Song Cycle: A playlist by Madeline Adkins

If you’re anything like us, you’re probably addicted to finding new music. To help you satisfy your thirst for great music, this series of articles is dedicated to the people who know music best: the musicians of our orchestra. Keep reading to learn more and listen to concertmaster Madeline Adkins’ curated playlist inspired by the Korngold Violin Concerto which she will perform on May 25-26, 2018:

My Spotify playlist is an intro to the Korngold Violin Concerto and also a few of my personal influences! Firstly, I’ve included a few other works by Korngold himself. The very first track from the Prince and the Pauper prominently features in the violin concerto—you will be sure to recognize it! I include the main titles from Captain Blood and Robin Hood, for which Korngold won an Oscar. Also, music from his composition The Snowman, his Much Ado About Nothing suite, and a Suite for 2 Violins, Cello, and Piano Left Hand.

Korngold’s early influences included Zemlinsky, Wagner, and Mahler, but he came into the public consciousness mainly through his film scores. He came to Hollywood in the 30’s to escape wartime Europe and wrote a number of notable film scores including Robin Hood and Captain Blood. He returned to “art music” after the war, at which time his violin concerto was premiered by Jascha Heifetz in 1947.

I included a number of other prominent classical pieces from that time that have been incorporated in movies, such as Ravel’s Piano Concerto, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2, and the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. You’ll also hear a violin concerto by Louis Gruenberg, another film composer whose concerto was also premiered by Jascha Heifetz, as well as a Bernard Herrmann classic from Taxi Driver.

The last five tracks are the getting-to-know-me section. As far as my personal influences, my dad was a prominent historical performance scholar, so I grew up well versed in Baroque music. Included here: Rachel Podger’s sublime interpretation of Biber’s Passacaglia.

I grew up in a jazz town (Denton, Texas) so Frank Sinatra is non-negotiable.  Before concerts, I love to get energized with my disco playlist… hence the Parliament.

One of my earlier classical influences was my first six years in the Baltimore Symphony when Yuri Temirkanov was the music director. I include a quintessential YT track of Prokofiev (also, not insignificantly, one of my two favorite composers!)

Finally, a track from my first commercial release my other favorite composer: Mendelssohn. This is an unpublished sonata movement I found in a Berlin archive!

Enjoy and I hope to see you at Season Finale: Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 on May 25th and 26th!

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Classical music you didn’t know you loved: “Also sprach Zarathustra”

For some people, classical music might feel elusive and mysterious. While there is so much great classical music out there, it’s hard to keep it all straight. For example, perhaps you’ve heard a piece you like in a commercial or a television show, but you don’t know the name of it or even who composed it. You might want to add the piece to a playlist, but you don’t even know where to start looking.

This series of articles is here to set you straight. We are here to demystify all of the classical music you didn’t know you already loved.

This season we are performing Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. The name may have you scratching your head, but you are sure to recognize the first section of this piece.

If you are at all familiar with the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, you probably recognize this as the main theme of the movie. This theme, which was meant to depict the sunrise, is used very appropriately to mark the beginning of a new era for the hominids depicted in the film.

With a beginning that exciting, you would think that the rest of Strauss’ tone poem would be equally as amazing—and you would be right.

Don’t miss us perform this thrilling and recognizable piece. Get your tickets here.

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Contemporary music and the modern American orchestra

Composer Andrew Norman.

As the Utah Symphony closes out its 2017-18 season and we begin to look ahead to the 2018-19 season, it’s hard to miss this organization’s commitment to presenting contemporary music alongside well-known favorites from the Western Canon. Beside familiar figures like Beethoven, Chopin, Copland, and Richard Strauss are newer, more unfamiliar names, like Vivian Fung, Joan Tower, Zhou Tian, and Andrew Norman (who happens to be our composer-in-association next season). One of Music Director Thierry Fischer’s favorite sayings is “a symphony is not a museum,” and presenting and commissioning new music is an integral part of this belief.

Orchestral music is a living, breathing art form. While the focus of most orchestras’ classical seasons lies in the heart of the most eminent 18th– through 20th-century repertoire, it is essential for the survival of the orchestral industry for modern orchestras to perpetuate the musical movements happening in the present day. If the American Orchestra is to remain a driving force in the centuries to come, we must support the composers who are creating new music now, as this body of work will one day be an essential part of our cultural legacy. To that end, the Utah Symphony commissions at least one new work each season, meaning we pay a composer to write something entirely new. The Utah Symphony often shares the full fee with co-commissioners, ensuring the work will have a life beyond our organization with other orchestras across the country and the world. As in every art form, some of these works go on to achieve great success and popularity, and others slip into obscurity. It’s a risky process given that some of the fee is usually paid before a single note is put to paper, but it is well worth the risk. Regardless of the outcome, the Utah Symphony has been instrumental in bringing a new piece of orchestral music into the world.

