EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 2: Nuts and Bolts

Early Wednesday morning we were all shuttled over to the beautifully historic Kleinhans Music Hall, designed in 1940 by the father-son firm of Eliel and Eero Saarinen. The morning was spent going over our scores in one-on-one sessions with BPO Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer and in three-on-one sessions with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Margaret Brouwer, and Sebastian Currier. I was very impressed with how intimately the conductor knew each of our scores: Matthew had clearly spent time learning the intricacies of our music. My session with him was a tour through the piece, with him talking through how he might navigate a particularly dense section, or preparing me for what he thought might be problematic in the orchestra. Our sessions with the mentor composers (which we were able to listen in on for each of our colleagues) were likewise focused on spots that they thought might be opaque. Various solutions for some iffy orchestrational moments were suggested, and a few technically impossible passages on some of the instruments were found. Having all three of those very experienced sets of eyes on our scores was an intense orchestration lesson, yet was incredibly reassuring for what lay ahead: our first read-through with the orchestra.

Talking with my fellow EarShot participants throughout the morning, it seemed that we all had a similar time frame to prepare our performance materials. Once we were notified that we had been selected, and with everything else going on in our lives, this was really only around a little over a week. (To be fair, the quick turn-around time is something that is warned about in the application instructions.) After we happily committed ourselves to the EarShot program, however, the maddening reality of a quick window on a task that should ordinarily take a composer a much longer interval of time to do set in. I’m dwelling on this particular pre-Buffalo-but-very-recent moment to point out something that may often be overlooked by my non-composer readers. Composers will often finish a score, but wait to do the parts until they secure that important premiere, particularly with large ensemble scores that don’t have an immediate performance opportunity. Most of us had finished our pieces in the window of 5 to 10 months before our pieces were accepted. Digging back into a score to prepare parts is a bit like getting reacquainted with an old friend, like a college roommate or someone you met on an extended backpacking excursion. (Hey! Remember when we stayed up all night together, trying to decide how to orchestrate that crazy canon at Rehearsal I?) I personally find it a lot of fun to rediscover everything I packed into a piece, but the quick turnaround felt a bit like rolling up the welcome mat on said friend before getting one’s fill of remembering things past. My own greatest worry for today’s activities was finding something that would grind my valuable time with the orchestra to a halt. Another little-known fact in the non-composing civilian world is how quickly your rehearsal can deteriorate into chaos if enough little things are out of place: the larger the ensemble, the quicker the rebellion can start. Once you’ve lost that important trust of the ensemble, even the things that are clear can be performed flatly and devoid of life: it’s like running out of gas three miles short of the next service stop.

Thankfully, nobody’s piece broke down like that today.

Although billed as a reading, the Buffalo EarShot program actually gives their composers a pretty significant chunk of time before the performance day with the orchestra. We each had about 30 minutes with the ensemble this morning, which was enough time to run the pieces from top to bottom and work on several sections. I was struck by how, although only a first read through, the character of each work was brilliantly displayed. Even reading the pieces for the first time, the orchestra already had a command over each sound world. Elizabeth Lim’s Disharmony of the Spheres, written as an orchestral Scherzo that’s actually a movement in her Second Symphony, had crisp and vivid textures set in an ironic Mahlerian patchwork. Daniel Schlosberg likewise made a connection with the past in his Grosse Concerto, pairing elements of a slinking jazz shuffle with baroque gestures. The orchestra did a fantastic job shifting back and forth between Schlosberg’s two performance styles. Over the course of 30 minutes, the orchestra gradually got comfortable with the contrapuntal textures in my own piece, Bounce: the shifting timbres started to materialize as the conductor isolated a few sections. David Marenberg was inspired by the area 13,000 feet below the surface to create The Abyssal Zone, a swirling mass of sound where, like underwater explorers viewing bioluminescent creatures through a submarine window, listeners are subjected to exotic musical ideas swinging in and out of our focus in their aural field of vision.

After a break, representatives from the various sections of the orchestra joined us for lunch and, over the course of three hours, we got feedback on our parts and scores directly from the ensemble, conductor, and mentor composers.

The orchestra filled out comment sheets, all of which were placed in our laps after the session. It was a humbling experience to be sure, but, considering we were given the opportunity to fix any mistakes between the session today and the recorded reading tomorrow, well worth it. Having the performer representatives there to explain some of the comments on each piece was another extra step the EarShot program took that was so helpful. Anything ambiguous could be cleared up right away by the performer who would be playing the piece tomorrow. For me, this helped to make a more personal connection with the musicians who were playing my music. (The intrepid library staff was very enthusiastic about helping us implement anything we needed to make the piece better, from suggesting how to phrase a comment to helping print out a new part.) Robin Parkinson, education director for the BPO, then gave an interesting presentation on the administrative side of running an orchestra. She followed this up with a very thorough tour of the historic concert hall (joined by Maggie Shea, operations director). Day one concluded with a happy hour sponsored by the BPO at a local watering hole: members of the board and executives from the administration, all of the composers, and several members of the local Buffalo new music community were in attendance. After relaxing for an hour, we reluctantly headed back through some light snow to our hotel for a long night of editing.

EarShot Participants

Seated, l – r: Daniel Hart, BPO executive director; Earshot composers Daniel Schlosberg and David Marenberg. Standing l – r: Robin Parkinson, BPO eductation director; Michael Geller, American Composers Orchestra Executive Director; Earshot mentor composer Margaret Brouwer, Earshot composers Stephen Gorbos and Elizabeth Lim; Earshot mentor composer Sebastian Currier; American Composers Orchestra Operations Director Greg Evans, and Earshot mentor composer Derek Bermel.

Tomorrow’s post: the Big Day, or, did those edits really fix anything.

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