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Unsettling scores
Political treachery echoes in 'Roscoe' concerto, as Kennedy takes stage

By JOSEPH DALTON, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, April 15, 2007

When he was 12 years old, William Kennedy ushered at the Palace Theater for a performance of "Aida." As a kid, he also performed in choirs and glee clubs and learned to play the banjo, an instrument he still picks up now and then.

These days, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Albany author says that an evening with friends isn't complete without some communal singing, mostly of standards like "Happy Days and Lonely Nights," a favorite song of the late gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond.

Known for their realistic depictions of the rough-and-tumble life of Albany in the first half of the 20th century, Kennedy's novels are enlivened by the vernacular voices of political bosses and Depression-era bums. But most of his books also share a lyric soundtrack, with the author referencing songs of the swing era that filter in and out of the characters' lives.

Music plays in Kennedy's nonfiction pieces as well. The collection "Riding the Yellow Trolley Car" includes pieces on Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Pablo Casals. Also an avid record collector, Kennedy even co-wrote a song with Tom Waits, "Poor Little Lamb," for the 1987 movie "Ironweed," based on Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.

But for all his musical chops, there's one piece that leaves the author almost at a loss for words: "Eyeball High," a turbulent, almost violent tone poem by Kevin Beavers, based on Kennedy's novel "Legs." The piece was premiered by the Albany Symphony Orchestra in November 2004 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.

"I couldn't tell you what was in the actual music," says Kennedy, still a bit taken back that a grand orchestral work was inspired by his writing. After starting and restarting a sentence several times, he finally concludes, "I just know that he understood, and his reflection of what he read seemed to me to be exciting and authentic."

ASO music director David Alan Miller agrees, and he was so pleased with the piece that he commissioned a sequel from Beavers. "Roscoe: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra," premieres Friday night at the Palace Theatre. And this time, Kennedy won't be speechless. He'll be on stage reading selections from his 2002 novel "Roscoe," which serve as preludes to sections of the piece. The violin soloist will be Colin Jacobsen.

Referring to the 79-year-old Kennedy as "our leading literary celebrity," Miller and the ASO have organized nearly two months of ancillary events around the premiere celebrating the author and his writing. The activities have included readings, discussions and even trolley tours of William Kennedy's Albany.

Old World romance

"There is this wonderful hard-boiled, Old World romance to Albany that he captures in such a poetic way," Miller says. "And there's some gritty element in Kevin Beaver's musical world view that I think is very good company to Kennedy's."

"Turgid, tough, mean-guy music," is how Beavers' describes the feel of his first Kennedy piece, "Eyeball High." Where that piece was a portrait of Jack "Legs" Diamond based on impressions from Kennedy's novel the first in his Albany cycle the new concerto will focus on specific scenes from "Roscoe," the cycle's latest and seventh installment.

Beaver's new score will surely retain a certain raw power, but some of the grisly edge of the previous work will be softened, since this time the central character isn't a murderer, just a treacherous politician. In Kennedy's fictionalized account of the Democratic machine that controlled Albany for nearly 50 years, Roscoe Owen Conway is a corpulent, behind-the-scenes politico.

"A corrupt politician is a wonderful topic," says Beavers, 35, who was raised in West Virginia and currently lives in Berlin, Germany. "Roscoe is a much more endearing character than Diamond, somebody you smile at more than anything else," he says.

(It was five years ago that Miller urged Beavers to examine Kennedy's novels, a suggestion that has led him into new musical terrain. "When you have a subject matter that's not so obvious, it pushes you in new directions," says Beavers.

Beyond its literary inspiration, "Roscoe" will be an atypical concerto in other ways as well. According to the composer, the piece is cast in four movements, rather than the traditional three. And there will be a soloist other than the violinist, that being Kennedy as the narrator.

"I can't get over the way he writes dialogue and the wit of the characters," says Beavers. "I was just chuckling at so many lines, though it's a serious book.")

Songs in the air

"Roscoe" may be one of Kennedy's most explicitly musical books. Again the author fills the air with songs of World War II and music of the swing era, but he also makes frequent use of musical terminologies. For example, the pivotal account of Democrats recapturing power is titled "Opus One: Overture, 1919," with subsequent sections called movements.

"I guess there's a feeling that there's a symphony being created by Roscoe and Patsy McCall and the other people who are instrumental in taking over City Hall ... music as a metaphor for plot," explains Kennedy.

In his own perusal of the book, Beavers was drawn to short passages of fantasy that precede certain chapters. "There are these one-page dream-like texts, you could call soliloquies or meditations," explains Beavers.

The concerto's first movement is inspired by one of those passages, titled "Roscoe and the Silent Music." In it, Roscoe is having an imaginary, late-night conversation with Diamond, who warns that trouble is ahead and asks, "How will you cope?"

"I'll cope through virtue and virtue I'll achieve through harmony. The musical scale, always a favorite of mine, is expressed in harmonious numbers: the octave, the fifth, and other fixed intervals, all reflecting an order inherited by this Earth."

Roscoe continues on for a bit about a theory of heavenly order and "the music of the spheres."

"Virtue was always one hell of an idea," replies Diamond.

Beavers' response is a quiet, harmonically unsettled music with high lyrical lines for the violin.

Money and power

For a fast movement, Beavers went with Kennedy's suggestion of the section titled "Felix Declares his Principals to Roscoe." There, the aspiring political boss recalls his father's rapid-fire enumeration of every way to acquire money and power.

Another movement arises out of "Roscoe and the Flying Heads," a trippy fantasy set in a night club, where a chorus line is performing to the song "Somebody Else is Taking My Place." Kennedy explains that the song alludes to Roscoe and his friend Elisha being in love with the same woman. Beavers describes his musical interpretation as having "a dance element and a macabre element."

The concerto's finale is based on the closing pages of the novel, titled "On The Night Boat." Roscoe has died and his spirit is being invited into a casino onboard a ship. He hears strains of Wagner.

"There's no direct quote of Wagner (in the score). That's stuff you don't want to touch," says Beavers. But the composer points with amazement to the very last phrase of the novel: "I could use a little music."

"It was almost like (Kennedy) knew what was coming. He calls for it," says Beavers. "How could he set up a last movement better than that?"

Literary equipment

"Whatever I'm working with, there's an element of music and an element of timing and rhythmic pacing," says Kennedy. "It's just in my literary equipment."

But the creation of a musical line one strong enough to inspire a composer out of the smoke-filled rooms of political wheeling and dealing is the sign of a master. And because it is Kennedy, it is also Albany.

"He's taken what he knows best ... a city of thugs, and has elevated it into high art," says Miller. "He sings the song of Albany."

Joseph Dalton is a local freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Times Union.

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