Incentivizing the creation of new music isn’t the only reward for an orchestra that makes commissioning a priority. Contemporary music is also able to engage with modern ideas and themes more directly than older works can. As an example, Andrew Norman’s percussion concerto Switch, which was commissioned by the Utah Symphony as part of its 75th anniversary season, takes its inspiration from video game logic, the percussion soloist starring as the unwitting protagonist. Each note he plays prompts a distinguishable reaction from the orchestra, creating a unique cause-and-effect tapestry with a modern sensibility. Next season, the Utah Symphony will feature another of Norman’s works, Play, which takes its inspiration from distinctly relevant themes. Norman himself describes the work as an exploration of “choice, chance, free will, and control, about how technology has rewired our brains and changed the ways we express ourselves, about the blurring boundaries of reality in the internet age, the murky grounds where video games and drone warfare meet, for instance, or where cyber-bullying and real-world violence converge.”

This season’s commission, to be performed on the Utah Symphony’s Season Finale concerts on May 26 and 27, comes from pioneering French composer Tristan Murail. One of the most prominent themes of this Utah Symphony season has been its study of the works of Romantic-era French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, making this commission especially relevant; Murail’s work represents the trajectory of French music from Saint-Saëns’ Romanticism and Debussy’s Impressionism into the modern era. In this work, listen for Murail’s signature use of the “spectral” technique, a compositional aesthetic developed in the 1970s. Spectral technique focuses on the color, timbre, and texture of different instruments and pitches, concentrating less on melody and rhythm and more on the acoustical science of sound. This shifting focus changes the way we as listeners engage with music, opening up a whole new world of possibilities while not entirely letting go of our musical foundations. In the words of Maestro Fischer, the Utah Symphony strives to be “an orchestra looking to the future as much as immensely enjoying the past.”

Utah Symphony Artist Logistics Coordinator Erin Lunsford takes care of the many guest artists and guest conductors that perform with the orchestra and enjoys writing about music in her spare time.

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Inside the Music: Franck’s “Le Chasseur maudit” (The Accursed Huntsman)

In any given symphony season, it’s important to balance the giants like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler with lesser-known composers who, despite their lack of widespread name recognition, have produced a great body of work in the symphonic medium. As for this weekend specifically, I don’t think I have to tell you why Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev are worth coming to Abravanel Hall to listen to, especially since we have one of our favorite pianists, Conrad Tao, back in Utah to perform Prokofiev’s famously bold and inventive Second Piano Concerto. To start off the program, though, the Utah Symphony will perform César Franck’s tone poem Le Chasseur maudit, or in English, The Accursed Huntsman. Franck’s name may be familiar to particularly avid classical music fans, but his name certainly doesn’t garner the same recognition as the other two composers that occupy this particular program. Despite Franck’s relative obscurity, The Accursed Huntsman is an incredibly thrilling, melodic, and listenable work, and should excite you just as much as the rest of the program this weekend.

First, a quick primer on Franck: born in December of 1822 at Liège, in what is now Belgium, César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck (yes, that is his real name!) spent most of his adult life as an organist in Paris. During his lifetime, he was known as an avid improviser with massive hands that allowed him to perform harmonic feats many pianists couldn’t dream of accomplishing. Eventually, his fame as a performer led him to receive an appointment from the Paris Conservatoire. Though his appointment was to teach organ performance, he tended to give unsanctioned composition lessons as well and was maligned by some of his fellow faculty members for not adhering to the widely accepted theories and strict rules that often govern composition technique, at least in the teaching stages. Franck did not gain much recognition for his compositions during his lifetime—his Symphony in D, which is now arguably his most well-known work, was badly received by critics and disliked by the Conservatoire orchestra who premiered the piece. Most of his other works followed this trend, only a few receiving real praise from his contemporary critics. Franck passed away of a respiratory infection in 1890, still known above all for his virtuoso solo career but loved nonetheless by his contemporaries, including the subject of our season-long symphonic cycle, Camille Saint-Saëns.

The Accursed Huntsman was composed in 1882 and premiered in March of 1883 to a long ovation, an unusual response for Franck in his time. Franck was inspired by the German Romantic ballad Der wilde Jäger (or The Wild Hunter) written by Gottfried August Bürger in 1777, which describes a Count who defies the Sabbath to go hunting. Though the work is through-composed (meaning there are no breaks between sections), there are four distinct scenes: The Peaceful Sunday Morning, The Hunt, The Curse, and The Demons’ Chase.

The work begins, as one might expect, with the horns blasting a hunting call at full volume (a great way to kick off a concert!) The horns then fade out, and a pure, singing passage in the cellos illustrates the gently rolling hills and faithful worshippers heading to church on a peaceful Sunday—until the horns interject once again with their hunting call. This time, the peaceful cello theme returns with church bells and woodwinds gently chiming, calling all to worship. Defiantly, the horns continue to build in the background until we reach a climactic, sweeping full orchestral moment. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you’d stepped into the third act of a Wagner opera or perhaps a Rachmaninoff symphony on accident—Franck uses the full power of the orchestra to create this glorious moment.

