By GARY FERRINGTON
When the Eugene Symphony began planning its 50th anniversary, the organization wanted to celebrate the past while looking to its future. Executive Director Scott Freck decided to invest in the future of Oregon music with an inventive, multifaceted new program that combines mentoring and making new music.
That effort culminates this Thursday when the orchestra premieres Ode to The Future. The nine-minute theme and variation piece, written by five young composers in collaboration with Dr. Robert Kyr, head of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s Composition and Music Theory and his graduate students this past summer, concludes the Oregon Young Composers project.
The Ode to The Future will first be performed during the symphony’s November 15th iCompose Youth Concert in which some 3,000 elementary school students will also hear pieces by other composers, such as Mozart and Bizet, who began writing music in their youth. Also planned is an activity that will introduce the children to the building blocks of composing by encouraging them to participate in a creative music-making task at the concert.
The high school composers were all selected from a competitive statewide application process and represent an amazing array of musical talent with a strong interest in composing. Violinist Joseph Miletta (b.1998) is from Salem. Beaverton resident Katie Palka (b. 2001), the youngest of the group, is also a violinist and sings. Two have moved on to college this fall. Cayla Bleoaja (b.1999), hailing from North Bend, is a pianist, a member of a performing duo and an aspiring film composer. She is now a freshman studying psychology at George Fox University. Keizer’s Marissa Lane-Massee (b.1998) is a harpist, bassoonist and is an undergraduate in music at the University of Oregon. Springfield resident Wesley Coleman (b.1999) plays the piano and saxophone and recently shared the opening aria from an opera he is composing with the Eugene Opera Academy.
Kyr seemed an obvious choice to coordinate the project, which was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “Rob is one of the leading compositional pedagogues in the country, and he’s right here in our back yard,” Freck explains. “He has thrown himself into this project with total abandon, and these five young students will carry the lessons they learned wherever they go in their careers.”
“None of the composers had formal training in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, or composition, so we took an extensive educational journey together over a seven-month period, which included a substantial curriculum in fundamental studies,” Kyr explains. “All of them met every challenge and went far beyond what one might consider ‘A-level’ work at the high school level.” The students received guidance on notation and score preparation from UO composition graduate students enrolled in the school’s Composition Pedagogy and Practicum course.
The cadre of young composers began their musical journey in co-creating this new work when they gathered in May for the world premiere of Robert Kyr’s Piano Concerto, commissioned by the ESO as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. The students talked with Kyr about how he composed it and attended rehearsals and the premiere performance. The May 12 concert also included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its famous Ode to Joy, which the composers would use as the thematic basis for their compositional efforts.
The task at hand, for the next seven months, was to reimagine Beethoven’s famous ode beginning with each composer writing piano variations of the theme that would then be orchestrated for the symphony’s performance.
A theme and variation composition begins with the statement of a theme, such as that in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, followed by one or more variations composed by alterations in the harmony, rhythm, melody, timbre, counterpoint, or a combination of these. The variations traditionally remain conceptually related in some musical way to the original stated theme.
The students’ points of entry varied, too, they told Mollibeth Cox in a story in the Eugene Symphony magazine. Wesley Coleman started his work at the piano with the melody. From this initial exploration of the theme, he took his more cohesive ideas and developed them into “different variations adding rhythmic and harmonic textures.”
Cayla Beloaja began with the original composer’s story, developing an understanding of the challenges Beethoven faced at the time he wrote his music, and that became the inspirational source for her piece.
Inspiration for Marissa Lane-Massee work came through a “meandering fuddled process,” she said. “I realized that variations were just like these little themes of music; short and sweet, but often very drastic and different from another.” Being inspired “isn’t one of those things a person can achieve when they want it,” she discovered. “it has to be found with patience.”
By the end of September, the collective composition was complete. “At the outset of the piece, the theme is already a variation on Beethoven’s celebrated Ode to Joy, and although some of the harmonies are different from the original, the melody is identical and always clearly heard,” Kyr explains. “There are nine variations, but some of them are double variations composed by two composers who wrote different sections that complement each other. Each of the young composers wrote 2-3 variations, or a combination of 2-3 variations and sections within a variation. Thus, formally, the work is not entirely traditional; it is a co-creation of five composers featuring an alternation of single (one author) and double (two authors) variations — an exciting journey piece on Beethoven’s beloved theme.” Kyr composed “the final several phrases and coda at the end of the piece as a kind of exclamation point for the journey of our project.”
The lessons extend beyond this composition and this project. Joseph Miletta enjoyed the diversity he found through collaborating with others from which he learned other compositional techniques. He notes, “I feel like this project has allowed me to expand my horizons and really see what I can do.”
“I don’t know of another project at the high school level, where young composers have co-created a substantial new work for a professional orchestra under intensive and ongoing instruction and mentorship,” Dr. Kyr observes. For him, the experience of working with the five “Ode” composers has been truly inspiring and a great joy. “Each of the composers has taken the project very seriously and has worked extremely hard to create a set of imaginative, expressive, and colorful variations on Beethoven’s iconic theme,” Kyr told Artswatch. “Their achievement in co-creating the Ode Variations is the result of exceptionally hard work and dedication to their art, as young composers who have a great passion for composing orchestral music, which is a particularly challenging and demanding endeavor.”
But the value of Young Composers Project transcends even the students who participated in it, extending to anyone who wants classical music to be more than a museum dedicated to the past. Freck hopes that both the November 15 concert as well as the November 17 regular season program will help reinforce the concept “that orchestral music is a vibrant and living art form that has currency and relevancy for us all.”
The Eugene Symphony performs the world premiere of the Oregon Young Composers Project “Ode to the Future” at 8 pm Thursday, November 17 at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts. The concert also features Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905” and pianist Stephen Hough performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.