In opening concert of the Pacific Artist Series season, Walter Saul performs a tribute to Beethoven and Fresno-area composers

Walter Saul, Fresno Pacific University professor emeritus of piano, salutes Ludwig van Beethoven and local composers in the opening concert of the Pacific Artist Series season.

The concert (3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26 in the atrium of McDonald Hall on the main campus) is in part a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and in part a salute to local composers. Works by Saul, Kenneth Froelich, John S. Hord and James A. Abbate are all on the program.

Pictured above from top left: Composers Kenneth Froelich, James A. Abbate, and John S. Hord will have their works performed by Fresno Pacific’s Walter Saul, bottom right.  Photo: Good Company Players

Saul took time from practicing to answer some questions about the concert.

Q: Why did you pick Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 to celebrate his anniversary? Is it one of your favorites? What can you tell us about the piece?

A: This sonata has long been one of my favorites over the last 40 years. I learned it at the time everyone around me was learning No. 31, Op. 110, so I was going against the grain. Now it turns out that Garrick Ohlsson just performed it!


Like the other sonata Ohlsson performed, this is in two movements. I love late Beethoven, especially when he hints at his spiritual development, as he does here. The first movement is strictly in common time and every division (except for the triplet riff) is in twos, but the second movement divides its time all in threes, which the medieval musicians called the perfect time because of the threes. Toward the end of this movement, the three beats are divided into nine parts, and then subdivided into 27 triplet 32nds. The effect to me seems so peaceful and other-worldly and is such an antidote to the stress and anxiety of the first movement.

Q: Tell us about John S. Hord’s tribute piece to Beethoven. What about it drew you to it? Should we consider it a piece written in the style of Beethoven, or is there another way to consider it?

There is a Beethoven 250 project in Germany that engaged 250 composers around the world, including John S. Hord, to write tributes to Beethoven. John actually has created a modernistic piece that quotes several different Beethoven works. There’s the first piano sonata, and the “Credo” from the Missa Solemnis, but the other works are from late works, including Op. 110 and the famous slow movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, in which Beethoven thanks the Godhead for his healing “in the Lydian mode.”

Related story: With Pacific Artist Series concert, an end leads to a beginning for Walter Saul (2019)

It was that last quote that in particular drew me to this work. The work is entitled “Reminisces of Beethoven: The Lone Wolf,” and John captures the loneliness and isolation of this composer. John did this by silently depressing the lowest octave and locking it with the sostenuto pedal and then uttering the wolf’s howl F-B-Gb-F (a favorite collection of pitches of Anton Webern, definitely modernistic). This cry bookends this fantastic tribute to Beethoven.

I should also point out that he has another work on the program, the Fuga Obliggata, which is a fugue based on the hymn tune “Forest Green.” This tune is best known as the alternative, and often preferred, tune for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It must be the water here. Like the brilliant fugues of James Abbate, this one ends with a stretto of the fugue subject in three voices right on top of each other. In fact, all three of our guest composers are highly contrapuntal!

Q: You have quite the lineup of Fresno-area composers on the program. Tell us about Kenneth Froelich and James Abbate’s works.

Kenneth Froelich has written a phenomenal collection of six Serendipitous Inventions, of which I am performing two: “Shards” and “Irregularities.” Like J. S. Bach’s inventions, Kenneth’s are limited to two voices and cast in three parts. And both composers’ inventions are highly motivic. But, unlike Bach, Froelich depends solely on these motives without tonal reference. And, like Beethoven, Froelich uses these short motives to build dramatic and cataclysmic climaxes that will take your breath away. In “Shards,” descending perfect fourths provide an almost comforting, caressing experience of relative peace, but, after a torrid descent into the depths, those descending fourths are broken and create ragged dissonances as the piece recedes into silence. In “Irregularities,” Froelich gets a great jazz riff going that is almost a 12-tone row (only two pitches are missing) and then, like a pinball machine, he drops motivic “balls” against the riff which shoot them all over the machine. Some of the “pinballs” come in on different parts of the beat each time they return, giving a Steve Reich-like phasing effect. It’s fantastic, a joy to play – and very difficult to memorize!