And then, we’re off! The second part of the work, “The Hunt,” begins suddenly with an abbreviated version of the horn call we’ve already heard a few a times before. This time though, the woodwinds respond as the collective voice of the faithful, repurposing the melody of the horn call as a desperate, and at times admonishing, plea to the Count to call off the hunt and find his rightful place in the pews of the church instead. The strings begin to build ominously with interjections from the winds and brass, ramping up the intensity of the hunt. Now the full orchestra is behind the Count, urging him on as he speeds through the forest at an electrifying pace. The woodwinds provide fleeting virtuosic passages and trills, while the brass act as the driving force behind this forbidden hunt. Soon though, the cello theme from the first section returns in variation, following the Count even as he leaves the church far behind. God is following him on his unholy hunt, just waiting for his chance to punish the foolish Count. Soon, the orchestra reaches a grinding halt, just a tremolo in the low strings remaining.

Now we begin the third section of the work, “The Curse.” In a cruel twist of fate, the horns who once championed the Count’s hunt are now the start to his downfall, their sound transformed by being played “stopped” (the horn players achieve this metallic sound by placing their hand in the bell). String tremolos fade in and out as a new “Curse” theme is intoned by the clarinets and trumpets, followed by the trombones. The Count cannot move and his horn will not sound—suddenly, a voice comes down from the heavens to curse him to be chased by demons for all eternity. The orchestra builds to a crashing triple-forte as the curse is complete, and suddenly the Count is off again! But this time, he is the one being hunted. Thus begins the final section of the tone poem, “The Demon’s Chase.” Here we hear echoes of Berlioz’ famous final movement of Symphonie fantastique depicting the witches’ Sabbath. The music once again dramatically builds in pace and volume as the Count furiously tries to escape the demons—fleeting downward scales and trills from the high woodwinds abound, as well as rapid interjections from the brass. The strings join in with their frantic ostinatos, and before we know it the orchestra fades to a whisper before providing a final, staccato G-minor chord, God’s final word to the doomed Count.

All this action takes place in 15 short minutes and will certainly kick off this weekend’s concerts with a bang! We hope to see you this weekend at Abravanel Hall to enjoy Franck’s The Accursed Huntsman alongside Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian.”

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An Ode to Bernstein: 6 reasons Leonard Bernstein was a classical music superstar

I have long admired American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Not only do I love his musicworks that have been enjoyed and listened to by both music theorists and lovers of popular musicbut I also respect him as an engaged activist showing support for social issues like racial equality and LGBT issues.

He was a superstar in his time and his music is still amazing today. Many know him for his musical West Side Story (I love this clip of the gym scene from the movie version with Jerome Robbins’s choreography), and while I think that this piece is a huge reason to give him superstar status, here are six more reasons that Bernstein rocks my socks.

#1 He was an incredible concert pianist

Bernstein’s first love was the piano and he often was featured as a concert pianist in his younger days playing pieces like Ravel’s concerto in G (he conducted and played the piano part in London). His virtuosity at the piano also helped him conduct musicals from the piano when necessary.

#2 His orchestral and choral works will blow you away

As a composer, some of Bernstein’s greatest works were his works for orchestra. He wrote 3 symphonies and a variety of other works for orchestral instruments. One of the works which stands out to me is his second Symphony, the Age of Anxiety, which features the piano in an almost concerto-like way. I remember seeing the piece performed when I was an 8th grader and being impressed by the pianist’s virtuosity and the orchestral color of the piece. I love this YouTube video setting an excerpt of the Age of Anxiety with paintings by Piet Mondrian. You can hear the whole piece this weekend, February 23 and 24, at Abravanel Hall. In addition, Utah Symphony and the Utah Symphony Chorus are doing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms March 2-3, 2018.

#3 He broadcast lectures about classical music

As part of NBC’s Omnibus series, discussing science, arts, and humanities, Bernstein gave lectures about music using the NBC Symphony Orchestra discussing composers, conducting, and modern music. One of the first was his discussion about Beethoven’s 5th symphony. He also invested in the future of classical music with his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.

#4 His work took both the musical theatre and opera worlds by storm

Along with West Side Story, Bernstein was known for several other Broadway shows including On the Town and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Bernstein also composed the operas Trouble in Tahiti and Candide. I love the original recording of Barbara Cook singing “Glitter and be Gay,” but recently discovered Kristen Chenoweth’s delightful recording of the aria.

#5 He was an internationally-renowned conductor

Bernstein’s influence extended to the concert halls of the world as a virtuoso conductor on par with Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Not only did he elevate many of the great orchestras of the United States, but he was internationally recognized while conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and while conducting at La Scala in Milan. One of my favorite videos of Leonard Bernstein features him conducting with his face and eyebrows, and nothing else.

