Virko Baley -- Composer, Conductor, Writer, Educator

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Virko Baley's growing stature as a composer on the international concert stage is shining the spotlight not just on his singular artistic voice - a colorful convergence of diverse influences both musical and cultural - but on its own development.

That voice stems in part from what Baley calls "full acceptance, then rejection of, different musical styles." His early works, filled with an unsettling expressionism, sit alongside later works embracing frankly folkloric materials. In examining his output, solo and chamber music, opera and orchestral pieces - one may notice the stylistic differences first, but those pieces are all part of the same artistic vision, as it is essentially a lyrical one. Baley's touch reveals itself not only in the way an idea from an earlier work occasionally resurfaces in a new instrumentation of style, but also in a larger sense, in his pervading concern with merging the American and Ukrainian Modernist traditions into a coherent personal statement. Much of Baley's development as a mature artist has been shaped by his life as a performing musician, both as a pianist and conductor (he served as Professor of Music at the University of Nevada and, until 1995, served as founding Music Director of the Nevada Symphony). Grants and commissions have come from various prestigious organizations:

  • The National Endowment for the Arts
  • The Project 1000-Winnepeg Symphony
  • The California E.A.R Unit
  • Continuum
  • The New Julliard Ensemble
  • The Cleveland Chamber Symphony
  • Nevada Symphony Orchestra
  • The Nevada State Council on the Arts.

In Las Vegas an environment known more for high stakes than high culture, Baley has been able to let his compositional voice grow freely, unencumbered by the political entanglements of musical life on either coast.

Much of Baley's personal voice is inextricably linked to his childhood amid the turmoil in mid-century Europe. Born in Radekhiv, Ukraine in 1938, the young Baley and his entire family, except his father who was sent to Auschwitz, were shipped to Slovakia following the German invasion. Near the end of the war, the family was reunited and ordered to work on a farm in Germany. After the way, they relocated to Munich.

It was during the family's slow "return to normalcy" that Baley began his early music studies with Roman Sawycky, a follow Ukrainian of considerable reputation whom Baley recalls fondly today. But childhood sickness and a transient home life kept him from progressing rapidly; all schooling ceased for six months during a particularly bad bout of illness, and the Baley's did not own a piano in the displaced persons camp in Regensburg where they moved in 1947.

Two years later, in 1949, the family emigrated to the United States. Settling in Los Angeles, the young Virko, now with his first piano, began studying in 1950 with a retired conductor who introduced him to the world of opera. In 1952, he commenced studies with Earle C. Voorhies, head of the piano faculty at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts. From there, Baley progressed rapidly. Devoting a semester after high school to practice, he entered the Conservatory where he received both his bachelors (magna cum laude) and masters degrees majoring in piano and composition. 

Although Baley had been composing throughout his teens (as well as writing stories and attempting a play) he only began to compose seriously by the age 20. The few pieces that remain from those years - the mostly Neo-romantic Two Songs in Olden Style for soprano and piano (1960), two Dumas for piano (1959), and the expressionistic Nocturnal No. 1 (1958) - show that the pull between normality and atonality was already in place. Also in place was his ability to sketch ideas that would bear further development in future works. The second of the two songs later became the basis of the second movement code in his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1990-93).

Later Life and Works

In 1963, Baley was drafted into the United States Army and stationed in Fulda, Germany. There he became an assistant conductor and house composer/arranger for an army band. Baley also met his first wide, Karin Koch, and upon his discharge in 1965, the two left for Los Angeles. Between 1965 and 1969, Baley essentially stopped composing to concentrate on performing and teaching. In 1967, he greatly reduced his private piano studio to teach full-time at his alma mater, now named California Institute of the Arts, where his course loan also included teaching classes in music history and theory.

