Sundays at Three series gets Wilder

Thursday, September 20, 2007
Brandon Christensen, a violin professor at Southeast, created the Sundays at Three series in 2003. The first peformance of this year's series will showcase Alec Wilder's music. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

Nobody knows how many pieces of music Alec Wilder wrote. That's one of the reasons so few people know his name.

Wilder is credited with hundreds of compositions but often wrote music for friends and admired performers, giving them the sole manuscript as a gift.

In the middle of the 20th century, Wilder jumped the fences between classical music, popular songs and jazz at a time when those barriers were strictly observed. Today listeners are accustomed to hearing fusions of different genres of music.

Nobody quite knew what to do with him except the musicians and friends who knew his specialness, so he has largely been overlooked as an important composer.

"He didn't have a marketing plan," said Dr. Michael Dean of the Department of Music at Southeast Missouri State University.

Dean's affection for Wilder's music and the Great American Songbook led to the season's first Sundays at Three program. The clarinetist will join contralto Dr. Leslie Jones, percussionist Shane Mizicko, flutist Paul Thompson, pianist Matt Yount and the Southeast Brass Quintet in a showcase of Wilder's music Sunday.

The 3 p.m. concert will be presented at Shuck Recital Hall at the River Campus. Tickets will be available at the door. For more information go to www.chambermusicsundays.com or contact Dr. Brandon Christensen at 651-2346.

Wilder's classical compositions were not taken seriously during his time, in part because he gave them titles like "Neurotic Goldfish" and "Sea Fugue, Mama." "He was a bona fide eccentric," Dean said.

Wilder liked to compose for instruments that didn't get much respect -- tuba was one -- and wrote many pieces for children, including "A Child's Introduction to the Orchestra" and the song book "Lullabies and Night Songs." Maurice Sendak illustrated the latter.

"Gunther Schuller called him an American original," said Dean, quoting the Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer, who also branched out into jazz.

"I'll Be Around," recorded by the Mills Brothers, Bessie Smith, Carly Simon and a host of singers, is one of Wilder's standards. Other familiar titles are "It's So Peaceful in the Country," "While We're Young" and "Blackberry Winter." Frank Sinatra was a fan who played the role of conductor for a recording of Wilder's orchestral works in 1945. Wilder wrote jazz recorded by the likes of Clark Terry, Marian McPartland, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett and Kenny Burrell.

A shy man, Wilder went long periods when he couldn't write music at all. But he co-hosted a public radio show called "American Popular Song" before his death in 1980. He was an insatiable reader and a talented writer who spent 50 years living at New York's famed Algonquin Hotel, a mecca for many artists. His book "American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950," is considered the definitive work on the subject. It mentioned most everyone but him.

His wit could bite when loosed. Displeased with his friend Peggy Lee's improvisation on "While We're Young," he sent her a note that read: "The next time you come to the bridge [of the song], jump."

Because 2007 is the centennial of Wilder's birth, groups around the country are performing retrospectives of his work this years. "It's very fresh and original music," Dean said.

Christensen, a violin professor at the university, originated the Sundays at Three series when he came here in 2003. Cape Girardeau has been without anything of the kind since the community concert series ended in the 1990s.

The series was presented at Old St. Vincent Church until switching to the new Shuck Recital Hall at the River Campus this year. Because the Shuck Recital Hall is located in a renovated chapel at the former Catholic seminary, it has some visual and acoustic similarities to the church as a concert venue but has advantages of access to pianos and a greeting room.

Two public concerts have been held in the hall already. "I was struck as I was listening to my colleagues play how you could really be anywhere in the room and hear very clearly, and also by the sense of closeness to the performers," Christensen said.

Future Sundays at Three programs include:

* Mark Sparks and Friends, Oct. 23: Sparks, the principal flutist for the Saint Louis Symphony, is making a repeat appearance. This time he will be accompanied by pianist Ina Selvelieva and cellist Valentina Takova in a program that will include a Shostakovich piano trio, a Villa Lobos duo for flute and cello and a Weber trio for all three instruments.

* Flaksman and Ocic, March 30: Cellist Michael Flaksman is a professor of cello and vice president of the Mannheim Musikhochschule in Germany. His protege Jelena Ocic has been a featured cello soloist with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Baden-Baden and the Korean Chamber Ensemble.

* Early Music Collegium, April 20: The concert will feature many of the faculty performers familiar to local audiences.

* Edgerton-Lim-Christensen Trio, May 4: Cellist Dr. Sara Edgerton, pianist Jennifer Lim and violinist Dr. Brandon Christensen traveled to China last year to perform. They will head back for another tour of China after performing this program of contemporary Chinese and American music and compositions by Fanny Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

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