#6 He had a strong sense of social responsibility

Bernstein drew upon his music and own life experiences to help others. He was outspoken about injustice, and he used his music and visibility to draw attention to issues like socioeconomic inequality and integration of arts into education among many others. One of my favorite quotes by Leonard Bernstein is this:

“This will be our reply to violence. To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

He used music for this purpose throughout his entire life.

Paul Leland Hill is a member of the education staff at Utah Symphony Utah Opera. When he is not handling outreach for the opera to the community, you can find him singing in the chorus of the Utah Opera and composing music.

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Bernstein at 100: Celebrating the legacy of an American icon

In the year 1918, American composer, conductor, pianist, and music educator Leonard Bernstein was born. Over the course of a storied career that spanned the globe (he was one of the first musicians born and educated in the United States to receive worldwide acclaim), he became nothing short of a legend. In the year of his 100th birthday, many orchestras are looking back at Bernstein’s legacy and how it has shaped the American musical landscape.

When one considers what Bernstein gave to classical music, the scope and depth of his work are astounding. He was highly sought-after as a conductor, holding a long tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and guest conducting with some of the best orchestras in the world, most notably with the Vienna Philharmonic. Bernstein didn’t just conduct, though─also a highly skilled pianist, Bernstein often “play-conducted” the piano concertos of Ravel, Mozart, and others, always an impressive feat. Furthermore, Bernstein produced a staggering number of recordings with the New York Philharmonic and numerous other orchestras, many of which still stand as pillars in the recorded catalogue today. In fact, Bernstein was instrumental in the first complete recorded cycle of Mahler’s nine symphonies, from which Maurice Abravanel surely took inspiration when he recorded the same cycle with the Utah Symphony in the 1960s and 1970s.

Conducting was just one small piece of Bernstein’s legacy, however. Many of us also know and love him as a composer─his musical West Side Story was an immediate hit when it was released in 1957, and music from this groundbreaking work is still played by orchestras worldwide. He was able to capture the sound and mood of late 1950s New York City in this musical, and that’s a substantial part of what makes all of Bernstein’s music so captivating. He drew inspiration from styles that many may have considered to be at odds with each other─Austro-German classical music, jazz, Jewish music, and the idioms of Broadway musicals all found their way into his compositions to create a tapestry that is distinctively and uniquely American. And yet, the themes Bernstein conveyed in his music were themes of global importance. His favorite idea to come back to was the individual’s search for faith, an idea that remains especially relevant today─he explored this theme in his Symphony No. 2 “Age of Anxiety” as well as in Chichester Psalms, both of which will be performed during Utah Symphony’s “Bernstein at 100” festival.

Beyond these incredible accomplishments, each enough for one lifetime on their own, Bernstein also catapulted classical music into the public psyche by televising the New York Philharmonic’s young people’s concerts on primetime television, starting in 1954 and continuing for almost two decades. He taught millions of Americans how to appreciate classical music through a new and exciting entertainment medium, furthering the reach of the American orchestra and guaranteeing new audiences for the future. So in the year of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the Utah Symphony pays homage to the man that transformed the American classical music scene, propelled it into the 20th century, and fostered generations of musicians and music-lovers alike.

Utah Symphony Artist Logistics Coordinator Erin Lunsford takes care of the many guest artists and guest conductors that perform with the orchestra and enjoys writing about music in her spare time. You can take a look at some of her other in-depth articles here and here

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TRIO series: the Composer

I find myself organizing celebrations around music rather than the other way around. —Nico Muhly

Nico Mulhy began his musical career as a child growing up in Providence, Rhode Island. A self-proclaimed “alright pupil,” he played piano and sang in a boys choir in a church. It was around the age of eleven that everything clicked. “I loved music, and wanted to not just play and sing, but also write,” says Nico. Since that defining moment in his youth, Nico has dedicated his life’s work to creating music. His are sounds that are heard around the world, that have inspired others to continue listening, to become an active participant in the music. He celebrates life through music.

Nico Muhler

Photo credit: Steven Psano

The Julliard-trained composer spends so much of his life writing music, that he admits to throwing parties based around the completion of a composition. He has written music for friends’ weddings on several occasions.

“It feels negligent of me to allow anybody I know to walk down the aisle to Pachelbel, because we are all adults,” says Nico. For this reason, he makes it a point to write music that suits the occasion, and allows him as a composer to engage with his community more responsibly. He recalls two weddings in particular:

“Last summer, two friends got married on a small island in Iceland, and I wrote music for the assembled company. [There were] two keyboards, viola da gamba, [and] voices.  We crammed ourselves into a tiny corner of the chapel and rehearsed in a sweaty half an hour, and miniature ponies looked quizzically at us. Later that same summer, I wrote music for a wedding where the bride’s childhood friends and neighbors were to be included in the composition: one plays Celtic harp, and the other, a sort of bedazzled steampunk cornet.”

Nico vehemently believes in the power of music. “I think music has the ability to transform space, which is its amazing invisible power,” he says.  For him, the moments just before a rehearsal of a large orchestra are the most moving. These are the moments when each player is focused on what’s in front of them, or what’s in their head, or perhaps their own work. That moment exemplifies life experienced through music.

