"He writes music that is not ashamed to be beautiful."
San Francisco Examiner
"His music is substantial, varied, ambitious and sometimes of an order of difficulty that made you want to cheer both conductor and singers."
"His structure remains linear, his material quickly identifiable, his invention fluid and attractive."
San Francisco Chronicle
"He is a student of Arnold Schoenberg and a composer to take seriously."
Ron McFarland has written operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber works, songs, and music for the piano, theater and children. His romantic and passionate music reveals much of the man. Ron McFarland, a protégé of the legendary Ethel Leginska in Los Angeles, made his successful Los Angeles piano debut as a teenager with the Leginska Little Symphony. Critically acclaimed as pianist, composer and teacher, he studied composition with the great Arnold Schoenberg at his famed Brentwood, California studio and continued his studies in orchestration with David Sheinfeld in San Francisco.
He has written operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber works, songs and music for the piano, theater and for children. His opera The Donner Party, premiered at Chico State University, was later featured in a highly successful production with Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.
His second opera, Song of Pegasus, was presented at the In Performance series at Marin's Forest Meadows, directed by Denis de Coteau with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Song of Pegasus was also performed that same weekend as a finalist in the Samuel Rubin American Opera Competition in New York.
When compared to the experimental, non-conventional forays of the 70's and 80's, Mr. McFarland's compositions might be viewed as conservative. And yet, his works are as "contemporary" as could be imagined in the 90's - at a time when the move seems to be more towards the melodic and harmonic than in previous decades. Certainly he was tremendously influenced by Arnold Schoneberg, one of the greatest masters of 20th Century composition, with whom he studied while still in his teens.
Ron McFarland began his musical career as a pianist. The single most important person in his young life was the late, legendary Ethel Leginska, wo arranged for him to study privately with Schoenberg, and with whom he studied for over six years. He remembers Leginska as a very demanding taskmaster who stipulated that her students enter as many competitions as possible, because she believed the experience was tantamount to launching concert careers. In order to oblige his teacher, McFarland entered so many competitions that he began to question who and what he was.
At age 19, Ron McFarland gave his debut performance with the Leginska Symphony Orchestra to critical acclaim, which led to a performance at the Hollywood Bowl with the KFI Symphony Orchestra. Six months later, he left music behind and traveled to New Orleans, where he began a career as an artist.
While in New Orleans, he met the well-known Hungarian pianist Istvan Nadas, a teacher at Loyola University, and decided to renew his piano studies. Later, when Nadas accepted a teaching position at the San Francisco Conservatory, he decided to move to California as well. During the long drive from New Orleans to San Francisco, he was haunted by the strains of a piece he had been working on at the conclusion of his studies with Schoenberg. It was then that Ron McFarland made the final commitment to spend the rest of his life writing music.
He could hardly wait to reach the Bay Area and put those thoughts down on paper, and when the Piano Suite was completed, Istvan Nadas was so taken with the piece that he included it in his program of the 20th Century Music Festival at San Francisco State College. The performance prompted McFarland to remark that "the highest high is having a piece played well," and he was moved to direct more and more of his attention towards composing.
He began writing for many different combinations of instruments, including compositions for violin, for two pianos, for orchestra with narrator, and a children's opera. In 1974, he embarked on writing The Donner Party, an opera based on the prize-winning book by George Keithley, with libretto by Maria Woodward. This impressive composition has since received critical acclaim throughout cities on the West Coast, and inspired a rave review in the definitive publication, Opera News, which called it: "Fresh and Original ... the passacaglia theme imprints itself vividly on the ear. The final duet is beautifully lyrical."
In 1982, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performed The Donner Party under the baton of Kent Nagano, who called the work: "A score to be treated with respect and one worthy of a great production."
Mr. McFarland's second opera, Song of Pegasus, was a finalist in the New York University American Opera competition in 1985. It has since received many performances, including the summer "In Performance" series at Forest Meadows, in San Rafael, California, conducted by noted San Francisco Ballet and opera conductor Denis de Coteau.
Spurred by a continuing deep desire to compose, Ron McFarland has written works for many media, given only the restrictions of instrumentation and time. A notable collaboration occurred when he received a call from Edward Hastings, Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theatre, to write the incidental music for Hasting's production of King Lear. Its success led him to write a version for two spoken voices with instruments, premiered with Lear actors Peter Donat and Fredi Olster. A third version for singers resulted from the request of Metropolitan Opera tenor William Lewis, who gave the premiere performance.
