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Margaret Brouwer’s Daniel and Snakeman to be premiered in five CityMusic Cleveland matinees from May 10-14
clevelandclassical.com, Daniel Hathaway, May 5, 2011

When CityMusic Cleveland approached Cleveland composer Margaret Brouwer to write a narrated, family-friendly work for chamber orchestra that would appeal to an intergenerational audience, she decided to author both the script and music herself. “I researched Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf, which is of course the real classic in this genre, and found out that he actually wrote the story as well as the music. I realized that was a terrific idea, because the problem with taking someone else’s story is finding one that you think you could write really good music for, and also having to make the music go with that story. I loved the idea of writing the story and the music so they’d be influencing each other”.

The results, a 28-minute work called Daniel and Snakeman, will be presented in five Cleveland churches beginning on Tuesday morning, May 10 at St. Colman’s on the West Side and ending on Saturday, May 14 at Fairmount Presbyterian in Cleveland Heights. “What I tried to do”, Ms. Brouwer told us by telephone from her home, “was to write a fun, adventure-packed story with lots of suspense that would really keep the children on the edge of their seats. But there’s also lots of humor in the music for the adults”. Daniel and Snakeman, to be conducted by Joshua Weilerstein and narrated by Cleveland actor/director Scott Plate, has a futuristic plot. As CityMusic describes it, “Set in 2030, the story of Daniel and Snakeman shows people of different cultures and faiths living peacefully and joyfully together, with varying customs, music and cultures that enhance one another. The villainous Snakeman is a holdover from an earlier time when people with differences could not get along. He imprisons people who do not keep to their ‘own kind’ in an underground cavern. The young people have fun bravely making musictogether, defying Snakeman. Despite the fact that prejudice has been overcome it always lurks around the corner in the form of Snakeman, waiting to strike”.

“I had a lot of fun writing this story”, Ms. Brouwer says. “I’ve never done that before, but I met with Scott Plate who’s the narrator. He’s a wonderful actor, and he’s telling the story so beautifully. He’s going to keep people completely engaged”. As in the case of Peter and the Wolf, characters in the narrative are matched with instruments and musical themes that identify them. “The music actually tells the story some of the time”, Ms. Brouwer notes. “It’s very much supported and dramatized by the music. At one point, the hero, Daniel, is in the cavern with the people that he’s rescuing, and suddenly, Snakeman’s melody starts in the distance, so I think people will know that he’s coming even before the narrator says so. Daniel has a sidekick, Wiggy the bat, and Wiggy has this clarinet melody that has little fast runs and a jazz element to it too, so I’m hoping it’ll sound like a bat”.

At least one of the ideas for representing characters with instruments came directly from a player. “Last year, when he knew I was going to be writing this, the trombonist came up to me and said, ‘You know, a trombone makes a really good snake’. I started thinking about it, and it really does, because he can slide around a lot from pitch to pitch. I really utilized the whole range of the trombone from very low pedal tones when he’s slithering down to the cavern up to the really, really high pitches when he’s in distress. Then I wanted to make very heroic music for Daniel, so I’m using the horns and the trumpets for that”.

Daniel and Snakeman is scored for flute, oboe, pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and percussionists and a single trombone. One of the percussionists, Dylan Moffitt, who studies with Jamey Haddad and has appeared regularly at The Cleveland Orchestra’s Fridays @ 7 afterparties, will play various middle eastern and other ethnic drums. Ms. Brouwer explains, “one of the characters who’s imprisoned is a young drummer. He’s called Malique and Dylan will represent him. There’s no acting in the piece, just the narrator telling the story. And then there’s a couple of dancers, two younggirls, who are from different cultures. They don’t even speak the same language in the story, but they communicate through music and dancing. One of them is represented by a violin, the other one by an oboe, and they have some duets together. The music of one is rhythmic and the other is very lyrical, but the two ideas work well together as a duet”.

Margaret Brouwer, who retired three years ago from teaching at The Cleveland Institute of Music, has been busy writing works-on-demand ever since. “I’ve had commissions and premieres from the Detroit Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, with the American Composers’ Orchestra who play at Carnegie Hall in New York, and I’ve got some other orchestral performance coming up. And I’m going to be a composer in residence at the Cabrillo Festival in California this summer. Marin Alsop conducts the festival orchestra, and she’ll do a piece of mine”.

There also just might be an opera lurking in the wings — not on commission but on her own initiative. “I don’t know if you know the poet David Adams, but I set a poem of his and I think he actually might be working on a libretto. That’s on the back burner, but we’ll see what happens”.

In the meanwhile, Ms. Brouwer has thoroughly enjoyed working on a dramatic piece. “I’ve written a lot of orchestral music, but the only thing that actually had a story line was Breakdown, which I did with (the video artist) Kasumi. I had a lot of fun writing this, and I enjoyed combining the different elements. And I must say we're very grateful to Cuyahoga Arts and Culture for giving generous support to the project.”

Daniel and Snakeman premieres at St. Coleman Church, 2027 W. 65th St. on Tuesday, May 10 at 10:00 am. Subsequent performances take place on Wednesday, May 11 at 10 at St. Vitus Church, 6019 Lausche Avenue, on Thursday, May 12 at 10 at Mary Queen of Peace Church, 4423 Pearl Road, on Friday, May 13 at 10 at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus, 3649 E. 65th, and on Saturday, May 14 at 11 at Fairmount Presbyterian, Fairmount & Coventry in Cleveland Heights. Also on the program: Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville”.