, former Eastman director and a well-known composer and conductor in his own right, was leading the rehearsal.

            Wilder fled the rehearsal before it ended, annoyed at his own compositional errors, and spent the evening instead at a Rochester speakeasy called Jesus Lighthouse. He found out later that Hanson had re-scored the muddled section for him, and that the 10-minute work was performed that evening.

            Though Wilder's papers suggest he was prone to self-doubt and second-guessing, the composer and poet still managed to amass a huge body of work. He wrote sonatas, concerti, jazz suites, popular songs, and more, for stars like Frank Sinatra, Doc Severinson, Cab Calloway, Marian McPartland, and Stan Getz. His singular style never fully satisfied purists from the jazz or classical realm.

            "He composed music in traditional, classical formats, but his musical style was so much his own," says David Peter Coppen, special collections librarian and archivist at Sibley. "His songs are so intensely poetic and so intensely lyrical that he really speaks to a universal audience."

            Kellogg and Caramia will play Wilder's Sonata for Euphonium and Piano, "Rhythmic Movements," "Neurotic Goldfish," and "The Lady Sings the Blues" in their upcoming performance. Five of Kellogg's students will collaborate with Kellogg on a Wilder tune called "It's So Peaceful in the Country."

            Of the two other composers whose music will be performed, Arlen, from Buffalo, is perhaps best known for scoring The Wizard of Oz. Van Heusen, who grew up in Syracuse, wrote a number of award-winning tunes that have become standards.

            Kellogg and Caramia's performance date coincides with the release of their CD, Upstate Standards, which they recorded last September. On the CD, they synthesizedideas with the help of producer and RPO conductor Jeff Tyzik. "He gave tentative suggestions," Caramia says of Tyzik. "We'd already done [the pieces] in numerous venues."

            "He really was listening to not only the dynamic balance between trombone and piano, but the musical balance, ideological balance, and stylistic balance," he says of Tyzik.

            The Wilder, Arlen, and Van Heusen selections on Sunday's program differ from those on the CD. The jazz CD is the fourth to emerge under the Eastman-in-Concert label.

Kellogg and Caramia will play Sunday, February 29, at Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs Street, at 3 p.m. Tix: $5. 274-1100.