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What makes it great?

Previewing the premiere of Bill Dobbins’ ‘Guitar Concerto’


Last week, Nicholas Goluses walked into his studio, picked up his chocolate-colored, six-stringed guitar, and played through his solo parts in Bill Dobbins' new Guitar Concerto.

"It's exuberant music," he said. "It has the joy of rhythm, the joy of dance." He hugged the instrument to his chest. "I've been waiting a long time for a great American guitar concerto like this one."

Proclaiming art "great" and "American" risks sounding grandiose and nationalistic, but it reflects the aspirations of serious artists since the country's founding. Writers such as Nathanial Hawthorne aspired to write a great American novel. Around 1920, painter Georgia O'Keefe declared her intention to create a great American painting. She sketched the skull of a bull. "They will not think it great with the red stripes down the sides --- red, white and blue --- but they will notice it," she said.

Music students and their professors sit around in coffee shops debating what qualifies symphonic music as "American." Aaron Copland comes up in the debate. So do George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington. Critics have called Ray Harris' 1939 Third Symphony, "The Great American." (In 1982, C. Curtis-Smith actually stuck that title on one of his own pieces, an act the late Rochester composer David Diamond called "a happy impertinence.")

The title "great American guitar concerto" has had fewer contenders, mostly due to technological limitations. By itself, the instrument is too quiet against a full orchestra. But new, sophisticated amplification techniques have made the guitar-orchestra combo more practical. In the past few years, more than a dozen American composers have presented new concertos for classical guitar and orchestra: they include Aaron Jay Kernis, Christopher Rouse, and Chinese American composer Tan Dun.

This week, an audience in Eastman Theatre will hear the newest one.

Its composer, Bill Dobbins, was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1947. Trained as a classical pianist, he's performed solos with symphony orchestras under conductors Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss, and Louis Lane.

That's news to those who think of Dobbins as a strictly jazz guy. The soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair has taught jazz at the Eastman School of Music for decades, and he possesses an international reputation for his work with jazz ensembles and big bands in the US and abroad.

When Dobbins received the commission to write a guitar concerto from the School's Hanson Institute for American Music, he threw stereotypes out the window.

"I don't make any distinction between classical and jazz," he says, adding, "but classical composers would write much more interesting music if they let themselves be influenced by jazz." With that in mind, Dobbins employed the tonal, chromatic language of composers from Bach to Shostakovich.

The work opens with a brief introduction and lyrical theme from the guitar. The second movement begins with a tender and melancholy solo that Dobbins wrote to eulogize a close friend of his, a German music publisher named Hans Gruber. But the sorrow doesn't last. Dobbins shifts the mood in the last movement, accelerating to a frenzied flamenco. The composer says he drew inspiration from a universe of musical spheres, from Spanish and Brazilian composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos to American songwriters such as Jerome Kern.

"It's got all the goods," raves guitarist Nicholas Goluses, who's been working on the solo part for several months. "It's a sustained climax for about eight minutes."

Is it American?

Saxophonist Ray Ricker has no doubt. Ricker, who directs the Institute for Music Leadership at Eastman, says that when most people think of American symphonic music, they think of Aaron Copland. "[Copland's music] has a certain use of intervals and outdoorsy kind of feel," Ricker says. "But to me, the use of jazz contributes to that American quality." Jazz is the only indigenous American music. As a classical pianist and jazz musician, Bill Dobbins may be the very person to write a great American guitar concerto. "As a composer, Bill has tremendous chops," Ricker says.

Is the new guitar concerto great?

Christopher Seaman, who's conducting the premiere, is cautiously enthusiastic. "I really can't predict what is 'great.' That's for history to decide," he says. "But this is really excellent and could well eventually be voted 'great.'"

Members of a Rochester audience have the chance to consider it when Goluses, conductor Christopher Seaman, and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra perform the world premiere of Bill Dobbins' Guitar Concerto in the Eastman Theatre.

The composer says he hopes listeners walk into the hall with as few preconceptions as possible. Dobbins says, "I just want them to have an emotional, physical, and sensuous musical experience from beginning to end."

Christopher Seaman conducts the RPO in four works: Rapture by Christopher Rouse, Guitar Concerto by Bill Dobbins (in its world premiere with soloist Nicholas Goluses); Pelléas et Mélisande by Faure, and La Mer by Debussy. Thursday, November 10, and Saturday, November 12, at 8 p.m. Pre-concert chat at 7 p.m. Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street. $22-$52. 454-2100, All ages.

Brenda Tremblay is a producer and announcer for WXXI. She hosts radio concerts by the RPO on Classical 91.5 FM.