Dr. Larry Bitensky premieres “Katanya” at St. Mary’s University
While the stories of Thumbelina and Tom Thumb are two beloved and well-known fables, Associate Professor of Music Larry Bitensky is bringing another diminutive character into the folktale fold with his latest composition, “Katanya,” which he debuted on September 28, during Family Weekend festivities at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn.
“Katanya” is based on a Jewish folk tale from Turkey that tells the story of a tiny character akin to Thumbelina or Tom Thumb. Bitensky discovered the story in Howard Schwartz’s collection of Jewish oral tales, Leaves from the Garden of Eden.
The piece was commissioned by the Helen and Sam Kaplan Foundation, which supports the work of Jewish artists and scholars, particularly work that increases cultural and religious understanding at Saint Mary’s University (SMU).
“About 14 years ago, the Foundation gave a donation to SMU to foster Jewish-Catholic relations,” Bitensky explains. “Every two years, there is a competition for composers of Jewish descent. The winner is expected to write a work for a liberal arts college-level concert band that is based in some way on a Jewish theme.”
Bitensky was selected as this year’s winner, which meant he not only composed “Katanya” but also completed a residency at SMU during his spring 2012 sabbatical from Centre.
His 15-minute piece, written for a concert band and narrator, premiered at the SMU Family Weekend concert, where Bitensky read the narration and the SMU Concert Band, led by Dr. Janet Heukeshoven, accompanied his words.
“I knew early on that I wanted to write a piece for narrator and concert band based on a Jewish folktale,” Bitensky says. “Once I found the story of Katanya, it quickly rose to first place—it immediately suggested a certain kind of music for me. I could easily see the story in my mind while hearing a sort of soundtrack.”
One interesting element of the Katanya tale is, though it closely resembles a Thumbelina or Tom Thumb tale, it has one key difference: the prophet Elijah.
“The prophet Elijah appears in thousands of Jewish folktales,” Bitensky explains. “He is probably the most prominent folkloric figure, actually. He usually appears as a messenger from God or as an agent of some kind of miracle. He is true to form in the Katanya story!”
Though the piece features a narrator, Bitensky worked to ensure that the music did most of the storytelling.
“I really wanted this to be a true marriage between the story and the music,” he says. “For instance, the three main characters of Katanya, Elijah and the Old Woman have their own distinctive music, and there is a great deal of word-painting as well to evoke actions like Katanya sweeping, coming to life or climbing out of a window.”
For Bitensky, there were several challenges in writing the piece, especially because it was commissioned for a concert band.
“The concert band is a very large, somewhat lumbering ensemble that does big and loud very well,” he says. “My piece is all about small, delicate things, so deliberately writing against the grain of the ensemble was difficult.
“Also, the story is very simple and conflict-free,” he adds, “which doesn’t lend itself easily to the kind of dramatic tension and resolution that music does well.”
Aside from the practical challenges, Bitensky adds that the folktale ends with Katanya singing “the most beautiful song ever heard,” which he jokes was a slight challenge as well.
As for the performance, it was Bitensky’s first time narrating, which made him somewhat nervous.
“Fortunately, I had some help from Centre’s drama program,” he says. “Patrick Kagan-Moore helped tremendously in creating the narrator part, and both he and Tony Haigh gave me some lessons in narrating.”
Ultimately, the piece was a challenging and satisfying project for him.
“The story spoke to me in its directness and simplicity,” Bitensky explains, “and it immediately suggested a magical, dreamlike and Ravelien sound world. Many of the musical motives, however, are based on Katanya’s final song, which is an imitation of the many Jewish folk songs that I grew up with.”
To learn more about Dr. Bitensky’s work and listen to selected pieces, click here.
By Mariel Smith