Commissions - A Treasured Experience
A Treasured Experience
In the winter of 2002-2003, I was delighted to get a call from trombonist and Indiana University graduate student, Jon Whitaker, informing me that the Indiana University Wind Ensemble, conducted by Ray Cramer, was interested in commissioning a trombone concerto from me for Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, to be premiered at the 2003 Midwest Clinic. Of course I jumped at the opportunity—to work with such great and legendary musicians is what composers live for! I had long known Indiana’s outstanding reputation, and I was good friends with Joe Alessi, my colleague at Juilliard. He had recorded my trombone sonata for Cala Records’ "Legends of the N.Y. Philharmonic" series—and I credit that recording for being a real catalyst—along with recordings and performances by the American Brass Quintet—to introduce my music to the world of brass musicians and ultimately wind ensembles.
As a composer, I’ve recently been writing works which were influenced by places I’ve visited or visual artworks that I felt to be particularly striking. The inspiration for this work was the captivating, mysterious and powerful images of the great American photographer, Ansel Adams. The concerto became "Visions of Light" in which 3 of his photographs are portrayed in the 3 movements of my piece: "Monolith", "Moonrise" and "Thunderclouds".
I am not a brass or wind player, so I like having the opportunity to have colleagues help me play through my music as I write it. Joe was most accommodating. Halfway through the 1st Movement, we met in my office at Juilliard and read through the music I had already completed. His beautiful sound and his desire for me to write a lyrical piece for him evolved into a work which I consider a song without words. He would suggest ranges, gestures and articulations. With each movement we proceeded in a like manner—reading through passages as I wrote them.
The orchestration of my music happens simultaneously as I write the piece. I was hyper-aware of wanting to write a work which had a nice balance between the band and the soloist—allowing the soloist to be front and center, but also letting the band sing out in tutti and accompanimental passages. My band and orchestral music always contains a great deal of mallet percussion which I use as a 21st century basso continuo. To this sound, Ray Cramer suggested I add an optional harp part---which turned out to be a wonderful suggestion, given much of the work’s Impressionistic flavor.
Rehearsals and a pre-Midwest Clinic performance at Indiana University were so exciting for me. Hearing the music come to life with its full sonority was just wonderful. I recommend to any conductors or performers working with the "living composer" to, by all means, have them hear a rehearsal or even a sound check prior to the performance. This gets rid of the performers’ nervousness about playing in front of the writer of the work—something every performer experiences—from beginning players to seasoned pros. It also makes it so special to work together as a bond forms between the player and composer, as each gains insight into the other’s artistic approach. The result is so often terrifically exciting.
The 2003 Midwest Clinic was my second experience at this wonderful, amazing conference. For composers having pieces played—our work is already done. The round-the-clock work has led to this point. Now, we can relax, see friends, attend final rehearsals, and enjoy the performances of all the various ensembles showcased throughout the week. We hear the newest pieces by our friends and colleagues in a kaleidoscopic array of styles.
I was a bit unprepared for the extraordinary size and enthusiasm of the Midwest audiences when I first went to the Midwest Clinic in 2001 to hear the USMA band from West Point play my piece, "Legacy". It felt like a celebration of our art—and the experience was simply great. People often ask me if I ever get nervous before a performance. The answer is never. Before a first rehearsal—yes—wondering how the piece really turned out! But before a performance—I’m simply excited. The Indiana University Wind Ensemble performance of "Visions of Light" with Joe and Ray interpreting my music so perfectly was one of the great musical experiences of my career. The beauty of the sound they achieved, the excitement and energy of the performance, and the wonderful, generous audience response all contributed to making this a premiere I will always treasure.
Visions of Light was commissioned by the Board of Directors of the Midwest Clinic, Ray E. Cramer, President. The premiere performance of Mosaics took place at the Midwest Clinic on Thursday, December 18, 2003.
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