Houston: Overtures Texas Style

Lindsey Eck
Lindsey Eck

Festival season is in full flower and the University of Houston’s Moore School of Music fills the month of June with its Texas Music Festival. This year, local composers were commissioned to write overtures for full orchestra to be performed as part of four separate festival events. I spoke with a few of them about their pieces.

Rob Smith teaches at Moore and is part of the team that’s putting the festival together, as well as contributing his composition Push. The piece shares a bill titled “Concertos for Orchestra” with works by Bartók and Pieter Lieuwen on Friday, June 10. The entire program repeats the following evening. Push is not a brand new work; an MP3 of a fine performance by the Syracuse University Orchestra is available on his NewMusicJukebox page. Smith based the piece around the verb that became its title. “I was using the word as kind of a catalyst—looking for things that embodied that word.” Though there’s “no specific thing that would sound like pushing,” the concept led him to explore several different melodic motives. Smith says, “I think from the top down—from the big picture down,” yet he also describes starting with thematic material which he then builds into a larger piece. In addition to his official duties at Moore, Smith is also a member, with four other composers, of a new music collective called Musiqa that performs original works by its member-composers and others. Smith and his colleagues have taken it upon themselves to bring contemporary serious music into the schools, reaching 4000 Houston public school students last year and helping to ensure the future of art music in the Bayou City.

Jefferson Todd Frazier‘s We hold these truths… is written for orchestra, violin solo, and tenor, and is inspired by the words of Thomas Jefferson. It is the first movement of a series based on the life of Jefferson and was commissioned by the Texas Music Festival and American Festival for the Arts, of which he is founder and executive director. Frazier sees his tradition as “the American school that looked inside America for inspiration so that their music was tangible and made a personal impact [on] audiences.” In this overture (technically a prelude), the violin “represents the soul of Jefferson. He was a violinist and had the violin with him when writing the Declaration. Additionally, his music library at Monticello was extensive, so he really knew music. The tenor is used as a cantor to introduce the text/musical material. The orchestra then responds to the words.” We hold these truths… premieres Friday, June 24, and is performed again the following evening.

San Antonio-based David Heuser offers A Screaming Comes Across the Sky, its title drawn from the first sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. He says, “It’s perfect for this piece, which is kind of a six-minute scream…loud and aggressive.” He also relates the structure of the piece to the novel’s recurring image of the parabola. “The sort of a low-high-low aspect of the piece, though I don’t want to be too dogmatic about it.” The piece is organized around two principal motives, “a fast figure in all eighth notes that appears most usually in the low instruments,” and “a tune with longer values, I guess more considered a melody, which then occurs in higher instruments.” The piece is “tonal in the large sense, but not ‘officially’ tonal.” The piece, for full orchestra, also employs piano and, as a reformed percussionist, Heuser drew upon the festival orchestra’s wealth of percussionists to write for a “full battery.” A Screaming Comes Across the Sky will premiere as part of the grand finale on Saturday, July 2.

Rounding out the series of four commissioned overtures is Ketchak by Baylor University’s Scott McAllister, which will debut Saturday, June 18.

If a common thread can be seen in the festival’s commissions, it’s an eclecticism that rejects dogmatic systems of composition in favor of influences from popular music as well as the classical and romantic traditions. By asking for “overtures,” the Texas Music Festival left the parameters open for experimentation and free interpretation of a form that imposes few limits. Texans can look forward to works that express the Lone Star State’s unique position within the American musical tradition as the festival continues Houston’s preeminence as a center of new music in the Southwest.

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The veteran of several rock bands, composer Lindsey Eck lives in rural Texas near Austin where he owns Blue Oak Studio. He holds a bachelor of arts in English from the College of William and Mary, and a master of arts and a master of liberal arts in linguistics from Harvard University. He also holds a second-degree black belt in Shaolin-style kung fu.