“I've been trying to get this concerto to see the light of day for years,” says Oberlin flute professor Alexa Still about Paul Desenne’s Concerto for Two Flutes and Orchestra. The acclaimed cellist and composer started writing the piece in 2012, completing the commission in 2013. It has now been a 10-year-long route to the debut, and on Wednesday, November 1, Still’s championship of this piece will be realized in a performance with conductor Raphael Jiménez leading the Oberlin Orchestra, and with her student Dylan Masariego as co-soloist.
It’s a 30-minute, three-movement work scored for a relatively large orchestra, and it explores the notion of the meta-instrument—a compositional technique born from the idea of merging timbres into an autonomous entity that acts beyond the sum of its parts and produces an acoustic illusion in listening. The composer’s note describes, “This two-headed, versatile, and sometimes dizzying soloist undertakes a great musical journey through diverse panoramas imagined within a modern Latin American, Caribbean, and Venezuelan Baroque.”
Still’s enthusiasm for it is infectious. “I think it's an unbelievably good piece. His music is always very complex, with an amazing mix of sounds from nature and folk song from Venezuela.”
Desenne’s music became known to Still through a Venezuelan flute student she taught while on the faculty of the University of Colorado Boulder. As she discovered more about his work, she began advocating for a premiere performance of the double flute concerto through the National Flute Association. One of the challenging barriers to getting performances scheduled was that the score was very dense and very hard to read. There was also a “very dated MIDI representation of the score,” Still admitted. She remained determined, but in the interim, she commissioned Desenne to write a piece for her. He wrote his Second Sonata for Flute and Piano for Still to premiere at the 2018 NFA Flute Convention. By then at Oberlin, Still was reminded again how connected the United States-based Venezuelan musical community is.
Enter Raphael Jiménez, director of Oberlin Orchestras, and a long-time friend of Desenne. Both are alumni of Venezuela’s revolutionary music education program, El Sistema, founded in Caracas in 1975. In 2020, Jiménez conducted the Oberlin Orchestra in successful performances of two of Desenne’s works—Sinfonia Burocratica ed'Amazzonica (2004) and Dragoncello (2008)—for the Covid-era “Oberlin Stage Left” broadcasts. These works were part of an intensified commitment to the performances of a broader world of music, expanding the repertoire and giving performances of lesser-known composers.
The Caracas-born, child of French and American parents, Paris Conservatory-educated Paul Desenne was a “remarkable tri-cultural artist, so fluid in his ability to move within and between all of those worlds,” describes Jiménez.
Desenne’s compositions, covering the entire spectrum from the instrumental solo to the choral symphony, have been performed on the most diverse world stages—from Caracas to New York to London, and beyond. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and, in 2010, a Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.
Still brought the double flute concerto to Jiménez’ attention.
The old issue of a readable score and an unflattering electronic audio file persisted, but Still would try once again to bring this piece to a National Flute Association Convention, and she needed some decent performance excerpts captured in clear recordings to support the application.
At the end of the spring semesters when the academic year is winding down, Jiménez uses that time in the orchestra schedule to read through repertoire with the students. He had been studying the score, and as Still shared, smiling, “he was sucked in by the piece.” Last May, he granted two and a half hours to reading through and recording excerpts from each of the three movements of the concerto. The catch: Jiménez needed the score addressed. So last spring, Still was in touch with Desenne to clean it up, spread it out, and rearrange its appearance on the page so that it was something that was readable in a performance setting.
She also got the individual parts, which came to her as various PDFs that didn't quite match. “I filled in the information that was missing and turned these into usable parts,” recalls Still.
“Paul was already very, very excited about the fact we were actually doing this,” shared Still.
Next came the selection of the soloist who would collaborate with Still for the reading session. The Oberlin flute studio has strong students, and she approached senior Daniel Jordan.
“Daniel is technically very, very gifted,” says Still, “and he was so excited about doing it.”
Three days before the reading, Daniel got COVID.
“Dylan was the only one who had the space in his schedule and fearlessness required to leap into Daniel's place,” Still remembers. “Dylan is a fabulous flute player and just threw themself at it. We did the reading and they did a very credible job. I think Oberlin is such a special place where you have students who can actually jump into a situation and just do it.”
In mid-May, Still sent the recordings to Desenne that included part of the first movement, the second movement, and most of the third movement. “Paul was ecstatic. He was just so happy… and that was the last communication I had with him. But I'm just so grateful that he got to hear it.”
Desenne passed away suddenly from a heart attack on May 20, 2023.
Still and Jiménez decided this work should receive its premiere at Oberlin in the fall.
The saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” applies to mounting a premiere of a new piece. Some problems had surfaced during the reading: Some of the individual orchestra parts notated in the score were missing.
Oberlin’s ensemble librarian, Eric Farnan, and Desenne’s wife, flutist Carmen Marulanda have been key to working through this. “The Double Flute Concerto was a unique challenge because Paul passed away in between us reading the work last year and it being programmed for premiere,” recounts Farnan. “Any questions I had about the work or inquiries I would normally direct to the composer were directed to his wife. Carmen went back through the score and extracted the missing instruments. She also was helpful in looking through his notes to find the program note supplied in our program.”
Marulanda generously shared thoughts about her husband’s creative output: “His striking fusion of rhythms and ideas sometimes made us believe we knew that music from before…it somehow sounded familiar to our ears. That was one of his most powerful gifts, like a magician of cultural, musical, and literary rhetoric. The resounding vibration of forests and insects, of nature and shamanic callings—it’s always present in his music. It’s not a surprise he built his house in the mountains of Caracas, a place that kept his threads deeply connected even after his last move to the USA in 2010.”
For senior flutist Dylan Masariego, the opportunity to collaborate with Still in the solo role is, “exciting and unique,” adding, “performing a concerto, especially one without a performance history, comes with added pressure. However, it's been amazing to work closely with a great mentor.”
Masariego continues, “By far, my favorite moment is the middle of the second movement, specifically the trading off of these long soloistic phrases. The magical part of all of this is getting the chance to observe, up close, how great a musician Alexa truly is. Whether that's watching her construct these elegant, long lines, or standing right next to her as she fills Finney Chapel with her sound, performing and working alongside Alexa will forever be inspiring.”
And for Still, this is the beginning of the work to secure the concerto's place in the repertory. “It’s a major piece, and it's very well written. I don't really care who plays it, I just want to make sure it gets out there.”
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