Mr. McFarland writes particularly well for the voice. Windows, his second string quartet with soprano, is a very fine example of this genre. He is equally at ease with much larger works, such as his Second Symphony and the charming Legend of Sleepy Hollow. McFarland has written two works for solo piano: Suite No. 1 for Piano, and Les Hommages, a set of 24 preludes in 24 keys. These pieces are in the styles of many well-known composers, but the same thematic material is present throughout.
His latest CD, featuring members of the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Conservatory, and American Conservatory Theater, has just been released by Eroica Classical Recordings
AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE: May/June 1999
McFarland: Trio; 4 Songs in Blue; Violin Sonata; Homages Preludes (sel); Lear and Cordelia Sara Ganz, soprano; Ron McFarland, Mack McCray, Dmitriy Cogan, piano; Lisa Lhee, violi, others Eroica 3019 (Jem) 71 minutes
This is the second anthology of songs and chamber music by Ron McFarland-a genial Californian pianist and composer who studied with Arnold Schoenberg-to come my way. A song cycle on Cavafy poems and a string quartet were on the first disc (Con Molto 94001), Sept/Oct 1997). Like them, the offerings on this new program are fairly old-fsahioned-though it should be added that McFarland employes a range of styloes in different works. He makes a point of this in Les Hommages Preludes, an enjoyable 50-minute set of 24 preludes "in the manner of" 12 different composers. The Con Molto disc mentioned above includes the complete Hommages: this new disc tosses in a handful ("after" Satie, Liszt, and Ravel) as fillers.
The main items here are a Trio (for flute, harp, and viola), a violin sonata, Four Songs in Blue, for soprano and piano, and Lear and Cordelia, a setting of excerpts from King Lear for two speakers accompanied by a chamber ensemble of winds, percussion, and harp. The three-movement Trio is a charmer: nicely crafted in a Gallic-inspired mode (with echoes of Ravel, Poulenc, and many another Frenchman), this is a sensuous, harmonically rich, and timbrally luscious creation. It gets a loving performance, vividly recorded before a well-behaved (ie, silent until they applaud) audience.
Also very well performed and recorded is McFarland's recent Four Songs in Blue on texts (included in the notes) by Patrick Emery Carr, a poet who wrote lyrics for Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, among others. The music is appropriately popular in idiom, and listeners who respond to this genre will no doubt appreciate the romantic sentiment and Sara Ganz's expressive singing.
McFarland's 1972 Violin Sonata is made of sterner stuff, and it's a much more dissonant and edgy piece expressing darker and more complex emotions. Its avatars are such German early-Moderns as Zemlinsky, Eisler, and Schoenberg in his late-tonal phase, though even here McFarland's love of vernacular music comes through in the finale, with it fixation on waltz-rhythms. The impact of this well-made but difficult Sonata-my favorite work on the program-is somewhat compromised by patches of rough playing and an only so-so recording. I can't help wishing violinist Lisa Lhee and pianist Dmitriy Cogan-both clearly excellent players, genuinely involved with the music-had had the chance to make a more polished studio recording of the piece.
Last and (at 26 minutes) longest is McFarland's mini-opera based on the Lear-Cordelia relationship in King Lear. The music is modest, accompanimental, and-as it should be-subservient to the larger-than-life storms and heartbreaking torments of this magniloquent tragedy. It doesn't begin to do justice to Shakespeare's words-but then what music could? LEHMAN
American Record Guide, September/October 1997
McFarland: Windows: Pegasus: Les Hommages Sara Ganz, soprano; Elaine Lust, piano; Alexander Quartet Con Molto 94001-78 minutes.
"Ron McFarland was born in California, studied with Schoenberg, and has written operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs and music for the theater. This disc is the first recording of his large output that I've seen. Windows is a song cycle on four poems by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy for soprano and string quartet. Pegasus is a string quartet; and Les Hommages is 24 short preludes, each a tribute to and in the style of another composer: Poulenc, Satie, Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Chopin, Berg, Joplin, Faure, Bartok, Gershwin, Liszt, Ravel, and so on.
