Our Man in Minnesota

Sean Shepherd is one of eight composers who will have a piece read during the 2006 Minnesota Orchestra Reading Sessions and Composer Institute, May 6-11 (the American Music Center is a partner in this project).

Sean has just landed in the Twin Cities, and he has graciously agreed to give us a play-by-play of what’s happening up north each day over the next week. If you’d like to know a bit more about the man and his music, you can find the rap sheet here.

Welcome, Sean. Hope you remembered to pack your toothbrush and, rather more importantly in this case perhaps, your scores.

—MS

Sean Shepherd
Sean Shepherd
Photo by Anita Gardner

Okay—time to take stock. Did I turn the coffee pot off? Did I pack a toothbrush? Did I make sure to get all 95 of those five-page essays for my Intro to Rock and Roll course graded and back to my students? I’ve got to get focused. It’s time to take the TA hat off and put the green and eager orchestral composer hat on—I’ve just arrived in Minneapolis for this year’s Minnesota Orchestra Reading Sessions and Composer Institute.

It’s true—I do have to switch gears. My fellow composers in the Academy can understand the final push to get things completed this time of year. Recitals, grades, ceremonies, allergies. We’ve given up on writing completely. “I’ll take a couple of weeks, then June…a firestorm of creativity! I can feel it.”

For me and my colleagues who were selected to be part of this event—more than a reading, more than a workshop, it’s a jam-packed week of all things orchestra—this is a culmination of a year-long project. From submitting applications last spring, to being notified in September, and the slow, steady process of getting our pieces ready for what’s happening this week, I find myself suddenly surprised that it went by so quickly. It’s no small task preparing the piece (my parts were sent to the orchestra for final preparation in the form of a 6 lbs. brick of paper, overnight delivery—down to the wire, of course), and already our work with the Institute’s composer-mentor Aaron Jay Kernis has begun in earnest. We have each had a preliminary session with him, talking turkey on the phone, score in view, about how to make the piece work as well as possible in what is a very small of amount of time with the group.

My session with Aaron was intense. Due to schedules, our chat was a late-night affair, and we picked my piece clean. Not one quintuplet left unturned. We talked about what would likely work well, and what might work better with a professional orchestra than it had in the version with a student group he had heard on a recording. But mostly we talked about what wasn’t going to cut the mustard. Harp pedals, balance and clarity issues, alternate notation. He knows the orchestra very well, and I would expect that. But he really, I mean really, knew my piece. I had much work to do, and few weeks to do it in, but got off the phone exhausted and exhilarated. Just like after any good lesson, I felt better about the piece than before.

So I picked and poked, did a lot of thinning. Fixed the parts, got them sent. After months off, here I sit and type at Caribou Coffee across from Orchestra Hall. What lucky creatures we composers are. Once in a while, people—lots of people—come together to realize something only one of us, who shut himself away from friends, family, and sunshine for months, bothered to write down. I believe, and hope always to, in the spectacle of the orchestra. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than Minnesota today.

My expectations for the week? In all honesty, I am fully expecting to be blown away. I’ve had friends who have participated in past years who, with all critical reference, adored their week here. And the recordings I’ve heard are astounding (That was a reading?). Our interaction with the principals of the orchestra will be great, but I’m ready for whatever gripes they have. Ralph Jackson told me to wear a suit of armour, so I packed it along with 12 copies—as per request—of my oversized creation. And the list of industry luminaries who will also be on hand is impressive. I’ve got questions for them, not least of which is: How can we, as the young ones, keep this tradition going? More on that later.

I’ll certainly keep track of things as they happen over the week. And we shall see what I haven’t yet. Heaven help me if there are clef problems! Tomorrow, we meet each other formally and get right to work.

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