One of the experiences most vital to the education of a developing young composer is that of writing for a symphony orchestra. Composition students at Juilliard are extremely fortunate to have five sets of readings annually with a full orchestra that function as workshops to build and hone symphonic craft, and even luckier that each spring sees an entire concert devoted to presenting premieres of the most accomplished new pieces. A competition is held each winter to select four or five works to be included on the program. Submissions are made anonymously and judged by a nonfaculty panel that often consists of some of the world’s pre-eminent composers. This year’s concert, presented as part of the Juilliard Orchestra’s regular season, takes place on Friday, April 1, and will be directed by new-music champion Jeffrey Milarsky.
The 2011 winners are David Hertzberg, Christopher Castro, Peng-Peng Gong, and Grigory Smirnov. The first three are students of Samuel Adler; Smirnov studies under Christopher Rouse. All four recently joined The Journal in conversation about the creative process that led to the development of their winning compositions.
Smirnov, a second-year master’s student and native of Siberia, finished his Romance for English Horn and Orchestra in the spring of 2010 after several months of work. His second work for orchestra, it began with a flash of inspiration. “A musical idea just came to my head, and I decided that it would be perfect for English horn,” he said. “I have always been in love with the sound of the English horn. Sometimes, when listening to orchestral music, I find myself waiting for an English horn solo.” Smirnov mentioned that this piece is unique in his catalog stylistically as well as in terms of instrumentation. “I wanted to try composing in a very simple, tonal and ‘Romantic’ style. This distinguishes my Romance from other pieces of mine, which are composed in a more complex language.”
Another work to feature a soloist is Peng-Peng Gong’s Hourly Reminiscence. Gong describes it as a one-movement piano concerto based on his reaction to Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour,” which explores the range of emotions a woman feels in the hour after hearing that her husband has been killed—extreme sorrow followed by a kind of euphoria—and which ends with her own death. Gong said the story has “a full and violent depiction of the psychological path of the fiction’s heroine” and that his piece is “contrapuntally complex and rich, rhythmically challenging and virtuosic for each player, and reveals a luscious flow of late-Romantic lyricism.” A freshman who also studies piano with Yoheved Kaplinsky, Gong will appear as soloist in his own work, which he composed during October and November of last year.
Another composer-performer whose music appears in this concert is Christopher Castro, who is a second-year composition and double-bass major. Castro’s experience as a performer has given him great familiarity with the orchestral repertoire, and he approached his second orchestral composition, Monolith, with excitement. The work, he said, “is built around three points of harmonic stasis, which I see as a large rock grounding the piece.” In addition to testing out formal ideas, Castro made some precompositional orchestration decisions. “I planned to include no percussion [apart from] timpani, which I think is unusual for a new score. My reasoning [was] that I had recently seen a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and was truly bowled over by how enormous the orchestral sound was without an array of percussion, and I wanted to experiment with that.” Castro wrote Monolith during the summer of 2010 while he was working the graveyard shift guarding an abandoned office building in Long Island, a job which left plenty of opportunity for composition.
Like Gong, David Hertzberg drew his inspiration from literature. His Nympharum is set to texts by Ezra Pound that will be sung by soprano Mary Mackenzie, an increasingly familiar face in New York’s contemporary music scene. “I was drawn to the early, aphoristic poems of Ezra Pound for two principal reasons: their potent, expressive imagery and their general economy of composition,” Hertzberg said. “I was particularly attracted to Pound’s almost leitmotif-like use of recurring words. It was my aim in composing this piece to imbue those ‘leitmotifs’ with dramaturgical significance. These three movements should not be thought of as a collection of songs, but rather as parts of an organic whole. For this reason, I have named my work a cantata, because it is my impression that in that form, there can be achieved a synthesis of song-like intimacy and spontaneity with symphonic breadth.”
Nympharum received the 2011 Arthur Friedman Composition Prize, a distinction “granted to the student whose work is deemed to be the most outstanding of those submitted for performance at the annual composers’ orchestral concert,” according to the terms of endowment. The award was first given in 2004 and past winners include Wayne Oquin, Kyle Blaha, and Reinaldo Moya.
Of course, no premiere can be a success without the right leadership. As has become tradition, Milarsky will rehearse and direct this performance, a project he looks forward to with great excitement. “These are notes that have never been heard, so it is really making music at the core,” he said. The process can be a challenging one, he noted, and an important consideration is “being patient with the orchestra, as both the conductor and players are really finding a path through these demanding scores.”
Milarsky encouraged audiences to “listen with wide open ears ... with no preconceptions of style.” He hopes that concertgoers will “just listen to the impact, both sonically and structurally and ask: Does it please you? Does it move you? Why?”