Mengel composition premiers this week

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net
The Examiner

If the downtime from pandemic led to a great period of inspiring new creative works from those who make a living in the fine arts – writing, composing, drawing – for Independence’s Dana Mengel it wasn’t terribly different. 

“I have not needed to change at all; I always compose as I had,” says Mengel, a prolific composer and longtime violin virtuoso. “I write what I hear when I compose. When I finish a piece, I go to the next piece.” 

‘I close my eyes and what I hear I write, what I hear in my dreams,’ says composer Dana Mengel. ‘It’s like breathing. It’s fun, and you like the challenge.’

Mengel has more than 1,000 sacred choral pieces to his name since 1990, and then over the past decade shifted his focus to string orchestrations. Thursday evening marks a virtual premier of a piece of that takes the latter and somewhat revisits the prior concentration. 

Mendel and his Centropolis String Ensemble friends convened and recorded “Serenata No. 2,” a collection of five pieces he composed a few years ago “in response to my spiritual journey.”  

At 7 p.m. Thursday, at www.danamengel.com, people can watch and listen to a free half-hour concert of that composition as well as Mengel’s arrangement of the classic spiritual “Were You There.”  

“As a child I loved the stories of Jesus healing the sick, when they brought the woman before him and he said, ‘You without sin cast the first stone,’ his life and death and resurrection.” 

While Mengel, 61, and his cello-playing brother Les have had a regular Sunday evening gig at a restaurant on the Country Club Plaza, and individual string performers aren’t nearly as bound as singers during the pandemic, recording the concert in mid-March in Independence’s First Christian Church just west of the Square marked the first time the ensemble had gathered since the pandemic began. 

“It was a grueling rehearsal because we had to crash learn,” Mengel said. “This is the exact same group we had for the Oregon Trail Suite.” 

“It’s scored for full string orchestra, but we pared it down for the COVID crisis. We had a planned performance in the winter, but we had to cancel because of the rise in cases, and we had sent out the parts.” 

The Centropolis String Ensemble recently rehearsed and recorded a new work by Independence composer Dana Mengel.  Photo courtesy of Brent Schondelmeyer

The ensemble includes Mengel and Dennis Bogart on violins, Monty Carter on viola, Trilla-Ray Carter on cello, Matthew McGrory on bass and Mark Lowry handling percussion. Joyce Higginbotham conducted the recording. 

“Everybody’s excited about working together,” Mengel said of the professional-skilled ensemble, “and we agreed to do some future projects.”  

That includes a performance later this year of the “Oregon Trail Suite” in Columbia as part of Missouri’s bicentennial celebration. The 21-movement piece, recorded but not yet performed, is something Mengel started after finishing compositions for a regionally produced documentary about the famed painter George Caleb Bingham.  

Also in the works: a suite inspired by three 19th-century African-Americans – hotel operator Emily Fisher and blacksmith Hiram Young from Independence and Senator Hiram Revels; and revisiting some compositions from teenage years about the Bremen Town Musicians from the Brothers Grimm fable, which could be done in partnership with Puppetry Arts Institute. 

Mengel said he’s always believed in the borrowed idea that the music he composes has always been out there – it just needs somebody to dictate it. The more difficult task is getting his music performed elsewhere. 

“I close my eyes and what I hear I write, what I hear in my dreams,” Mengel said. “It’s like breathing. It’s fun, and you like the challenge. You’re driving down the street and then ‘boom.’ I’ve had to pull over, and I have a pencil and paper wherever I go.” 

The whole time, he uses a violin first fashioned in France in 1806. He received it at age 13 – a gift from his teacher’s husband, who was part of the Kansas City Symphony. 

“It’s like producing a good bottle of wine,” Mengel said. “It enhances with age, mellows with age. I’ve put some dents in it, but it loves me back.”