By Autumn Thatcher

You can also learn more about Nico Muhly’s World Premiere composition, commissioned by the Utah Symphony.

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Handel’s Messiah Factoids

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

George Frideric Handel

  1. George Frideric Handel was a superstar among composers of his time and composers of the future. Bach unsuccessfully tried to meet with Handel, but as fate would have it the two never met. What could have come from their meeting leads to speculation and desire to see two greats work together.
  2. The women attending the first production of Handel’s Messiah on April 13, 1742 pleaded to wear dresses with no hoops in order to accommodate more patrons.
  3. The first performance of Handel’s Messiah on April 13, 1742, brought with it an attraction other than Handel’s esteemed name and familiar importance. It also premiered Susannah Cibber, a contralto who was involved with a scandalous divorce.
  4. Mozart would be quoted as saying the following about Handel: “Handel understands effect better than any of us…when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”  – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  5. In popular culture Handel’s Messiah is unmatched in its use. Nickelodeon’s popular satirical cartoon Ren & Stimpy heavily used Handel’s Messiah. The use of Handel’s Messiah is typically seen during a euphoric moment right before a devastating and unsettling moment of destruction.
  6. Genius is often closely associated with absolutely uncontrollable emotional tirades.  Colleagues and close friends all described his anger and insane outbursts, often assumed to be associated with his obsession with perfection and form.
  7. Handel once had a duel over seating. A rather simple argument over a seating arrangement in the orchestra pit led to a near fatal duel with fellow composer Johann Mattheson. Mattheson’s sword was thwarted by a metal button on Handel’s coat. Afterwards the two settled their differences and remained friends for years.

By Seeth McGavien

It’s time to kick off your holiday season with the Messiah Sing-In! The Utah Symphony Orchestra will be performing at Abravanel Hall on November 28. For more information and tickets, visit this page.

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Mahler Factoids

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

  1. Great minds often meet throughout history; that was the case in 1910 when Mahler’s marriage was in a crisis and he had a session with the great Sigmund Freud.
  2. Great artists are never satisfied, and the same can be said for their audiences. The original version of “Titan” titled “A Symphonic Poem in Two Sections” was poorly received at first. It took 3 years for it to be performed again and numerous revisions until audiences appreciated it.
  3. Perfection is often the key to destruction, and Mahler was no exception. Known for being such a perfectionist even to the most microscopic detail, he achieved amazing professional results, but also made numerous enemies because of this trait.
  4. During the happiest time of Mahler’s life he composed Symphony No. 6, referred to as Tragische (Tragic) whose nihilistic, abrupt, ending was a shock to audiences.
  5. There is this great fascination with working with some of the greats throughout history. However, working with Mahler is better left to the imagination; his bursts of anger and authoritarian attitude made him unbelievably difficult to work with.
  6. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 has been described as a hero’s epic journey; its unhinged, almost overwhelming orchestra on the piece holds all the key elements to a classical hero’s journey. Picture Odysseus: his beginning, his journey, and his destination. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 would be the soundtrack to such a journey.

By Seeth McGavien

In November, the Utah Symphony will be performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and his “Tragic” Symphony. For more information and tickets, please go here and here.
And did you know that the solo percussionist, Colin Currie, will be joining the Utah Symphony for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5? Check out our TRIO series to learn more about him!

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EOS: A Ballet for Orchestra

EOS: A Ballet for Orchestra


Map of EOS by Augusta Read Thomas


(A dialogue between Utah Symphony Principal Librarian Clovis Lark and composer Augusta Read Thomas)

I first encountered Augusta Read Thomas’s music in April 1996 while I was Ensembles Librarian at Indiana University.  For a concert in April of that year, we prepared her Sinfonia for chamber orchestra.  Not long after that, while in Chicago, I happened to visit the Shedd Aquarium, a wonderful location for marine life on the edge of Lake Michigan, where a feature exhibit devoted to seahorses had Augusta’s Seahorse Symphony playing as background to the displays – and a CD of the Symphony, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was for sale in the Aquarium gift shop.

My next encounter with her music was as a guest of Pierre Boulez for rehearsals and a performance of a MusicNow concert (MusicNow is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new music series which was imagined, established, led, and was also programmed by Augusta when she was Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1996-2007).  Mr. Boulez was very excited about her new work In My Sky at Twilight, for soprano and chamber orchestra that was being premiered.  I sat in on the CD recording session and subsequent performance and later discussed the work with Mr. Boulez, which I felt was quite significant.  Boulez agreed enthusiastically. It was at this concert that I finally met Augusta and began our friendship.

