Over the course of this past season (which is not yet over) I’ve conducted four—count ’em, FOUR—world premieres. I consider myself something of a new music guy, and to people who are vaguely familiarity with my gestalt, that probably doesn’t come as a surprise. My close friends (and regular listeners of my dearly departed podcast) might privately chuckle at that self-characterization though, since I tend to be cranky unto the point of ornery about most new music.
I don’t know if premiering four new works sounds like a lot, but trust me, it was. Every piece is different, but they all require hard work, especially when they’re written for large forces.
Huntley Beyer, World Out of Balance
Huntley Beyer is a Seattle guy who played oboe in the Harmonia Orchestra for at least a decade in the 80s and 90s. He’s a deeply spiritual person in an almost pantheistic vein; ironically, he spent the better part of his career teaching music at a Catholic day school.
This piece had an extremely strange gestation. It began life as an auction item at Harmonia’s annual fundraising gala. The winner was supposed to get something like a 5-minute chamber piece for one voice or one instrument with piano accompaniment.
Well, you’ll see from the run time on the above video (62 minutes) that things took a rather different turn. The auction winners were old friends of Huntley’s who shared his proclivity for compositions of grand spiritual dimensions and they wanted to pack the piece full of big ideas.
And they did! The piece ballooned to a 15-movement oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. This was the major work on Harmonia’s opening concert of the season, which is totally insane now that I look back at it. Usually, conductors like to get the ball rolling with something familiar, so that everyone can shake off the summer-induced rustiness and deliver an assured first performance right off the bat.
I seem to be compelled towards a different tack. In 2019, I gave the fourth-ever performance of Carol Sams’ The Earthmakers, and though it wasn’t a premiere, it had the feel of a premiere since it hadn’t been mounted since the 90s. As with World Out of Balance, that piece was also a big success, so I think there’s a good case to be made for kicking off a season with one of these insanely bold projects, “shooting the moon,” as it were.
Robert Kechley, Hard Times: Antiphonal Conversations
Bob is another Seattle guy, and like Huntley, he’s a musician’s musician who made his living teaching, conducting, performing, and doing whatever other musical hustling had to be done. His father Gerald was a distinguished professor of composition at the University of Washington who died recently at something like 102 years old.
Bob was something of a wunderkind and he maintains his facility at the keyboard and his fascinating with contrapuntal textures. He’s written tons of music for Harmonia over the course of the past several decades (he was a founding member of the group) and his work has a reputation with our musicians as being extremely challenging. A reputation, I might add, that is wholly deserved!
From a technical conducting standpoint, this piece is about as hard as it gets. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have heart. It’s not bleep-bloop music, just genuinely complex, mostly-tonal modernism. It’s scored for a bazonkers ensemble of two (amplified) solo harpsichords, 9 strings, 8 winds+another string bass, brass septet, and two percussionists.
What made this piece really hard for me was the layout of the score and the stage. Because the piece is supposed to reflect various factions of our society existing at odds with one another, the groups are placed as far apart as possible on the stage. (Originally, Bob had wanted the brass players to play from the rear balcony. Cool idea, but I had to give that bit of the concept the axe for practicality’s sake.) The score is laid out in a stunningly unfamiliar fashion, so it took much rewiring of my brain to connect a marked cue to a physical player on the stage. Somehow we managed, and this piece really connected with our audience.
Sheila Bristow, When Music Sounds
Sheila is also a local artist, and just like the fellas, she’s a working musician (a local hero, really) who wears many a hat: she’s Harmonia’s choral accompanist and orchestral keyboardist, as well as a church musician, a university teacher, a vocal coach, and whatever else comes up.
To her great credit (and my great relief) Sheila created a work that was a bit more practical in its demands upon our orchestra, chorus, and—critically—conductor. She created a three-movement work setting poetry that praises Music itself. The work moves from a Britten-esque diaphany that recalls that composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through to a more Vaughan Williamsy three-quarter time waltz, and ends with a dance movement that recalls… well, I don’t know whom it recalls.
Having listed those movements though, I’ll say that the music is pure Sheila. She and I have similar approaches to our influences, I think, in that we take what we like and leave what we don’t like. I am particularly pleased that she and I happen to like the same things in Britten and Vaughan Williams (and therefore, I assume, dislike the other things.)
Quinn Mason, Symphony No. 5 “Harmonia”
Quinn Mason’s new symphony is in a bit of a different category from the first three pieces I premiered this season. For one, it’s written for a standard orchestra without voices. For another, it’s not written by a local composer. And perhaps most pertinent for my own relationship with the music, it’s written by a composer whom I consider a protégé in addition to being a friend and colleague (as are Huntley, Bob, and Sheila.)
Quinn, of course, is much younger than the rest of the bunch, and though he already has a distinct musical voice, he is still developing that voice with every piece. Of the four composers I worked with this season, Quinn and I have the most history together and the most sympathy as fellow composers. Quinn first contacted me when he was still a teenager, and he sought me out because he knew and liked my music. I responded enthusiastically to him because I was gobsmacked by the pieces he sent me for review.
Since that time, I’ve commissioned three pieces from Quinn: A Joyous Trilogy, In Memory, and now the new symphony. I’ve also conducted two of his other works, Toast of the Town and Reflections on a Memorial. I’ve advised him on all those pieces (and plenty of others) and I would say that we understand each other musically on an instinctual level. I get what he’s saying, and he gets how I say it.
Quinn has become highly sought after in the past few years, so it was a privilege that he composed a symphony for Harmonia (and even titled the piece after the group!) He hasn’t let his rising celebrity go to his head though, and he was more than willing to re-work the piece as he sent me drafts for feedback.
The final product is a piece full of romantic themes, smoldering orchestration, and contemplative moods. It’s cyclical, always a favorite attribute of mine in a symphonic work. It’s unusual for a symphony, in that it’s in a three-movement, slow-fast-slow form. The piece moves at its own pace, and I would call it an experimental work.
“Experimental” is a term that, for whatever reason, has gotten associated with a certain brand of new music (avant-garde, theatrical, extendedly technical, etc.) but I would beg people to keep in mind that composers who work in more traditional forms with more traditional tonal vocabularies are still finding ways to innovate and experiment even a full 200-years into the symphonic tradition.
We are very lucky for that fact, and we are very lucky to have these four pieces in the world. I consider myself a happy, accomplished, exhausted midwife.