Premiere of “The Allagash Suite”
Augusta Symphony Orchestra
South Parish Congregational Church, Augusta
Nov. 17, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
I haven’t paddled the Allagash Wilderness Waterway—I prefer the less strenuous St. John, a few miles west—but when I heard that Nate Saunders (b. 1960), a Maine guide, mechanical engineer and second violinist with the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, had written an orchestral suite describing such a descent, I had to hear it.
The Saunders work was given its world premiere on Saturday at South Parish Congregational Church by the Augusta Symphony Orchestra under Paul Ross. It will be played again at L.L. Bean’s in Freeport on Dec. 16.
While it is not Beethoven’s Sixth (What is?), it was unfailingly entertaining, descriptive, and well written in a traditional tonal style. It made me wonder why the Maine Woods has not inspired more musical tributes. It has its own distinctive soundscape.
The Suite’s degree of musical sophistication and innovative orchestration, for example a wet shoestring on a coffee can to capture the bellowing of a moose, or a charming male-female interchange between oboe and clarinet, are impressive for anyone and quite incredible for a non-professional musician. Saunders once contemplated a career in violin making, but turned to engineering as a more supportable vocation.
(Concerning amateur vs. professional, I like to quote Schopenhauer to the effect that we deride one who practices an art for love and praise those who do it for money.)
The program begins with a tonal description, complete with the cry of the loon, of the 50 miles of lake-like river that begin the trip, comparing early morning calm to the typical afternoon’s wind and waves. There is a rollicking dance-like interlude involving a visit to the logging locomotives buried in the woods nearby, and a dream of their coming to life. Plus a flinger-snapping, toe-tapping rainstorm (in the orchestra) that is quite effective.
“Campfire Lullaby” is characterized by a romantic melody and the aforementioned duet between clarinet and oboe.
“Chase Rips/Umsaskis Meadows” depicts the trip’s major rapids and the moose-haunted meadows that follow them. The river becomes more defined and majestic in the next two movements, culminating in a musical descent of Allagash Falls (which has to be portaged in the real world)) and the snap of a broken paddle. The suite ends further down the river, in “A Quiet Peace.”
Saunders’ use of the French horn leads me to believe that he is an admirer of Brahms, whose repeated four-tone descending theme, from the early Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, appears in the Allagash River section, with a different resolution. An intentional reference or not —themes lurk in our minds forever—it is a lovely touch.
If I had any suggestion about improving the flow of the work, it would be perhaps to eliminate the verbal preludes and let the musical descriptions speak for themselves, with a short hint in the program. Everyone has to find his own way through the rapids.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lies in Pownal, He can be reached at email@example.com.