Shortly after I joined the Utah Symphony, we invited Cliff Colnot, director of the Chicago MusicNow series, to conduct a concert of contemporary music with the Utah Symphony.  He and I both agreed that it would be a wonderful idea to include a premiere by Augusta on that program.  Augusta composed for us a new work entitled Terpsichore’s Dream which was first performed at the Rose Wagner Theater on October 18, 2007.  Now, just over seven years later, the Utah Symphony has commissioned and is premiering EOS a ballet for orchestra, Augusta’s latest composition for full orchestra.  This premiere is the first of three premieres by American composers that the Utah Symphony will be performing during 2015 as part of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebrations (A percussion concerto by Andrew Norman and a new work by Nico Muhly follow in November and December, respectively).

Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony Music Director, spent considerable time over several years reviewing recent works by Augusta that I gave him before he found what “clicked” for him in her music.  This is one of the fascinating aspects of art.  One can look at many works, never getting the right sense of where one wants to go.  Suddenly, that key is found in a certain work and the rest all follow!  For Thierry, that key was Augusta’s 30-minute Cello Concerto No. 3 premiered by the Boston Symphony with Lynn Harrel as cello soloist with Christoph Eschenbach conducting.

Augusta was kind enough to speak with me about the upcoming premiere of EOS, which the Utah Symphony is performing February at Abravanel Hall February 20-21:

CL: Gusty, it is a real pleasure to be able to discuss your work, I thought we might find out about your career as a composer leading up to EOS. What inspired you to choose composition as a career and means of expression?

ART: Thank you, Clovis!  I am thrilled to be working with you, Maestro Fischer, and the Utah Symphony and look forward to our February world premiere!

From age 4 to 14, I took piano lessons and from age 8 all the way through college, I played trumpet and enrolled as a trumpet performance major in the Music School of Northwestern University.  Composing, singing in choir, and playing guitar were also part of my musical life and training.  Gradually, over about 20 years, I started to find composition more interesting than playing. I thought it was more fun to make everything up out of thin air rather than sit and play my one part. Steadily my composing evolved and bloomed.  I guess you could summarize by saying that my childhood was akin to a big, musical river morphing me into a composer as a result of twenty years of dedicated writing, practicing, performing and singing.  It was a natural, organic development into a life spent composing.  Since age 20, I have been composing every day with passion and dedication.

CL:  Certainly entering such an artistic discipline seems daunting from the outside. Did you have mentors or other composers who served as models as you refined your compositional voice?

ART: My gut reaction is to say, with a huge smile of gratitude on my face, that I have at least 1,000 mentors.  Music itself is definitely the most vital and sobering influence on my music. By that I mean that music of many periods and by different composers has fascinated and nurtured me since I was a child. I love deeply the music of J.S. Bach for its precision, amazing invention, it’s elegance, and the nobility and grandeur of its emotional spectrum. The musics of Byrd, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Webern, Stravinsky, Ravel, Berio, Chopin, Bartok, and many kinds of jazz are all important to me. Also music of many, varied contemporary composers, writing in all styles. I listen a lot and the accomplishments of these predecessors and contemporaries of mine keep me focused and humble at the same time as they inspire me with confidence to think creatively.

I have learned a great deal from Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, Christoph Eschenbach, Daniel Barenboim, and countless musicians with whom I have collaborated.

Literature, especially poetry, and the visual arts are also important sources of influence. Nature of course, is a real teacher.

CL:  You’ve written for a number of different sized ensembles. How does your approach differ when composing for a single instrument, as opposed to, say, a quartet, chorus, concerto or orchestral work?

ART: Fundamentally, to compose in any and all genres of music, the truly creative act springs from deep necessity. That welling up, inside, of musical ideas is so urgent. The first sensation is like a spark or lightning bolt – like lighting a match – and suddenly, poof, there’s an illumination, an inspiration, if you will. This glitter of energy might evoke a chord, a rhythm, a motive of a tune, which I will sing and ponder in relation to structure, form, synthesis etc. From there a macro-image and plan starts to emerge and one must understand how the musical idea unfolds and where it’s potential must lead.  A chamber or solo work requires different materials than, for instance, an orchestral work.

When writing for solo flute, or piano trio, or brass quintet, orchestra, or chorus, composers seek musical materials that “fit” the specific instrumentation.  Harmony, counterpoint, harmonic rhythm, color, flow, register, rhythm, dynamics, and so forth are all taken into aural imagination and consideration.

When one composes for orchestra, there is an inspiringly large palette of colors and possibilities.  I love it!!  How to keep the music clean and organized (and not sounding like a jumble of ideas thrown forth in a pile) depends on the quality and clarity of the initial musical ideas, their grace, and the skill and experience of the composer/orchestrator.

One very simple example: when writing for orchestra, a composer can cast wide, vast and rich harmonies, chords that span the whole range of a piano.  Such harmony could not be played by any soloist or duo.  On the other hand, the intimacy of a duo, one person per part, has a different feel than composing for orchestra where, for instance, we might hear 26 violins all playing the same line of music in unison.

As far as I’m concerned, “it is all good.”  I love to compose music for all kind of ensembles.  Composing is my life.

