"It was in late 1960 or early 1961," Peter Schickele recalls, "that I became truly hooked." What hooked him was grass; not Acapulco Gold or Panama Red but the comparably intoxicating Kentucky bluegrass, which is ingested not through the lungs but through the ears.
It happened during a photo session; while he was posing, the photographer "put on a record of Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, and that was it -- I was gone. I don't remember the session at all; all I remember is how that band moved the molecules around in that room."
An addiction to bluegrass is not an easy thing to handle for a musician whose stock in trade is the pseudo-Baroque work of the feckless P.D.Q. Bach. But Saturday night in Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Schickele finally managed to exorcise his addiction in a new piece of music. The occasion was the world premiere of "Far Away From Here," music for bluegrass band and orchestra, in which Schickele conducted the McLain Family Band and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
It was a serious occasion. You could tell because the composer's name on the program was not P.D.Q. Bach but Peter Schickele; he isn't letting his earlier invention take the credit for his latest invention. You could also tell by the music, which was clearly classical in form though bluegrass in flavor -- playing in the same league with Aaron Copland, not with Spike Jones. Still, the form might be called pseudo-Baroque. Its model (at least, one of its models) is the concerto grosso, in which a small band of soloists, the concertino, is sometimes allied with, sometimes pitted against, the full orchestra, or ripieno.
The orchestra is expertly used, with a sound that underlines the American roots, the Smoky Mountain flavor of the music. It gives a firm foundation and colorful background to the fiddle, banjos, mandolins, double bass and singing voices of the five soloists (one of whom also does a little dance after handing off her double bass to her sister). But in this concerto grosso, the concertino is clearly the star; the orchestra's massive power is kept on a tight rein when the soloists are in the spotlight, which is most of the time.
The melodies have the true bluegrass flavor, rooted in the melodic modes of old English folk songs that still flourish in Appalachia. But all the tunes in this composition are Schickele's inventions, except the hymn tune "I Will Arise and Go to Jesus," which is beautifully used in its slow fourth movement.
"Far Away From Here" is serious music, but not solemn. It is full of high spirits, which the McLain family projected with high energy. It may not be a profound masterpiece, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and we are likely to hear it again.
The pops program leading up to this work set the flavor of the evening expertly, with Copland's suite from "Rodeo," Morton Gould's playful variations on "Yankee Doodle" and arrangements of country music. In this segment, the Baltimore Symphony, under assistant conductor Christopher Wolfe, played with a down-home flavor that made it hard to believe the same orchestra had been doing Barto'k's Second Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman the night before.