Posts By: willcwhite

Suite for Solo Cello, op. 36

I composed this piece during the first few months of 2018 when I didn’t have much else to do. Why? Who can say? One always wishes to test one’s skills against those of the great masters. Funnily enough, I’m not especially keen on Bach’s cello suites, but I consider his solo violin partitas and sonatas the pinnacle of what a composer can write for strings.

I tried to interest people in the suite for several years, either to record it or perform it or both. Alas, several passages were unplayable as written, kind of surprising when you consider that it was written by a violist. I tend to write daunting music for strings because I was never a particularly good string player, and I just assume that real instrumentalists can play anything.

My friend Ryan (the cellist featured in the demo recording on YouTube) was the person who finally took on this project, and he improved the piece tremendously; any further cellists who take this on have him to thank.

One reason that I got myself into so much trouble is that my listening habits veer strongly toward music for viola da gamba. As I wrote about in the blurb on my solo bass piece “Tombeau / Les Rêves”, I’ve been obsessed with that repertoire since encountering Tous les matins du monde as a kid. The problem is that the viola da gamba typically has six or seven strings, and they’re tuned closer together than on the cello. So the sonorities ringing in my ears are not necessarily the most idiomatic on the cello.

And yet, it can be played, as Ryan has proven.

Harmonia 2023–2024: Prophecy

The time has come for me to present Harmonia’s upcoming concert season, in which every single program fills me with exuberant happiness at the prospect of being able to conduct such wonderful music. If you’re in Seattle (or if you remain partial to livestreamed concertizing) I would encourage you to subscribe today!

The season theme is Prophecy and if that doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will!


SHOSTAKOVICH Festive Overture
MUSSORGSKY arr. RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition

Find me a more festive season opener than this one — I dare you! What I like about this concert is the elegance of the nationalistic equation: Russian + French = Russian+French.

The Seasons

HAYDN The Seasons

When I tell my buddies in the orchestra world that I’m going to do The Seasons this year, they have no clue what I’m talking about and they just sort of brush it off. But this is a huge work! It’s an evening of four choral symphonies, which also function as a quasi-opera. It’s Haydn’s most Mozartean work—certainly from a melodic standpoint—but it’s built upon Haydn’s rock-solid compositional prowess and its infused by his never-ending font of inventive creativity.


HANDEL Messiah

I have yet to get bored of this piece in spite of conducting it every year. Now that I know it quite well, it’s a rush to perform it. The piece has so much dramatic tension, and if you time everything just right, it spins out in an unbeatable progression. I continue to have fun at the harpsichord (see what I did there?) and my continuo partners and I seem to be finding more Vivaldian possibilities in our approach to the score with each passing year.

New Paths

BRAHMS Hungarian Dance No. 5
R. SCHUMANN Manfred Overture
C. SCHUMANN arr. WHITE Three Romances for Violin
BRAHMS Symphony No. 2

The idea here was to look at the prophesy from a music-historical lens: when Robert Schumann met the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, he wrote a very intimidating article called “New Paths” in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in which he hailed Brahms as the future of classical music. It kind of psyched Brahms out, but thanks to the persistent mentorship of Clara Schumann, he was able to fulfill this promise.


LASSUS Prophetiae sibyllarum
S. BRISTOW Winter Solstice [world premiere]
J. FRENCH Hear My Voice
J. S. BACH Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf
C. KREEK Psalm 137
S. ROSSI Al Naharot Bavel

Like so many choral programs, this concert features a wide variety of works, but the main event is Lassu’s Prophetiae sibyllarum, a cycle of twelve motets that are composed in a highly chromatic language reminiscent of Gesualdo. These pieces get written about all the time, but not so rarely performed. I’ve been wanting to perform Salamone Rossi for quite a while, and I’m also delighted to have another premiere by Harmonia’s collaborative / orchestral keyboard player Sheila Bristow.


BERNSTEIN Candide Overture
GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue
WHITE Cassandra [world premiere]

OK, this is obviously a super fun one, and it’ll be even more fun because my boy Joey is coming out to do the piano solo in the Gershwin. So what’s this Cassandra thing all about? Well, it’s going to be a big one. An opera-oratorio modeled (in some ways) on Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. I’m working with my cousin, a Latinist, on the libretto. This will probably end up being my single largest-scale single work.