One of my great joys is to be building a varied catalogue of published compositions.   I like to compose for orchestra, then to compose a work for solo piano and then one for girls choir and then a huge cello concerto and then a work for mixed quintet.  — Keeps it all very fresh to vary to genres from piece to piece.

CL: You were Mead Composer-in-Residence from 1997 to 2006.  What did that entail and how has it influenced your work since?

ART: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra inspired, helped, and influenced me and being Mead Composer-in-Residence was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Working with Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strengthened and encouraged my ever-continuing search for deeper musical understanding and sensitivity. Both men have steadfastly championed the music of our time. They seek the truth, essence, and soul of each composition, always with a supremely musical, sensitive technical skill.

While I was Mead Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra commissioned and premiered 9 orchestral works; I presented about 45 pre-concert lectures each year; and I founded, curated and led the MusicNOW Series with my friend Cliff Colnot.  It was a very busy decade!

CL: The Utah Symphony is extremely proud that you accepted Thierry Fischer’s request to write a commission, our first U.S. Commission to be performed under his music directorship. There were really no limits, other than our ensemble’s size imposed upon you. So how did EOS arise?

ART: When Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony offered me this commission, I was smiling ear to ear.  –Very happy day!!  –I had a very rewarding 10 months composing the score!

For many years I have admired Maestro Fischer and, having had the chance to work with the Utah Symphony back in 2007, when I composed for them TERPSICHORE’S DREAM a ballet for chamber orchestra, I was delighted for the opportunity to make a new orchestral composition.  EOS (Goddess of the Dawn): a Ballet for Orchestra is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Thierry Fischer and each member of the Utah Symphony and is in honor of Pierre Boulez.

The Utah Symphony prescribed duration and instrumentation, though the concept of our new work was left completely open to my imagination, which I appreciated deeply.

Writing for orchestra has been a 35-year passion for me so this commission reaches me at my core.

I was compelled to compose a second “Greek-themed” ballet, EOS (in seven sections played seamlessly) “painting the picture” of early dawn, the sun rising, and the shimmerings of a lively day.

Speaking very generally, EOS is in the form of a 17-minute crescendo.








CL: You are calling EOS a “Ballet for Orchestra”.  How does that differ from a ballet versus, say, a tone poem?

ART: EOS is a ballet and orchestral concert work.  Most composers these days are not lucky enough to have the equivalent of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to commission large orchestral works that will be danced, staged, costumed, and lit, which compositions paint clear poetic and or dramatic pictures.

The early Ballets of Igor Stravinsky (which are mostly played as concert works) have changed my life and have affected every note I have ever composed.  EOS reflects my knowledge of early Stravinsky (and many other Ballet composers) and reiterates my desire to work with dancers.

CL: Your remarks about ballet are so true.  Next season, we do Debussy’s ballet, Jeux, with the Ballet West.  However, virtually no ballet company has the pit facilities to engage the orchestra Debussy wrote for.  So Jeux has become primarily a concert work.

Clarity and detail abound throughout EOS.  I wonder if you could elaborate how you’ve picked your orchestral colors, techniques and highlights for the various sections of the piece.  What might a listener expect to hear?

ART: Thanks Clovis! – Yes, my scores are highly detailed and nuanced, every note having a dynamic, articulation and/or adjective. The notation explains exactly what I heard.  To give you an example, if I were rehearsing with a musician I might say, “This should be majestic” or “play here with a lightness of touch…” So why not write those down on the manuscript?

I feel responsible to present a commissioner with a lucid, nuanced artwork, not an amorphous blob. If I want the crescendo on the second beat, then I should notate it there. They’ll play it and they can also feel why the crescendo had to be right there – same with articulations and other nuances. It’s akin to a beautifully punctuated poem where you know exactly what the poet wanted and meant.

I like my music to be sculpted, skillfully edited and clean.  If I can present artists with an eloquent, fluent poem, then, with their sublime expertise, musicianship, years of training, they can take the sounds to a higher level. We start our journey together with a persuasive text and, with their technical instrumental brilliance, performers can spin and weave their inspired magic and make the music theirs – ‘tis not mine anymore.  Proofreading carefully is essential.

To the second part of your question, which is a huge and marvelous inquiry but might take me pages and pages to answer, let me summarize by saying that I compose by ear and that the orchestral colors are immediately present in my hearing and are deeply integrated in my thinking.  I do not “orchestrate” after the fact.  Rather I hear all the notes, rhythms and harmonies in color.  EOS is a very kaleidoscopic score, with solos for many players, shifts in rhythmic syntax, shifts in harmony and harmonic rhythm, with distinct sections that have unique moods.  There is, for instance, a playful section full of pizzicati in the strings and related sounds.  This section could never be confused with other sections.  Likewise, each section of this ballet has its own aura.

CL: As a follow-up question: Your works are very detailed and yet sound spontaneous….

ART: Thanks!  nuance – transformation – spontaneity – gestalt are four keywords that apply to all my music.

