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A little light music <br> A clarinet, a composer and a concerto capture a portrait of Buffalo when it lit up the world

John Fullam, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's principal clarinetist, is a night person. It comes in handy when he has to play a down-and-dirty riff -- say, the introduction to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." It also helped him when he came to audition, under Max Valdes, for the BPO.

"The audition went way past midnight," he recalls. "They had to wake me up to play. By the time the audition was over, it was 1:30 in the morning."

Where did he go after that?

He laughs. "To a bar."

The composer Persis Vehar, too, finds herself awake at night. She writes music then. "Everyone writes at night," she says.

Night is reflected in many of her compositions -- "Frogs and Fireflies" from her piece "The Seasons," say, or "Night Covers the Sea," from "Sea Pieces."

Their internal clocks are only one reason that Fullam and Vehar are in tune with each other. Friends now for about a decade, the two musicians met thanks to the Ars Nova Musicians, the chamber group led by Marylouise Nanna.

Through their friendship, Vehar has been inspired to write a number of works for clarinet. Most recently, Fullam commissioned the glittering "City of Light" Concerto, newly released on CD from a live performance Fullam gave with the BPO and music director JoAnn Falletta. The music is a sound portrait of the years when Buffalo, as the first city to be wired for electricity, lit up the world.

>From here to Egypt

The living room of Vehar's Snyder home, where she and Fullam are rehearsing, doubles as her studio. The room is crammed with a big grand piano and lots of vinyl.

True to their personalities, though, the cover of the "City of Light" CD shows the Buffalo skyline at night. You can see HSBC Center, and the Liberty Building and, in the distance, the Electric Tower.

Vehar is composer in residence at Canisius College, but these days, her music is taking her all over the map. An opera she wrote about Eleanor Roosevelt had its developmental premier last summer at Saratoga, and a Syracuse performance is planned for spring 2011. A pianist is performing her piano pieces in Egypt, at the Cairo Opera House.

The City of Light concerto was performed by Eileen Young, the principal clarinetist for the Salisbury Symphony, an orchestra in North Carolina.

Reached on the phone, Young says her conductor suggested she play the concerto. "He was putting together a program in which every piece related to light," she says.

She took to the music. "I like creative process," she says. "I like modern music, and I was happy he chose something I would have a creative say in -- unlike Mozart or other well-known gems."

Vehar's sense of fun emerges often in her compositions. It shows in the song cycle based on the words of ruffian poet Charles Bukowski for Valerian Ruminski, the local bass-baritone who founded Nickel City Opera. Her clarinet music also bears a personal stamp.

"I love to write for people whose playing I know," she says. "And I love the colors of the orchestra. It's the French in me."

Both she and Fullam describe the "City of Light" Concerto as a journey.

Fullam loves Gregorian chant, so he asked that a chant be worked in. Vehar, obligingly, began the slow movement with a chant "Illumina" ("Enlightenment") from the Septuagesima Mass, which introduces the Lenten season. "Let your face shine upon your servant," the prayer begins.

"I started with the second movement. I knew that chant had to be in the middle," Vehar says. "I was a theory major. I'm very analytical. I always know where I am heading."

>'What are you, crazy?'

The slow movement begins with Fullam playing the transcendent chant melody, and then Vehar disrupts it with her version of "keening," a wailing traditional in old Celtic culture. At the end of the movement the chant prevails, this time in a higher register.

Young, in North Carolina, confides that when she played the piece, the second movement called to her especially.

"I had experienced a couple of deaths in my family," she says. "I was drawn to the chant. It was soothing to me. The Irish wailing part -- I let myself funnel some of that grief through that section. It ended up being comfort to me and an outlet."

For Fullam and Vehar, the first performance is an emotional event. Fullam will never forget performing "City of Light" with the Buffalo Philharmonic in 2003, as Vehar waited backstage.

"One thing I'll remember is walking offstage at the premiere after playing it," he says. "I was really pooped, sweating profusely. I embraced Persis like a first-time father. I said, 'That was great! Write me another.'"

Vehar laughs.

"I said, 'What are you, crazy?'" she says.
A clarinet named Bert

Seeing that the music pays such tribute to our town, it's funny that Vehar and Fullam are both transplants to Buffalo.

Vehar comes from the Albany area and moved to Buffalo in 1966 with her husband, Robert, whom she met at school in Ithaca. Fullam, after joining the BPO, settled into Buffalo and married a woman from here. His wife, Lois, is a real estate agent. They live in Amherst.

"I've been a Buffalonian for a long time," he says. "I got a warm welcome. I'm surprised how much growing I did since I've gotten here. And when I got here, I was no kid."

Fullam fell in love with the sound of the clarinet as a boy on Long Island, watching Pete Fountain on "The Lawrence Welk Show." There would always be a moment when the camera would zoom in on Fountain improvising a solo. "My nose was glued to the TV," Fullam says. "It was like a call of seduction."

Even now that the clarinet is his livelihood, Fullam is as dazzled by the instrument as he was when he was a kid. He names his clarinets. The alto is Agnes. The baritone is Bert. The bass clarinet is Ben.

"I love the sound of the instrument so much, when it is in the right hands," he says. "There are so many different kinds of tone. It's like the human voice. Everyone who plays clarinet has his own tone."

Brahms and Mozart, who are generally acknowledged to have written history's most sublime music for the clarinet, tailored their pieces to individual clarinetists. Vehar, in turn, is inspired by Fullam's artistry. "I hear the Buffalo Philharmonic all the time," she says. "I know what the players are capable of. He has tremendous control over his instrument, tremendous musicality."

That doesn't mean, though, that they always understand each other perfectly.

One piece on the CD, called "Sea Pieces," puzzled Fullam at first.

"Then I had a strange epiphany. I realized, these are night harbor sounds. It's atmosphere. It's not supposed to be a melody. I was looking for a melody, and it's a setting."

Vehar nods, beaming.

"My father was a construction superintendent on the St. Lawrence Seaway. We spent summers there," she says. I would hear freighters at night," she says.

"The Seasons" also on the new CD, was inspired by the journals of artist Charles Burchfield. The last movement calls on Fullam to improvise the calls of the birds Burchfield loved.

Here, Fullam cannot resist a joke. "I have to exercise Herculean restraint not to play the Woody Woodpecker theme."

He laughs, contemplating the new CD.

"It's been a lot of fun, to be part of the creative process."

mail: mkunz@buffnews.com