Riegger in Paris

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, June 11, 2019

On today’s date in 1931, the Russian-born American composer Nicolas Slonimsky was in Paris, conducting the second of two concerts of modern music from the Americas bankrolled by a retired insurance executive named Charles Ives.

This second concert showcased Latin American composers like Pedro Sanjuan, Carlos Chavez, and Alejandro Caturla, as well as works by the Franco-American composers Carlos Salzedo and Edgard Varese. North America was represented by Wallingford Riegger’s “Three Canons” for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon.

Normally, chamber music for just four players doesn’t require the services of a conductor, but in this case Slonimsky did beat time for the Parisian wind players hired for the gig. As Slonimsky put it, “Some instrumental parts were written in 5/8 and others in 2/8. I started beating time in 5/8, whereupon the binary musicians began to gesticulate at me to show their discomfort. What was I to do? OK, I said, I will conduct 5/8 with my right hand and 2/8 with my left. I was so delighted with my newly found ambidextrous technique that I applied it in other pieces as well, notably in the second movement of Ives’ Three Place in New England, played on the first of the two Parisian concerts. Someone quipped that my conducting was evangelical, for my right hand knew not what my left hand was doing.”