Although highly notated, precise, carefully structured, soundly proportioned, and while musicians are elegantly working from a nuanced, specific text, I like my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled – on the spot.  As if we listeners are overhearing a captured improvisation.

My music, which is organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections, should be played so that the inner life of the different rhythmic, timbral and pitch syntaxes are made explicit and are then organically allied to one another with characterized phrasing of rhythm, color, harmony, counterpoint, tempo, keeping it alive – continuously sounding spontaneous.

All of this, hopefully, working toward the fundamental goal: to compose a work in which every musical parameter is allied in one holistic gestalt.

CL:  EOS is dedicated to Thierry Fischer and to each musician of the Utah Symphony.  There is another honoree, Pierre Boulez, who is celebrating his 90th birthday just 5 weeks after the premiere of EOS on 26 March.  You’ve already mentioned your connection to him while you were Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I’ve known Boulez as well since the late 1970’s, an incredible composer and visionary with an ability to absorb new music instantly.  I also remember that when you presented him with the piano etude “On Twilight – Homage to Boulez” he asked to see the score while it was played.  At the end, he flipped back to the first page, pointed to a note and said, “Shouldn’t that be a G#?”  And you looked over his shoulder, quite surprised, and agreed.  He chuckled. “I saw the pattern and knew it was a G#.”  Hans, his valet, leaned over to me and said, “He did that to Stravinsky too.” My response, “and…?” Hans, said, “He was right.” (You can see this encounter as a brief episode at minute 31 in the Stravinsky documentary on YouTube.)

ART:  This is exactly as I remember it too!

CL: Such an amazing ear and keen wit… Tell me about your relationship with Boulez.

ART:  For my whole life I have revered Mr. Boulez’s music, conducting, citizenship, humanity, grace, intellect, writings, and generosity.  He is a great person.

With the Chicago Symphony, Mr. Boulez conducted the world premiere of my WORDS OF THE SEA for orchestra; CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA “orbital beacons” for orchestra; and IN MY SKY AT TWILIGHT for soprano and chamber orchestra all of which are released on commercial CD by Nimbus Records as performed by Mr. Boulez and the CSO.

He also programmed IN MY SKY AT TWILIGHT in Lucerne and he programmed HELIOS CHOROS III for orchestra with the Orchestra of Paris on a Boulez Festival.

His support of my work inspires me to keep working hard and I am forever and ever indebted to Mr. Boulez.  He is a very kind, gentle, refined, visionary, committed, and musical person.  His resolve for things in which he believes is vivid and is vastly influential worldwide.

CL: Boulez certainly has been more than a seminal composer and first class conductor.  He has always had time to mentor, teach and compassionately listen to others, offering clear, concise advice.  I note you have an extremely hectic schedule; you are on the road pretty much non-stop and we’ve been holding this conversation in between your numerous engagements.  What are your upcoming projects?

ART: Thank you for asking.  Yes, my schedule is always active and demanding.  I feel grateful to be so busy.  For the love of music, rising at 4 AM and working from 4:30 AM until 9:30 PM brings me joy each day; working vigorously for music is an honor and a privilege.

Selected immediate forthcoming projects and concerts include:

March 5, 2015: WORLD PREMIERESELENE for percussion quartet and string quartet, will be performed by JACK Quartet and Third Coast Percussion on a “Portrait Concert” at Miller Theatre at Columbia University.

April 10, 2015: WORLD PREMIERE HELIX SPIRALS for string quartet premiered by the Parker Quartet at Harvard University.

July 7, 2015: WORLD PREMIERE NEW WORK for Aurora Orchestra with Claire Booth, soprano commissioned by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation.

February 20, 2015: The BBC Singers are performing JUGGLER OF DAY at St Paul’s Knightsbridge in London. The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 at 7:30pm UK time — it will be available to stream live on the BBC Radio 3 website.

On March 22nd, National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Third Coast Percussion will perform RESOUNDING EARTH, a composition scored for approximately 300 pieces of metal, featuring 120 bells from a wide variety of cultures and historical periods.

May 8 and 9, 2015: CELLO CONCERTO #3, Lynn Harrell, cello, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu, conductor

July 9, 2015: EUROPEAN PREMIERE World Saxophone Congress – Strasbourg, France: HEMKE CONCERTO “PRISMS OF LIGHT” for alto saxophone and orchestra, Timothy McAllister, soloist with the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

CL: And you have a significant new administrative project as well…

ART:  Yes, and this really is important. I am spearheading EAR TAXI FESTIVAL.  A 4-day-long new music festival celebrating the vital new music scene in Chicago. It incudes performances by the city’s amazing new music ensembles and musicians, and features the music of the city’s composers. The festival is made possible, in part, by major support from the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University. Assuming leadership of this new festival has already consumed about 3 hours each day over the past year.

CL:  Gusty, this conversation has been a real pleasure.  And thank you for taking time away from your work to share your thoughts.

ART: Thank you!

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