Classical Composer Spreads A 'Green' Message

Metropolitan Opera violinist Patmore Lewis hopes classical music and world beats will lend a hand to spread the word about river conservation. The renowned composer has released a new CD, Rillito River Project, to draw attention to the environment through pop and innovation. Lewis talks about his solo project and how he's hoping to make an impact.

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KORVA COLEMAN, host

This is Tell Me More from NPR News, I'm Korva Coleman. Fans of classical music know that the genre can be sometimes a little hard to penetrate. Well, musician Patmore Lewis is trying to change that. The violinist who plays for New York's Metropolitan Opera is also a composer who brings the energy and innovation of today's pop to classical music

(Soundbite of song "Welcome"

COLEMAN: That piece, "Welcome" was featured on Lewis's 2003 album, "Da Capo(ph)." Now, in his new project Lewis infuses classical pieces with the sounds of nature. The "Rillito River Project" draws listeners into the fascinating landscapes surrounding Tucson, Arizona. And a portion of the proceeds from the CD benefit conservation efforts in the region. With us now to talk more about the music and the cause is Patmore Lewis. Patmore, welcome

Mr. PATMORE LEWIS (Musician): Thank you Korva. It's great being here today

COLEMAN: Can you tell me, Patmore, how did you first get interested in playing the violin

Mr. LEWIS: Well, funny. I was staying with some relatives and aunts, as a matter of fact, in Boston. And she says, well, you know, if you're going to study here, you're going to have to learn some music. So she played piano. So my first instrument was actually piano and then organ. I played organ in church. Then I said to myself, well, you know, I want to pick my own instrument, because that was sort of picked by her but - and so I decided I want to play trumpet or percussion. And she said, not in my house

(Soundbite of laughter

COLEMAN: Not the trumpet. I actually read that you picked up the violin as a form of rebellion

Mr. LEWIS: Exactly. I said, well, in that case, I'm going to play the violin and cello, because I wasn't sure. So I played violin and cello for a couple of years, and then left the the cello and stayed with the violin. Turns out that I really loved it

COLEMAN: I'm surprised you didn't take up the drums as rebellion. But, when did you realize you wanted to make classical music, the violin, your career

Mr. LEWIS: Well, it sort of just happened, because I was in school, you know, normally studying, and I thought that I was going to be in science. I was very interested in physics and astronomy. So I really considered doing that. But then everyone kept telling me, why, you play the violin so well. You play the piano. You should just stay with the violin. So, I sort of just went with the flow and ended up in music

COLEMAN: You know, we don't see a lot of African-American classical musicians out there. How do you let people know that there are African Americans who play a great deal of classical music, and they're there

Mr. LEWIS: They are certainly there, and they're growing. You know, the younger kids nowadays, I walk down the street, I see young kids, African Americans, with violins and cellos. But in general, I used to teach in my hometown of Saint Thomas, the Virgin Islands. I did my part in teaching children for two or three years. I taught them violin and music appreciation at a small school in a village there. And right now, I don't have much time because between the orchestra and playing I don't teach that much anymore. But hopefully later I will get the opportunity again to work with the children

COLEMAN: You've tried to bridge the gap between classical music and hip-hop by belonging to a group called Da Capo. What's that about

Mr. LEWIS: It sort of just happened on a whim. I've always been active in pop music. I used to play back in Puerto Rico. I used to play - and here in New York, I used to play in Latin groups. I remember before I started playing in the Met. But I used to play late night clubs up in the Bronx, getting home at seven in the morning. So, that's always been a part of my life. And then I met a lady here in town who's very active, Jill Newman, who's very active in the hip-hop production and concerts and whatnot and shows. She introduced me to several artists. And some of the collaboration haven't happened yet. We've been speaking about them and, hopefully, they'll - it's going to work out. But I took it on to myself to put together an album called "Da Capo." And I have a friend of mine who's an engineer, and he was very active with a whole bunch of different hip-hop artist who are not known to everybody, but on the underground they were quite known. And I selected several themes, classical themes going back to. I'd say, about the 13th century, and just brought them up to date. And the people I worked with are excited. They said, this is great. I mean, I can't believe this was written back then. So, that's how it's happened. We're planning a concert coming up sometime soon within a next month or so

COLEMAN: OK. Well, let's take a listen to a track from Da Capo. This is one that you called, "Freestyle

(Soundbite of "Freestyle"

COLEMAN: Patmore, tell me about "Freestyle" and your thoughts on creating this

Mr. LEWIS: We were in studio and I've - May Gabay(ph), she's the pianist in the group. And, we thought, well, why don't just we do something on a spur of the moment and just see what comes out. We just - the engineer opened up the mics, and we figured out the bass progression and the chords, and then we just let it roll. So, it's totally, totally improv

