Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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BGSU rewards composers’ hard work


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BOWLING GREEN — “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to say this,” conductor Jeffrey Pollock told the Toledo Symphony. “But, more cowbell.”

A soft titter floated through Kobacker Hall, the concert venue inside Moore Musical Arts Center at Bowling Green State University, as the pop catchphrase resonated.

The quip relaxed the mood last week, drawing symphony musicians, four nervous graduate students, and the academic audience closer in an endeavor that was without precedent at BGSU.

For every piece of music ever heard — even the most familiar — there has been a first-time hearing.

And sitting in that hot seat were Mark Witmer, Corey Keating, Evan Williams, and Zachary Seely, winners in BGSU’s first Student Composer Reading Session competition.

Their prize was to hear their works for full orchestra performed by the best ensemble in the region. Yes, they had heard their digitally composed works played back on synthesizers with sampled instruments.

But until this day they had never heard their pieces performed with the singing strings, wailing horns, and powerful percussion — including the cowbell — of a live, acoustic orchestra.

Witmer was first up, sitting tautly as players worked through his five-minute piece, “Inside Out.”

It started with a bang of low notes and percussion, then wound up slowly like some huge Steampunk engine to climaxes of fast-moving notes in high winds and melodic bursts of brass over rough-textured, throbbing string chords, finally subsiding with sustained chords.

The performance was revelatory for Pollock and the players. Yes, they’d had the parts to study. But hearing something in your head or private studio is like tasting just one ingredient in a chocolate cake.

Not only did Witmer and the others get to hear their work; they could advise the players, so the second run-through would be a more correct interpretation.

“Strings, please play the highest note possible,” he said, adding, “I’d like a rougher sound.”

Listening intently were star-quality composers from BGSU and elsewhere: Marilyn Shrude, distinguished BGSU artist professor and busy with new orchestral commissions; Bill McGlaughlin, composer, conductor, public radio personality on campus for a residency, and Christopher Dietz, an award-winning composer who had cooked up this event.

“Few academic institutions can offer this kind of professional experience,” Dietz said.

He found support from the college, the dean, and private and public donors to cover the $10,000 cost.

For decades BGSU has supported and encouraged new work, especially through its MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music. BGSU alumna Jennifer Higdon has won the Pulitzer Prize for her compositions. Its annual New Music Festival is one of the oldest campus-based events in the country.

“We want to reward composers who take risks as much as we want pieces that will be successful. We want a piece or two that is challenging,” Dietz said.

Keating’s work, “Gardens of Stone,” asked a lot of the players because it tapped the latest in techniques. The West Coast transplant said he was inspired by the cemetery on the BGSU campus.

In program notes he added: “With glissandi, microtonal inflections, and beat frequencies creating subtle movement and shifting harmonies within a slightly amorphous sonic texture, the work is an attempt to capture something of the mysterious and sobering quality imparted by this burial ground.”

It was a stretch for the symphony in ways that transcend technique.

Like most American orchestras, its programming leans heavily on 18th and 19th century works, with occasional forays into 20th century music. Compositions from this century, even those by the late Elliott Carter, the celebrated American musician who had died a day before this seminal event, are rarely performed.

However, Dietz had a piece, “Caldera,” performed in the symphony’s marquee Classics Series a few years ago. Before that, he had been selected for performance in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute program. “It was a life-changing event. I went from being Joe Student Composer to being performed by a major orchestra,” Dietz said.

Not every work in the reading session required a technical stretch.

Williams’ six-minute composition, Prelude in Tempore Belli (Prelude in Time of War) was inspired by a similarly-named work by Joseph Haydn, the 18th century composer.

Played expressively by the symphony, it wove two traditional American wartime melodies into a clean and more traditional harmonic and rhythmic edifice.

McGlaughlin, who would meet with the four students the next day, nodded and clapped enthusiastically.

By the time it was composer Seely’s turn, Pollock and the symphony had settled firmly into reading mode and tucked efficiently into his Work for Orchestra 1.b.

Seely said his goal “was to create a new concert experience for both the performers and audience.” His work, like Keating’s, called for advanced techniques and produced some stunningly explosive moments.

At the end of the two-and-a-half hour session, there was widespread applause and agreement on the value of the project.

Dietz was satisfied that goals had been achieved, including “to let our composers know how to interact with pro musicians and for musicians to see what a reading session procedure and attitude is.”

To Merwin Siu, principal second violinist and active in artistic administration at the symphony, the session was eye-opening. “I didn’t realize how much talent we have right around us,” he said.

Contact Sally Vallongo at:

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