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Narong Prangcharoen has new music debuting for Kansas Citians

October 31, 2008

The Kansas City Star

Percussionist Mark Lowry uses mallets and a bow on the marimba during a rehearsal of Narong Prangcharoen’s “Whispering.”

Narong Prangcharoen, a doctoral candidate at UMKC’s Conservatory of Music, has heard his music premiered in concert halls around the world. Tokyo. New York. Bangkok, Thailand.

Now, six years after arriving in Kansas City, the young composer gets a chance to debut a new piece for locals.

His 10-minute work “Whispering,” for an unusually voiced quartet, was commissioned by NewEar, a Kansas City ensemble that specializes in contemporary chamber music. It’s one of six new and recent works featured on NewEar’s program tonight at Unity on the Plaza.

Prangcharoen conceived “Whispering” as music about the planet and natural tragedies.

“The main idea is about communication,” he said recently. “So many bad things have happened: Hurricane Katrina, the cyclone in Burma, the earthquake in China. I feel like maybe the Earth is trying to communicate.”

Prangcharoen wrote the piece specifically for four of the core members of NewEar, which is how it got set on soprano saxophone (Jan Faidley), bass clarinet (Tom Aber), piano (Robert Pherigo) and percussion (Mark Lowry).

Another self-imposed challenge, Prangcharoen said, was his decision to use Burmese scales and tunings, which are considerably different from the Thai and Western musical elements with which he was used to working.

“I think it’s a very interesting synthesis of East meets West,” said David McIntire, NewEar’s artistic chairman. “He’s got an Eastern sensibility and philosophical outlook, combined with his exposure to Western technique.

“He’s absorbed a lot of French impressionism — Fauré and Debussy. His emphasis is on color.”

In its opening section, “Whisperings” spends a lot of time in the lower registers, with percussive piano and the bass clarinet drilling deep into the Earth.

Those passages explore the dark colors of the piece. But the work later ascends into a long and bright stretch of melody, with lurching, edge-of-your-seat rhythms.

After graduating from Illinois State University, Prangcharoen enrolled at the Conservatory of Music, in part to work with Chen Yi, the China-born composer who has built an international reputation.

Even though his works appeared on 50 or more concerts last year, prompting McIntire to call him a rising international star, Prangcharoen demurs.

“Compared to Chen Yi,” he said, “I’m still very small. I’m still working my way up.”

In the second of its four concerts this season, NewEar’s program also will present works by five other composers with Kansas City ties. Ensemble principals McIntire and Ingrid Stolzel, as well as Paul Rudy and William J. Lackey, are represented by recent pieces.

Another featured work, like Prangcharoen’s, takes its inspiration from nature.

Paul Elwood, a Wichita native working and teaching in Colorado, wrote “In Blue Spaces” while contemplating the desert landscape and the distant blue horizon outside Taos, N.M.

He was on sabbatical, spending part of his days on a cabin porch.

“From where I was sitting,” he said, “I could see dust storms rising, rain approaching.”

He captured his experience in a score for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, viola, cello and solo bouzouki, the stringed instrument most associated with Irish, Greek and Middle Eastern music. The last will feature his friend Roger Landes, longtime member of the Kansas City Celtic music group Scartaglen, now living in Taos.

“Roger is one of the foremost virtuosos of the bouzouki,” Elwood said. “I based the piece loosely on an Irish reel, ‘The Star of Munster,’ and transformed it. And I built it around his virtuosity.”