Recently, at a Music Teachers’ Association of California — Fresno County Branch workshop, Jim shared with us how much joy he gets out of putting together simple motives to create intricate and complex music. It is not lost on me that I will perform the world première of his Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, a “classic cover of a classic rock tune” by the band Boston, and his Fugue in B-Flat Minor. Jim has no fear in venturing out into the most complex counterpoint Western art music offers: the fugue. He has the steady, skilled voice-leading of Bach (both fugues end with 3-voice strettos, where the theme of the fugue forms a tight canon with itself in three different parts) and the modulation skills of Franz Schubert, freely exploring the entire tonal continuum, especially in the B-Flat Minor fugue. Fasten your seat belts, please.

Q: Finally, you have a composition on the program. What is it? Does it also connect to Beethoven?

This is my Sonata #3 for Piano written in 1984 when my younger daughter was born and, I thought, my composition career was dead. In fact, I was working on a rather dreary piece when, like a rush, the first movement came after me, filling me with joy and optimism that must have come from the Lord, because it certainly did not come from me. The quiet, Chopin-like Adagio espressivo is a bit plaintive, wavering between C major and C minor, but out of that comes a rollicking Vivace that, quite frankly, gets down into rock-and-roll territory and ends quite grandly and joyously. I have written several “resurrection” pieces in this way, pieces that literally gave me new life, and which I believe were true gifts from God, which I believe I merely notated. Sonata #3 is definitely one of those works.

What did I steal from Beethoven? Definitely sonata cycle and sonata-allegro structure, which are still as full of life for me as they were for Beethoven. Also, Beethoven, in his closing rondos, often indulges in bringing a refrain theme back in the wrong key, off by a half-step, and I do that as well. Thankfully, both of us find our way home again!

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Q: Will this be your first concert since the pandemic shut things down?

A: Pretty much so as a solo performer. I have had several of my compositions performed, mostly virtually during the last 1½ years. The irony is that I am having music performed in Portland at a Cascadia Composers concert of new music at the very same time! I think all of us would like to get out, perform, and hear great music live again!

Q: I’ve talked with several pianists recently (Joyce Yang and Garrick Ohlsson) who told me it was tough during the pandemic without live concerts to prepare for. They enjoyed the time to practice and contemplate, but they both told me that without the “tension and release” of building up to a concert in front of an audience, something seemed off. What are your thoughts?

A: I have stayed happy, busy, and satisfied throughout the pandemic in my various roles – husband, regular COVID test-taker and shot-getter, father, grandfather, composer, bicyclist (lots of miles recently!), clock repair, teaching music appreciation, serving as president of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers (which is bringing its national conference to Fresno Pacific University next March), and on the board of Music Teachers’ Association of California – Fresno County Branch, as well as serving as a volunteer church pianist and substitute organist. So, it’s been a joy to prepare this recital for the opening of Pacific Artist Series’ 19th season, as well as to prepare for the season itself as the director of the Pacific Artist Series, a role Fresno Pacific University asked me to retain as we prepare for the opening of our new Culture and Arts Center in 2022.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the highlights of the upcoming Pacific Artist Series season?

A: We have two more events coming up in January and March. On Jan. 22-23 we will have a residency of the renowned Andrus Madsen, harpsichordist, headlining our Early Music Symposium (quite the opposite of September’s recital!). He will be collaborating with Christa Evans on traverso and the Fresno Pacific University Choirs in a concert on the 22nd at 7:30 pm in Butler Church, next door to Fresno Pacific University’s main campus, and a Lecture-Demonstration Hymn Sing on the 23rd at 3:00 pm in the same location. There will also be a Masterclass with Andrus on the 22nd at 1:00 pm.

March 25-26 brings us the National Conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, also in residence at Fresno Pacific University. We will have two programs featuring the music of CFAMC members: a choral concert on the 25th at 7:30 pm in Butler Church and a chamber music program featuring a woodwind quintet in residence on the 26th at 3:00 pm.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say about this upcoming concert?

A: The music community of the Fresno area is often fragmented, and, lately, I have looked for ways to unite all of us in common cause. Kenneth Froelich teaches at Fresno State, John S. Hord is Professor Emeritus of Fresno City College, Jim Abbate is a candidate for the Master of Arts in Music Composition, Design and Performance for the Guitar at Fresno Pacific University, and I am Professor Emeritus of Fresno Pacific University. So the four of us composers represent the main places of higher education in the Fresno area, and I am hoping that our three institutions can collaborate even more in the future.

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.

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