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Art&Seek Q&A: Simon Sargon

by Cindy Chaffin 22 Oct 2009 9:15 AM

Simon Sargon, a highly regarded composer and professor of composition at SMU, will enjoy a Dallas Symphony Orchestra premiere of his work for young audiences.


sargonPicSimon Sargon, a highly regarded composer and professor of composition at SMU since 1983, will enjoy a Dallas Symphony Orchestra premiere of his work for young audiences, “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” at its opening Family Concert on Sunday, October 25, 2009 at the Meyerson Symphony Center.

Written in 2004 and dedicated to his granddaughter, Juliana, “The Town Musicians” is a musical telling of the story by The Brothers Grimm in which four animals escape their heartless owners and, en route to the town of Bremen, prove their continued usefulness by noisily scaring off some inept robbers. The DSO’s performance will include the talented dancers of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre acting out the personalities of Desmond the Donkey, Nick the Cat, Clarence the Hound, and Red the Rooster, as well as the bumbling robbers. Premiered at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts in 2006, the piece has been an audience favorite for several seasons at the Music in the Mountains summer festival in Durango, Colorado, Southern Methodist University (with the Meadows Division of Dance), and the University of Missouri-Columbia summer music festival (with the Missouri Contemporary Ballet). This fall it will also be performed by the Maple City Chamber Orchestra in Goshen, Indiana on its Family Concert series.

Among other honors, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has premiered three of Sargon’s works to critical acclaim and over the years he has collaborated, performed, and recorded works with numerous DSO musicians. Most recently, Sargon and Erin Hannigan, Principal Oboist of the DSO, garnered high praise for two of Sargon’s chamber music compositions that were included on the CD “From Firewing to Hafiz” (Crystal, 2008).

Sargon received one of the prestigious Sam Taylor Fellowship Awards for 2008-2009 for his proposal to create a large-scale work for solo voice, chorus and symphony orchestra utilizing both extant and ancient religious texts. He is also a recipient of the Meadows Foundation 2008-2009 Distinguished Professor Award.

Mr. Sargon recently gave us a few moments of his time to answer a few questions as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:

Art&Seek: “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” is a lovely concept, in that it was written with children in mind and it’s a wonderful story put to music. Your granddaughter was the inspiration behind it; tell me a little more about that.

Simon Sargon: When Juliana, my first grandchild, was born in 2002, I was as thrilled and excited as I imagine any first-time grandparent could be. Being a composer, it was only natural for me to want to mark this special occasion with a musical tribute.

Just at that time the Dallas Symphony Orchestra had returned from a European concert tour, and my friend Greg Hustis, the first hornist of the orchestra, brought me a series of illustrated postcards from the town of Bremen, where the Symphony had toured. He suggested that the Brothers Grimm story about the Town Musicians of Bremen might be an ideal piece for a children’s concert. When he mentioned this idea to me, a light bulb switched on in my head, and I started to work immediately.

Actually writing the music for the piece was not the most difficult part of the project. The actual story, as told by the Brothers Grimm, I found to be rather stodgy and unimaginative. So I ended up re-writing the story, updating the narration for a 21st century audience. As it turned out, that was the most time consuming part of the project!

Art&Seek: This will be your 4th premiere with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Is it still as thrilling and exciting as the first time and what goes through your mind as the curtain begins to open?

Simon Sargon: I remain relatively calm, knowing that I’m about to hear my musical ideas realized on the highest musical level, that the performance will be technically and musically the finest that is possible. The big question turns out to be “how will this piece that I have labored so long and with such love to create be received by the first people who will hear it?”

Art&Seek: Tell me what you listen to at home or in your car.

Simon Sargon: There are generally two areas that I am involved with. One, is that I try to keep up with the latest contemporary works that are being recorded and performed, to be attuned to the areas that are absorbing my colleagues on the musical scene. The second is to listen to the great masterworks of the past that I treasure dearly, and that bring me emotional joy and release, that is Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, etc.

Art&Seek: Did your parents urge you to take up music as a child, or did you have a passion for it early on?

Simon Sargon: My parents never urged me take up music, as a matter of fact they always warned me that it was a very difficult way to make a living. On the other hand, to their eternal credit, they never tried to dissuade me in any way. I first asked them to buy a piano for me after I went to a piano recital at the age of 6, and it’s been a non-stop love affair with this incomparable art ever since.

Art&Seek: Your work comes in many forms/genres, what is your favorite genre in which to write and why

Simon Sargon: I don’t mean to be facetious in saying that my favorite genre is the one that I am writing at the time. For instance, at the moment I am working on an oratorio for chorus, soloists and large orchestra, and am convinced that this is the most exciting genre that there is to deal with.

Art&Seek: You were born in Bombay, India, and you’ve studied and taught at some of the most prestigious institutes in the world. What eventually brought to Dallas/SMU?

Simon Sargon: I came to Dallas to become the Music Director at Temple Emanu-El back in 1974. Nine years later I joined the music faculty of SMU. I worked at both institutions until 2001, when I retired from the Temple and became Music Director Emeritus there. At the same time I remained at SMU, where the students continue to keep me on my toes.

Art&Seek: I’m very intrigued with your collection, Deep Ellum Nights. I love the music, very much, but tell me about the title and the thoughts behind the pieces.

imagesSimon Sargon: In 1991, when I was commissioned to compose a work to honor the 10th anniversary of the Rockport Mass Chamber Music Festival, I thought long and hard as to what kind of piece would be appropriate. Having been raised and educated in New England, I considered writing a piece on a New England theme, or perhaps something relating to one of New England’s beautiful geographical sites, such as William Schuman and Charles Ives had done.

However, after reviewing the options, and having lived in Texas as long as I had, I thought it might be far more provocative to bring a little bit of Texas to the New Englanders. I had been fascinated with the picturesque term “Deep Ellum” ever since I came to Dallas, and often wondered about the sounds one might have heard in this unique center of Southern music in the 20’s and the 30’s.

Out of those imaginings, the piece slowly began to come to me. From the beginning, I saw it visually, and I always had the hope that “Deep Ellum Nights” would be choreographed. This hope will actually be realized next month, 15 years later, when the SMU Dance Division presents “Deep Ellum Nights” on its Fall concert, choreographed by my colleague, the acclaimed jazz choreographer Danny Buracywski.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.