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With Pacific Artist Series concert, an end leads to a beginning for Walter Saul

There is something wonderfully intimate about sitting right next to the keyboard when a pianist sits down to play. You feel as if you’re an audience of one. And at that close range, you begin to appreciate even more just what a feat it is for composers to sit in front of a blank page and those 88 beckoning keys and try to write music. With a seemingly infinite number of combinations of notes, all those possibilities!

Pictured above: Walter Saul, a Fresno Pacific University professor, has written more than 300 pieces during his career.

I think of this as I sit earlier this week in Walter Saul’s tidy front living room containing not just one but two pianos (an upright Mason and Hamlin and a beautifully refurbished Bechstein parlor grand), listening to the longtime Fresno Pacific University music professor play one of his pieces. We’re just a block or so away from campus, a location he has walked or ridden his bicycle to countless times over the years, and it strikes me that the echoes of hundreds of thousands of notes — all of which went into the more than 300-plus compositions he’s written — have reverberated through this room.

When Saul sits down to perform on Sunday, Sept. 8, at the opening concert of the university’s Pacific Artist Series, he’ll be presenting a special gift to friends, students, colleagues and fans. His “From Alpha to Omega” is a set of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. And he’ll do it from memory.

The composer’s body of work includes many pieces for solo piano and for other instrumentation as well, from chamber music to large ensembles, symphonic bands, orchestras, choirs and more.

But his “From Alpha to Omega” remains a favorite.

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“This is one of my masterpieces,” he says.

He was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach, of course, whose two books of the “Well-tempered Clavier” are famed for their virtuosity, intricacy, mathematical sophistication and difficulty. Saul conquered them early. (He has performed both books from memory, in recitals 22 years apart, to coincide with the 22 years separating their creation.) Many other composers from before Bach and after have tackled similar projects. Saul’s version — the first prelude was written in 1970, and the project was finished by 2002 — came closest to inaugurating the new millennium, he believes. The last pairing, the Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor, commemorates the victims of 9/11.

Others of his compositions, many of them commissioned specifically for Fresno Pacific ensembles, have been featured extensively in the Pacific Artist Series, which is now in its 18th season. But there’s a special reason why Saul chose to begin the 2019-20 season with “From Alpha to Omega.”

He’s retiring at the end of the academic year.

“This year will be my last as a full-time professor,” he says. “You can say that 2003 was my alpha year. 2019 is my omega year. In a sense, this is my farewell to Fresno Pacific.”

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Saul, a devout and soft-spoken man who signs his emails “In Christ,” started composing music when he was 7. It’s been a passion for him ever since. One of the reasons he’s looking forward to retiring, in fact, is so he can spend more time on his composition projects.

I first became fully aware of his contributions to the local music scene when I reported on his “Kiev 2014: Rhapsody for Oboe and Orchestra,” which was recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine for the Naxos American Classics label. Saul got the chance to travel to Ukraine for the recording and watch Theodore Kuchar, then the music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, conduct the Ukrainian musicians. He brought along Rong-Huey Liu, the Fresno Philharmonic’s principal oboist, to Kiev.

At the time, Saul told me that after he heard Liu play just a few notes of the piece, he was awestruck. “Every note I heard from her was a work of art. I had to pinch myself to remember I had written these notes, but she brought them to life!”

The next year, the Fresno Philharmonic performed Saul’s piece, with Liu reprising her solo performance.


VIDEO: Walter Saul performs a prelude


I also got the chance to write about Saul’s “Quiltings,” a 46-movement work for solo piano inspired by a collection of quilts made by Saul’s sister-in-law, artist Ann Harwell. One of his future projects is another work inspired by Harwell’s fiber art, this one titled “Tapisseries.”

“I haven’t been able to keep up,” he says with a laugh.

Recently, he’s been focusing on getting “From Alpha to Omega” in top shape for the Sunday concert. He found himself a little over a week ago in the village of Casco, Maine, for a wedding, and he arranged a performance of the work in a special Friday concert at a church there.

In his program notes, Saul writes that Bach’s music was intrinsically music of prayer, whether vocal or instrumental, and he has embraced that notion. “I can say that, for myself, these are my own prayers to the One Who called Himself ‘the Alpha and Omega’ in Revelation 22:13,” he writes.

It’s a personal piece for him in many ways. The Prelude and Fugue in B major are dedicated to his younger daughter, Mary Anne. (He wrote the prelude to encourage her to practice her scales.) Others are devoted to his mother, mentor and colleagues. The Prelude and Fugue in E minor is dedicated to Daphne, “my wife and the love of my life who knows how much I treasure Bach’s music.”

One of his favorite pairings is the Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor, which he describes as a miniature in sonata form patterned after Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas. Saul notes, with a slightly impish air, that the fugue features six “voices,” or parts, while the most that Bach used was five.

“Well, I had to outdo Bach,” he says.

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As the director of the Pacific Artist Series, Saul has brought in artists across the nation and the world. Unlike more richly funded university-sponsored series in other cities, the Pacific Artist Series can’t necessarily afford to bring in expensive talent. But the caliber of musicianship remains high, as artists offer to scale down fees to fit the budget.

Upcoming concerts this season include an early-music treat with Christa Evans on flute and Andrus Madsen on harpsichord (Oct. 26), the CASK Quartet (Jan. 26), Italian piccolo player Nicola Mazzani and Natasha Kislenko on piano (Feb. 29), and emeritus faculty member Larry Warkentin (March 22).

For Saul, Sunday’s concert will be something of a valedictory note.


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“Bittersweet is a good way to put it,” he says.

Yet there’s so much ahead of him, that much is sure. Though he jokes that his version of heaven resembles something like the most advanced music theory class you can imagine, his list of projects is still long and his anticipation for tackling them high.

As we sit in his living room, he offers to perform his Prelude in C sharp minor as a teaser for the concert. He takes a seat at the piano, and as he starts playing, I think to myself: What a gift to be able to create something like this and then make it come alive for others.

At the end, he smiles.

“I’m going to have a lot of fun on Sunday,” he says.


Concert info

Pacific Artist Series featuring Walter Saul, 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, McDonald Hall Atrium, main FPU campus, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave., Fresno. Tickets are $15 general, $10 FPU community, $5 FPU students.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Great article! Good coverage of our opening Pacific Artist Series concert! Thank you so much!

    reply
  • Ben Boone

    We are so fortunate to have Walter in community! Thanks for the inside-glimpse into his music making!

    reply

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