The song cycle and string quartet piece are presumably written in McFarland's own style, derived, no doubt, from his study with Schoenberg, who (it may surprise some) taught his students to write tonal music in the German tradition. The language of Windows and Pegasus is turn-of-the-century Germanic late romanticism-like Mahler, Zemlinsky, Karl Weigl, and early Schoenberg. McFarland uses that language with conviction and skill, and the result is expressive and shapely music that pleased me all the more for being concise and avoiding emotional excess.. The opening theme of Schoenberg's Second Quartet appears as an element in the adagio of McFarland's quartet. I was startled by the rhythmic figure in its finale taken from (or at least identical with) Vince Guaraldi's popular "Linus and Lucy" from the Peanuts specials. An in-joke, perhaps!
Listening to Les Hommages is a peculiar experience. McFarland's mimicry is petty good--sometimes uncanny-but hopping from style to style is unsettling. I admired this piece but don't recommend swallowing it whole, in one sitting. 32 tracks are listed in the notes but only 30 on the disc. No big deal. If you can't tell McFarland's 'Vivo a Bartok' from his 'Tempo di Blues a Gershwin' it won't matter to you, anyway.
Soprano Sara Ganz sings Cavafy's poignant lyrics very nicely indeed, and both the Alexander Quartet and pianist Elaine Lust acquit themselves well. Recording is clear and natural. Now-can we get Con Molto to give us some of McFarland's orchestral stuff?"- Lehman
San Francisco Examiner
"Recordings by Bay Area musicians figure prominently in the recent release list. Let's skim the cream off the top: McFarland: "Windows," "Pegasus," "Les Hommages." Sara Ganz, soprano; Elaine Lust, piano; Alexander String Quartet, Con Molto CMM 94001 (CD only).
Marin-based Ron McFarland writes music that is not ashamed to be beautiful. This generous, 78-minute collection includes "Windows" (to Cavafy poems) for soprano and string quartet, the "Pegasus" quartet and the 24 preludes for piano, "Les Hommages," clever tributes to the musical legends of yesteryear. Performances are uniformly persuasive."- Allan Ulrich, Music Critic
"McFarland's Chamber Works, Alexander String Quartet: Sara Ganz, soprano; Elaine Lust, piano (Con Molto Music)-Ron McFarland is a Bay Area composer who studied with Schoenberg but has evolved his own, middle-of-the-road style, neither forbidding nor soft-centered. Composer of two operas, he is here represented by excellent performances, recorded at Skywalker Ranch and the Conservatory of Music, of his Cavafy song cyle, "Windows," for soprano and string quartet, his sharply characterized "Pegasus" String Quartet, and a thoroughly engaging set of 24 piano preludes called "Les Hommages" because each is wittily crafted in the style of a different composer, from Liszt and Chopin to Joplin and Gershwin."- Stephanie von Buchau
San Francisco Live
"Chamber Works Ron McFarland the Alexander String Quartet, others (Con Molto). Local composer Ron McFarland has written operas, symphonies and music for the American Conservatory Theater. His discography is small, but fortunately we now have this generously filled disc of chamber works available to introduce us to his music. It includes a string quartet, songs for string quartet with piano, and 24 "character pieces" for piano that pay homage to some of McFarland's favorite composers. McFarland has always stayed true to tonal music, unmistakably modern, yet conservative and often lyrical. If you're looking for an enjoyable change of pace from the minimalists and post-modernists, this well-crafted music should do the trick. Texts included."
New York Times
"A concert that provided a model of thoughtful and innovative programming, presented a world premier 'Century Songs' by Ron McFarland."- Tim Page
San Francisco Examiner
"A suite of four songs [Windows] set to poems by the 20th Century Alexandrian poet, Cavafy, is a tightly organized, affecting work, with the songs sharing common rhythmic and melodic ideas. While his music may be said to be conservative, it is very much his own."- Michael Walsh
San Francisco Chronicle
"Pegasus...shapely, easily grasped melodies, within a firmly tonal context, and exploits the polyphonic possibilities of the quartet well."- Joshua Kosman
"McFarland's music [The Donner Party], falling between the stools of modern and conservative, has fresh and original features. The pioneers reach the top of the Wasatch Mountains to a glorious up-swelling in the orchestra worthy of Bartok. The passacaglia theme imprints itself vividly on the ear. The final duet is beautifully lyrical."- Stephanie von Buchau
Marin Independent Journal
"Fantasia for Strings ... sharply accessible contemporary work, lively and energetic, with modulations bringing to mind the early Schoenberg of the Transfigured Night period."- Janos Gereben
San Francisco Chronicle
"[Song of Pegasus] ... finely crafted, with a keen sense of melody that makes it immediately accessible and often beautiful."- Marilyn Tucker