Two events in 1970 marked a change in Baley's artistic life. First, his family - now including a song, Stephan, and a daughter, Vanessa - moved to Las Vegas, where he assumed a position as head of the piano faculty at the University of Nevada and organized both the Las Vegas Chamber Players and the Annual Contemporary Music Festival. Second, he returned to composing with three completed works: his Nocturnal No. 3 for three pianos, his Partita No. 1 (first version) for three trombones and three pianos, and Duo Concertante for violoncello and piano, originally titled Tropes. These marked a new direction for the composer, reveal elements of which - a non-linear concept of time, the use of memory as a structural device, and employing two or more events (or tempos) simultaneously - Baley still uses today.

"My interest is to say profound things, but with a graceful and light touch. Or, to put it another way, to create enough space around each metaphor so it can grow and turn on its own in the listener's ear."

— Virko Baley

Baley's four-movement Partita is performed by a central trombone duo, flanked by similar duos to the left and the right that both "whisper into the ear of the central group," the composer writes, "sometimes mimicking and sometimes anticipating a future event." It s in the "Variations" movement that Baley's non-linear concepts become most apparent, with several of the variations being played at the same time, from different locations. Originally written for the trombonist Glen Johnston and performed at the inaugural Contemporary Music Festival (which the San Francisco Chronicle said was "not only the best in the West, but internationally,") The Partita was revised for trombonist Miles Anderson and performed at the Festival again in 1976. A third version is also available, in a concerto grosso arrangement for trombone, trumpet, electric 5-string violin, electronics, and orchestra, and was composed for the ensemble Caravan. 

Although Baley maintains that he has never forsaken tonality, the Partita does stretch that definition to its limits. Likewise, Sculptured Birds for clarinet and piano presents and equally austere face, with equally stringent technical demands. A musical metaphor for flight, its first movement, "Jurassic Bird," recalls the precursor of flight, quoting fragments of the old "Dies Irae" chant in the piano. In "The Eagle," the clarinet's vocal line explores extremes of color and technical range within a piano cadenza before falling into a slow remembrance. "Bird in Glide" is a study in proportions where the piano determines its character by means of 13 separate chords, each containing the melodic kernel of a new section. "The Chinese Nightingale," inspired in equal parts by the Max Ernst collage and the mechanical bird in Fellini's film, Casanova, is an isorhythmic parody of a 15th century rondeau.

Sculptured Birds originated as a single movement, "Jurassic Bird," written for Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Las Vegas Chamber Players and former bass clarinetist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was later completed for his temporary replacement in Las Vegas, William Powell. From his home in Las Vegas, Baley has forged ongoing collaborations with a number of musicians, including pianists Laura Spitzer and Elissa Stutz, whom Baley married in 1982. The Nocturnal No. 4 (1971;1988) is a big, moody piece that the Los Angeles Times found "reminiscent of the nocturnes and nigh music of Crumb, (although) it has a strong sense of individuated identity and direction." The New York Times' Bernard Holland found its piano sonority used in "sophisticated yet highly dramatic ways. In its center are 13 delicate 'Interludes' - delicate aphorisms each with its own flavor."

The Nocturnal No. 5 (1980) is a fiendishly difficult study in non-imitative counterpoint. Taking his cue from Akutagawa Rynosuke's story In a Grove (filmed as Kurasawa's Rashomon)where the same central event is described in four wildly divergent first-hand accounts, Baley's central event is a pitch ordering which becomes four separate identities in counterpoint. A cantus-firmus baseline holds the dominant rhythmic pule around which the other voices swirl and dance in what critic Will Crutchfield described in The New York Times as "the filigree of Chopin and the nature - voices of Bartók's night music in a flittering, dissonant idiom. "The lines gradually begin to resemble oe another as they approach the climax. 

