3-2-1…Contact!

[Ed. note: In 2006, we asked composer Sean Shepherd to take us along with him to the Minnesota Orchestra Reading Sessions and Composer Institute. There, he dutifully chronicled the week’s events so that even those of us who weren’t participating could share in the experience and perhaps pick up a few of the lessons he was learning. Now, just four years later, Shepherd is about to hear the world premiere of his first New York Philharmonic commission, These Particular Circumstances, as part of CONTACT!, the orchestra’s new music series. Curious how he’s grown and how his career has evolved in the intervening years, we’ve asked him to once again take us along on this next step in his musical life.

Sean Shepherd
Sean Shepherd
Photo by Anita Gardner

The last time my words appeared in this space was nearly four years ago, live from the May 2006 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, when the editors of NMBx kindly asked how I would feel about doing a daily little report from the perspective of a participating composer. As I wrote at the time, it was an intense week, and the extra winks lost so that I might complete my posts were, with each daily 7 a.m. alarm buzzer, ever more palpable. But the daily task of completing the blog and emailing it to New York never became a distraction, and seemed rather to provide a laser-like focus to my daily activities at the Institute, as I kept my eyes and ears as open as possible. It was a wonderful week for me (I still recommend it to anyone and everyone) and I’ve been especially excited to see the Institute grow, for both the composers and community involved. But even just four years later, my perspective has changed: I’ve gotten some new experiences under my belt and I’m gratified that some of the hopes I expressed back then have been realized (although I see this volatile economy’s obvious larger effects as well as the next composer—changing times in the arts call for changing attitudes in artists). And of course there have been great new reports from Minnesota every year since, which I know many Institute alumni, myself included, enjoy reading. We’re glad to know that the fort is being held down admirably.

This time, however, it was I who contacted Molly about doing a report. Starting today, I’ve got an exciting week coming up with another major American orchestra: the New York Philharmonic. As part of the much-discussed new direction ushered in by freshman music director Alan Gilbert, the orchestra has instituted a dedicated yet flexible new-music ensemble and series called CONTACT! as part of their concert calendar. This weekend marks the second and final installment of CONTACT!‘s inaugural season: in total, seven commissioned world-premieres from composers at variously youthful stages in their work. Whether you find it audacious, or risky, or even ill-considered or still-too-timid a proposition for this (or any) organization, you won’t be surprised to find that I consider myself rather lucky to be involved. They are performing a work they’ve commissioned from me this weekend, and it occurs that this might be a good time for me to reprise my one-act show as a sometime diarist. Although I’ve got my little list of favorites from high (Conscience of a Liberal) to higher (AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com), I’m no blogger! I selfishly believe the most important work I do doesn’t involve words, and therefore shouldn’t on a regular basis. There are excellent composer blogs, some of which are snarky and clever enough to give even Mr. Feldman and M. Croche a seriously sassy run for their money, which I stare at in verbiage-induced amazement before trudging back to the piano, but I believe my battles are my own most of the time. Sometimes I gets a bit snippy with E-flat or F-sharp, but since we have had to kiss and make up thousands of times, I know where I stand with those guys (or at least what I’m allowed to get away with).

The first CONTACT! event back in December, with encouragement from the Philharmonic itself by way of free tickets, drew an impressive response from the Blogosphere, and although I couldn’t be at the first concerts, I was fascinated by the variety of perspectives and impressions, including from my fellow CONTACT! colleague Arlene Sierra here in this space. I’ve got my own strong thoughts, and a perspective that sometimes feels akin to touching the sun: it feels intense, but I might be so close to the light that I can’t see where it’s coming from. If the response to this concert, which includes my piece and those of my friends and veritable wunderkinder Nico Muhly and Matthias Pintscher, is anywhere nearly as impassioned and multivalent as it was December, I’m thrilled to be part of it.

As I head out the door to my first rehearsal, it dawns on me that the story of These Particular Circumstances, the piece I wrote for the Phil, is now over two years in the making, starting with an email I received marked “urgent” in March 2008. In thinking about the piece, and of the excitement and pressure of next week’s performances, I am very literally overwhelmed with conflicting emotion. Yes, very nervous, but I’m confident that the musicians are thoroughly engaged. Yes, very excited, but I’ve never been more aware that, once I’ve put that double bar on it, how little it remains in my control from this point forward. This piece needs to flap its wings and fly, all on its own.

As the week progresses, I hope writing these posts provides a little clarity and a little focus for me, just as they did four years ago. If I shed a little light on the significance or sausage-making aspects of this experience for anyone else, I’ll consider that a bonus. For now, I’ve got a subway to catch.

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