Music News & Reviews

Composer Craig Russell is lucky in a lot of ways

Cal Poly professor Craig Russell drew inspiration from a John Irving novel for his ‘Twisted River’ piano suite.
Cal Poly professor Craig Russell drew inspiration from a John Irving novel for his ‘Twisted River’ piano suite. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

An earlier version of this story misstated where local composer Craig Russell lives. The Cal Poly music professor lives in San Luis Obispo.

Composer Craig Russell gets some of his best ideas sitting on a lawn chair outside his San Luis Obispo home, a cup of coffee or tea by his side.

“I’m a lucky person in a lot of ways,” he said. “When I sit down in a chair with a clipboard and music paper, I have ideas. I don’t know where they come from.”

Inspiration struck the Cal Poly music professor this summer as he sat down to work on music for his upcoming concert “Transatlantic Landscapes.” Audiences can hear the finished product Saturday in San Luis Obispo.

The concert will feature a mix of old and new works by Russell, including a string quartet he originally composed in Spain in 1980.

Russell was revising the quartet when he came up with the piano suite “Twisted River,” based on eight characters in John Irving’s “Last Night in Twisted River.” Published in 2009, the novel involves a father and son who flee the New Hampshire logging community of Twisted River following a tragic accident.

Gruff lumberjack Ketchum inspired one passage in Russell’s “Twisted River.” Yi-Yiing, a Chineseborn nurse, influenced another. There’s even a theme for the river itself.

“I got wrapped up in this piece,” said the composer, who wrote “Twisted River” in just three weeks. He described the suite as “a cross between Robert Schumann’s character pieces and John Williams’ film scores.”

“Twisted River” is dedicated to pianist Barbara Hoff, who will perform it at Saturday’s world premiere.

“It has really turned out to be the Barbara Hoff recital start-to-finish,” Russell said. “She’s really front and center. She’s the decathlete of this performance.”

Hoff also plays on “Car Songs,” a song cycle featuring jazz vocalist Inga Swearingen.

“I remember all these songs about cars growing up,” said Russell, who originally penned the piece in 1997. This version includes a new song, “Stop the Car,” about two high school sweethearts on their way home.

“Anybody who’s ever been 16 or 17 can understand this song,” he said.

Swearingen will also sing “In My M.G.” and “Driving Away,” about a college kid leaving home for the first time.

“That particular one is actually autobiographical,” Russell said. “Driving down to the end of my street was both super-happy and also bittersweet. I thought, ‘I’ll never be a kid again.’ ”

Like “Car Songs,” “Four American Themes” — revised from a 1994 version —also has personal meaning for Russell.

Written for piano and strings, the sextet harkens back to his father’s childhood at a ranch in southeast New Mexico and his mother’s youth in Gate City, Va., near the Tennessee border. Another section recalls a family trip to the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico, where Russell and his siblings were raised.

With the exception of the Spanish string quartet, Russell noted that the concert has a distinctly domestic vibe. “I could have called it ‘American Portraits,’ ” he said.

Saturday’s concert will feature Hoff on piano, Paul Severtson and Brynn Albanese on violin, David Hennessee on viola, Jeanne Shumway on cello, and Clifton Swanson on bass.

“The players are magnificent,” Russell said. “Every single person is a stellar artist.”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.