The 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog: Putting the Parts Together

Ed Note: This is the fourth installment of Spencer Topel’s 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog. To read his previous installments, click here, click here, and click here.

After a brief look into the archived Institute blogposts of the performer clinics, a creeping fear started to set in. Comments from past participants, ranging from public flogging to mild discomfort, hinted at potential experiences. As we waited for the session to begin, I started to consider what is perhaps the least enjoyable aspect of being a composer: the parts. It is odd that we take the least pleasure in the part of a composition which communicates directly with our players. Shouldn’t this be our top priority?

I recall an early experience with the Oregon Symphony in 1996 at age sixteen. Then assistant conductor, Norman Leyden, was responsible for choosing a handful of young local talent to work with the orchestra during the centennial celebration tour. What came to be perhaps the most stunning musical awakenings of my youth. Alongside me was Norman, making parts perfect, checking percussion logistics, and providing composer contact with the two other Oregon Symphony conductors, James DePreist and Murray Sidlin. Looking back on his contribution to the project, Norman was absolutely essential.

In this spirit, the Upper Strings Seminar with concertmaster Stephanie Arado, and principle violist Thomas Turner, aims to help along a new generation of music makers, albeit a bit less sugar-coated. However, Roger Zare, another one of this year’s MOCI composers, points out that benefits gained from early meetings with players clearly outweigh any humiliation.

The comments in the Upper Strings Seminar are quite useful, but I do notice the potential for certain kinds of advice less useful, especially from the listening perspective. For instance, Geoff Knorr’s piece has a very interesting swelling effect using harmonics with sul ponticello. Our viola coach, Thomas Turner, suggests removing the sul pont. marking, arguing that harmonics are naturally played close to the bridge and he feels that the effect is too subtle to be successful. But while this is a perfectly reasonable observation for a single string part, might it neglect the large scale sonic phenomenon of many string players executing this instruction?

Following this intense session, we take a brief dinner and return for a harp seminar with Kathy Kienzle. Perhaps it’s luck, but every harp player I have ever met is incredibly nice, as is my impression of Ms. Kienzle. Maybe it is the sweet, gentle, tones that emerge from the harp that calms and tempers personalities of the people who master it. Even in the grittiest passages, with notes out of range or impossible pedal changes, Ms. Kienzle maintains a calm and friendly demeanor. In a soft yet firm voice, the most devastating observations transform into the most gentle of suggestions. We finish up our Harp Seminar feeling warm and fuzzy.

As auditors and guests pile out of the hall, we remain. Our work starts now at nearly twenty past ten. We are tasked now with visiting the string parts to make changes, correct errors, and cross-check details to save precious rehearsal time the next day. This is the “Band of Brothers” part of being a composer and duty calls. Time to sign-off and I hope we finish in time for a little rest.

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