COLEMAN: Pat, let's talk about your latest work, "The Rillito River Project." Now the Rillito River is near Tucson, Arizona. It's mostly now a dry river bed. So, Pat, tell us a little bit about it

Mr. LEWIS: Yes. Ellen Skotheim is the creative director of that group of artists. It's a collective group of different artist, some are painters, some of them are actually architects. And she told me one day - we're at dinner - and she says, well, you know, I formed this group and one by one we add an artist. An artist does a work, and then that artist becomes part of the group. So, I would love for you to write a piece about this area and the native indigenous population in this area. And I was in Tucson for a concert back in 2004, I think it was. So, I got to do quite of bit of hiking around that area. And it was just so striking, and then when she finally gave me the opportunity to do this, I listened to some of the music of that area, and then I just sat down one day and just concentrated - meditated and concentrated, and then started writing this piece, which I'd been conceptualizing in my mind

COLEMAN: The title of your song is "Elemental Flow,'' and I'd like to listen to a little bit of it

(Soundbite of : "Elemental Flow"

COLEMAN: Patmore Lewis, your composition is nearly hypnotic, you've incorporated birds, crickets, wind, water, bats. Did I miss something

(Soundbite of laughter

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah, that's right. That's right. That's right. Each piece I do, I sort of try to do it differently. This particular one, I'd sort of worked in my mind, and at the last two months I just sat down, just wrote it out. And I try to convey the idea of the dryness in the beginning of time, of how water forms, and how water sort of collects in an area until it reaches a point where it just overflows and become part of the river, sort of like the birth of the river. And then, part of the concept is the instrument, the violin becomes like the soul, the voice, the grille(ph) so to speak, the voice that tells the story of what goes on through time as the waters run the banks and reached their final destination

COLEMAN: If you just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More. I'm Korva Coleman. And, I'm speaking with violinist Patmore Lewis. You've also included a couple of other composers on the Rillito River CD, and one which completely took me aback was the work of Richard Strauss. Here's a little bit of you playing the allegro

(Soundbite of "Sonata in E flat Major for Violin and Piano"

COLEMAN: Pat, I found this beautiful. Why did you include Richard Strauss on this

Mr. LEWIS: Well, in part it was just things coming together at the same time. This piece for me signifies the struggle and triumph and has both grace and beauty which is important in that. I happened to have this piece recorded in 1996. A manager of mine in England who thought that I had to get something on tape. Originally, it was supposed to have been released in England, but what happened was the production company that was doing it went bankrupt

COLEMAN: Oh, Lord

Mr. LEWIS: So, it just stayed in the can. And then I thought it fit perfectly in with the Szymanowski piece and "Elemental Flow" as a unit because of the beauty

COLEMAN: Indeed, and you included Karol Szymanowski, as well, about a fountain, which I found rather poetic in an album dedicated to a dry river bed

Mr. LEWIS: Right. That's - as I say, it was just a question of things coming together at the right time. That piece is about flowing of water, and of the spirits of that time of myths, Greek myths. And I just thought it was the perfect thing to add to "Elemental Flow.

(Soundbite of "The Fountain of Arethusa"

COLEMAN: Are you going to go back and play in Tucson anytime in the near future

Mr. LEWIS: Yes. Hopefully before 2009 is up we're going to do another concert in the riverbed. And this time for the whole town, so I'm looking forward to that

COLEMAN: Do you plan to compose any new music

Mr. LEWIS: Yes. As a matter of fact, I just came out of the studio just last week, and what I did was I took "Elemental Flow," and I took a certain part of it and created two distinct versions of it. One is very straight up that you would hear in a dance club, and the other one is, I would say something like U2 and that style of - not the musical style but in the importance of spirit.

COLEMAN: And when will you release that

Mr. LEWIS: I'm hoping to have that by spring at the latest

COLEMAN: Patmore Lewis is a violinist with the New York Metropolitan Opera. His debut album is called, "The Rollito River Project." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Patmore Lewis, thank you so much

Mr. LEWIS: Pleasure. Thank you

(Soundbite of music

COLEMAN: Here at Tell Me More the conversation never ends, and with just days before Thanksgiving, we want to hear from you. What are you giving thanks for this holiday? Family, good health, or what about that special Thanksgiving memory that still brings you joy? There are lot a ways to share you're thoughts. Call our comment line at 202-842-3522, that's 202-842-3522. Or go to our Webpage at npr.org. Click on Tell Me More, and send us a message. Whatever way you contact us, be sure to tell us your name, how to pronounce it and the city or the town where you live. And then, listen in on Thanksgiving Day. We'll feature some of your holiday thoughts and stories on the air. That's our program for today. I'm Korva Coleman. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow

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