Recent Works 

Baley's works took an abrupt tonal turn beginning with his Violin Concerto No. 1, quasi unappreciated fantasia (1987). Having wanted for some time to use folk figures as melodic building blocks, Baley found the opportunity in this 25-minute reflection on death for solo violin and orchestra. Shaped as a requiem in sonata-allegro form, the "Lacrymosa" serves as an exposition, the "Dies Irae" as development, the "Lux Aeterna" as recapitulation, and the first "Agon" stands apart as a festive wake. The solo part is plaintive through much of the piece, opening ip only near the end, as folk figures fly with abandon toward the cathartic wake. In the version for chamber orchestra, the Violin Concerto No. 1 resembles the mystic minimalism of Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, although the work has much less actual repetition than either of those two composers. Despite its folkloric nature, tonality for Baley becomes merely and overly part of a modernist palette. 

That same lyrical feeling stretches deeper into Orpheus Singing (1994) for oboe and string quartet, a single movement instrumental work in the Italian recitative-aria-cabaletta form. True to its title, the oboe demands calls call lyrical playing, with some added spice from glissandi, double trills and harmonics. Its third section, entitled "Cabaletta-Kolomyikas," borrows a Western Ukrainian strophic song form, and the oboist must play at times with the reed entirely in the mouth, rather than on the lips, mimicking the rustic tones of double reed folk instruments. The work exists in two additional versions: for oboe and string orchestra and oboe and piano

The Duo Concertante (1971; 1990) for cello and piano, seems, in retrospect, a lending library for Baley's future violin concertos. Withdrawn in its original version, the first movement "Intrada" reappeared whole in Baley's Concerto No. 2 (1998); the second, "Aria," was totally reworked as the "Lux Aeterna" from the Concerto No. 1; and the third, "Mobile Dances," is the root of the first concerto's finale, "Agon," After writing both concertos, Baley revised the Duo in 1990 and returned it to circulation. 

With Dreamtime (1993-1995), Baley's work achieved a new level, both in its own scope and in its reworking of previous material. Written for the California E.A.R. Unit, the works 19 movements spread out overly nearly 80 minutes in a musical narrative, its series of "tales" woven together so that the outcome seems unavoidable without being obvious. Rather than using fillers or structural connections, Baley explains, "each strand of the (musical) web exists as long as it fascinated me, until I fond it to double back on itself. In other words, when I said everything I wanted to say, I stopped." There is no development as such in Dreamtime.

Dreamtime is inspired by Delmar Schwartz' 1937 short story, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Composer Baley writes, "What fascinated me about the story, which I first read more than 30 years ago, was Schwartz' ability to depict horrors that his imagination involuntarily revealed to him as if in a dream, a dream in full light of day. The lightness of touch, his clear and, one could almost say, classical structure reveal a tunnel of gloom that is possible to see only in the detachment of an alternate state of being." Dreamtime's 19 movements treat a variety of visions - literary, operatic, painterly, cinematic - as they appear in both the composer's wakeful and dream states. Baley cites Boccaccio's Decameron as a literary comparison, but given its recycling of material, Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales would be equally valid. Parts of the work rely on previous sources (one movement, "Adam's Apple," is a reworking of a wind quintet from 1989), and his chamber epic has spawned two shorter works, Dreamtime Suites No. 1 (1993) for clarinet, violin and piano, and Dreamtime Suites No. 2 (1996) for violin, cello and piano, each culling movements from the original and reassembling them in different contexts to offer a much different flavor. 

Two of Baley's solo collections, the Six Nocturnals for solo piano (1958-1988) and the six ...figments for solo violin (1981-1996), span the contrasting periods in Baley's output thus far, and as such provide a concise overview of the composer's development. ...figments for solo violin is now part of a collection entitled Etudes Tableaux. Projects are under way for them to be recorded by violinist Tom Chiu.

Given Baley's recent appointment as principal guest conductor for the Kiev Camerata, his future work may follow a new path, perhaps looking still further into the Ukrainian half of his hyphenated lineage. His collaborations have increasingly been looking eastward, with Yuri Illienko's film, Swan Lake: The Zone, co-produced and scored by Baley, which won two top awards at the 1990 Cannes International Film Festival; and his opera, Hunger, on a libretto by the Ukrainian-American poet Bohdan Boychuk, planned for future performance with Illienko as director. 

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