And if you are inferring from the various verb tenses in those last few sentences that I haven’t finished writing it yet, you’d be correct!

The Ordering of Moses

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR La caprice de Nannette
DVORAK Largo from Symphony No. 9
R. NATHANIEL DETT The Ordering of Moses

This program has been brewing in my mind since my time as assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. Dett’s Moses, a major oratorio that combines Old Testament scripture with African American spirituals, was premiered by the CSO in 1937. The premiere was broadcast on the radio, and there’s a famous story that the radio station switched away from the concert mid-stream due to complaints from racist white listeners calling in.

To the best of my knowledge, that rumor has never been substantiated, but it’s interesting that it was still floating around Cincinnati when the orchestra revived the piece in 2014. I worked hard on that concert and I’ve been enamored of the piece ever since. I’m thrilled to finally be able to bring it to life, though once again, I won’t be conducting it, as I’ve invited my friend Marques L. A. Garrett to do the honors.

What Music Tells Me

There’s a new album out that I’d like to shill for, and you’ll never guess who’s a featured composer on it.

What Music Tells Me by the Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble

Of course, it’s my solemn duty to tell you that you should purchase a physical copy of the disc directly from the label, MSR Classics, but I’ll drop a few more links below:

The album is mostly arrangements for brass & organ of standard orchestral repertoire: Egmont Overture, “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral,” the Brahms Haydn Variations, and Messaien’s Apparition de l’église éternelle to name a few. There’s one bit of church music (also in an arrangement), Healey Willan’s “How They So Softly Rest.“ And it will come as no surprise—given the title of the album—that Gustav Mahler is also represented on the disc, though not with his third symphony as you might expect, but with the final two movements of his second (!!) All the arrangements are by Craig Garner and I truly cannot praise him and his work highly enough. The man has wrought pure magic from these 7 or 8 instruments in a way that I scarcely could have thought possible.

My piece is the major outlier on the disc, not just for being the only work by a living composer, but for its sheer weirdness. I’d written a bunch of stuff for the Gargoyles before, most notably, a crowd pleaser called The Dwarf Planets (featured on their 2015 album Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies.) This new piece, Flood of Waters is something else altogether. In a lot of ways, it picks up from the gnarly opening of the last movement of The Dwarf Planets and extrapolates it to a further order of gnarlitude. It’s raucous, loud, dissonant, and perhaps even transgressive.

I was in Chicago in 2019 for the recording session, and let me tell you, it was a wild night. The group was positioned in the rear balcony of St. John Cantius Church, the echt conservative Latin rite monastery just off the Chicago blue line stop. The recording engineer—and I think I can get away with saying this now that it’s all said and done—was a cantankerous old guy with a big reputation and a short fuse. His stress levels were through the roof and he got very mad many, many times during the session.

In fairness to this guy a) he’s a multiple Grammy award winning producer, so I suppose he knew what he was doing and b) the set up for this session was absolutely insane. They had to drive a cherry picker into church sanctuary, like the thing that the phone company uses to lift workers up to the top of the pole, and they had bundles of wires cascading down the stairwell.

The thing that really threw this guy for a loop though, was how loud my piece was. Too loud, according to him. He suggested that I should make it softer and… what do you even say to that? It reminded me of the time in 2008 when I moved from Chicago to Bloomington, and the head of the moving crew offered me $300 not to move my piano.

In the end, he was able to adjust his levels sufficiently to capture the sound. But like… you gotta agree it’s kind of badass that I wrote something so loud that a Grammy-winning producer told me it was too loud, right? Maybe I’m in the wrong genre. Heavy Metal, here I come.

What’s wrong with my iPad?

I know that this question would be much better suited to Reddit than the landing page of my professional website, but what gives? I set up my iPad to film the conductor perspective at my recent concert of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and about 30 seconds into the performance, the iPad switched to slo-mo!

In the end, I thought it looked kind of cool, so I posted it.

The even weirder thing is that it went back to regular mode for the third movement. I am truly flummoxed.

Luckily I was able to figure out how to speed up the footage, so it’s all good (though I think the sped-up version looks like a bit like a kinescope, but whatcha gonna do?)

Anyway, conducting Beethoven’s ninth: thrill of a lifetime, incredible privilege, hope to do it again immediately.

Something New

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.