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Composed 2007.

Drawing inspiration

After combing Institute archives, ASO composer turns illustrator's miniature world into 'Fairy Suite'
By JOSEPH DALTON, Special to the Times Union

First published: Thursday, March 22, 2007

Within the vast holdings of the Albany Institute of History & Art, composer Peter Child has discovered the magical, miniature world of fairies and gnomes. Taking inspiration from drawings of the late Albany artist and illustrator Dorothy Lathrop, he's created a new piece, "Down-Adown-Derry: A Fairy Suite" that will be premiered by the Albany Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The concert, titled "Casual Night at the Symphony," is part of the orchestra's annual American Music Festival. Next year, material from Child's composition will also be integrated into a new children's theater piece for Capital Repertory Theatre.

"I was taken around the Institute and into the vaults where I got to see a lot of material not on permanent display and was given a lot of freedom to explore," recalls Child of the process that began nearly two years ago.

"When I saw the Dorothy Lathrop art ... it gave me another opportunity to do a piece with an orientation toward childhood."

The Lathrop drawings were made for a book, also titled "Down-Adown-Derry," published in England in 1922, that included verses by British poet Walter de la Mar. Child's new work integrates de la Mar's poetry with short passages for orchestra (though the opening text is a Shakespeare tribute to the fairy queen). Robert Ian Mackenzie will be the narrator for Saturday's performance. Audience members at the ASO premiere will receive a booklet (separate from the program) with reproductions of the seven drawings and the complete texts.

Though "Down-Adown-Derry" is not specifically a children's piece, the process of writing it allowed the British-born Child to reconnect with his own childhood.

"One of the poems, 'The Mocking Fairy,' I knew as a kid," says Child, adding that he may have also encountered the Lathrop art in his youth.

As conductor David Alan Miller sees it, Child is also embracing an aspect of his musical heritage.

"For the last few years, I've tried to convince him to do an update of the English folk song tradition of Vaughn Williams and Holst ... But I think he's been intimidated by the grand weight on his shoulders of English 20th-century composers," says Miller, who brought on Child as one of the ASO's composers-in-residence three years ago.

"He's now found a way to capture an English sensibility through the pieces," says Miller. "They're incredibly innocent and charming."

It's a bit ironic that this new piece, so British in flavor, is premiering in the ASO's American Music Festival. But such is the nature of American culture -- an ever-changing hybrid of influences from around the world.

Child, 53, does consider himself to be an American composer, having lived and worked in the U.S. since 1973 when he came to study music at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He's currently on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

Actually, "Down-Adown-Derry" is more international in influence than it first seems, since Child uses folk songs that are Scottish.

"Visiting Scotland for first time a couple of years ago, I bought a bunch of books of Scottish folk music. One particular collection interested me a great deal, 'Songs Remembered in Exile,' " recalls Child. The compendium features indigenous material that had been lost in the homeland but remembered by Scottish immigrants living in Nova Scotia, Canada.

"The idea of recovered memory and identity -- as an ex pat, I resonated to that idea," says Child.

Among the audience members for Saturday night's premiere of "Down-Adown-Derry," will be producers from the Capital Repertory Theater, curious to see and hear what aspects of the piece can be integrated into their own upcoming Dorothy Lathrop-inspired creation.

According to Capital Rep spokesperson Nancy Laribee, the company is planning a multi-media performance piece for school-age audiences for the 2007-08 season, with the working title "The Little Mermaid and Other Tails: Unlocking the Living Universe." It will focus on Lathrop's drawings of endangered species as well as her interpretation of the Hans Christian Anderson classic, "The Little Mermaid."

The Lathrop-inspired music and theater pieces are the first tangible result of the widely heralded "Capital Culture" initiative, announced in October 2005, in which Albany's three largest arts organizations, the ASO, the Albany Institute and Capital Rep, agreed to collaborate on projects to build audiences and income.

Though Child utilized the full forces of the ASO in writing his piece, he's intrigued by the possibilities of something more intimate at Capital Rep.

"It was very much in the back of mind before I even put pen to paper, the idea that somehow I could extract from this piece some music that's playable by very reduced sources," says Child, adding that the folk tunes could be successfully delivered on a single melody instrument, such as violin or flute. "All of my music is melodic," he says, "but I don't know what they're going to want and that's intriguing."