Sunday, May 17, 2009

Meeting Composers: Jeremy Gill with the HSO

On Thursday, during a rehearsal break, I had a chance to talk with Jeremy Gill about his Symphony No. 1 which the Harrisburg Symphony is premiering this weekend, along with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and Odin Rathnam playing Beethoven's Romance in F and Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." As luck would have it, I was told the rehearsal schedule would be ‘Tchaik / Gill’ and so I tried fitting the errands I needed to do before the rehearsal rather than after since there wasn’t going to be time before the Concertante performance that evening (I was doing the pre-concert talk, too). Naturally, I arrived at the Forum just in time to hear just a few measures of Gill’s symphony before Stuart said “Okay, we’ll take a break and then do the Tchaikovsky.” It was odd having the Fate fanfare blasting at us as we sat in the Lobby trying to talk: it was as if Tchaikovsky warning Jeremy “don’t answer that question!”

When you see something called “No. 1,” you wonder about “No. 2” – is there one already or in the works, perhaps?

His first symphony, he said, was his doctoral piece, part of two-part presentation for his degree from the University of Pennsylvania where he’d studied with George Crumb and George Rochberg (the symphony is dedicated to Rochberg). There is a second one brewing but so far only in his head – given the fact it took 10 years to get the first one performed, he’s probably not going to take the time to write the second without a guaranteed performance and a commission to support it. That’s not meant to sound “commercial” – it’s actually how most professional composers work today. Gone are the days when a composer could write something and someone would immediately play it. When they did, it was either a court composer, a composer with a powerful patron or one of the major composers in the repertoire today. If you consider Stuart Malina gets scores in the mail from four, five or six composers a week and you figure how many works will get performed in a season or two, the odds are there are lots of composers out there not getting performed. Jeremy said, after sending his symphony out into the world looking for a performance, he got many responses saying “nice piece” but no one saying “let’s do it.” Most often, there wasn’t even a response: for the conductors, it’s just too much to keep up with.

At the pre-concert talk, Gill also mentioned some research someone had done about the number of symphonies that had been written between Mozart’s and Haydn’s final works in the 1790s to Beethoven’s 9th in 1825 – we know, perhaps, a handful of these, maybe 25 or so in all. While some recording companies resurrect a number of works by the “Also-Rans” of this era, it still doesn’t increase the number we actually know. Consider, then, that there is proof out there that composers wrote some 10,000 symphonies in those 30-35 years and you begin to see what the odds are.

Anyway, Gill (born in Harrisburg and growing up in the mid-state) began working on his doctoral symphony while he was working with the Harrisburg Symphony as conductor Richard Westerfield’s assistant. Sitting in on the rehearsals, he often talked to the conductor and musicians about balance issues and technical problems, examining scores as to why something that was hard to play was in fact hard when something else worked well that seemed like it should have been hard. So it’s entirely appropriate this orchestra should, ultimately, give his work its world premiere.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t heard it before. As part of the doctoral process, it was sight-read by the Curtis Orchestra and then re-played after a chance to make some observations and corrections, all part of the learning process of being a composer-in-rehearsal. It was recorded. But it was not “performed.” That is, no one outside the orchestra or the small audience there to observe it actually heard the music.

A few years later, a friend who conducted a youth orchestra offered Gill the chance to bring his work out to read through it with the students – a good learning experience for them, working on a new piece with the composer on the podium. Again, this was not a performance heard by the public.

There had been orchestral works before – an overture written in 1995 about 11 minutes long which David Efron (of the Eastman School of Music where Jeremy had done his undergraduate degree) conducted with the Chautauqua Symphony. There had been two concertos – one for viola (also about 11 minutes) with a chamber orchestra and a cello concerto written toward the end of his studies at Eastman which he also heard in a reading session.

In 1997, he wrote a work for the Hershey Symphony as a tribute to a home-town mentor, Earl Caton, long-time teacher, tuba player (also in the Harrisburg and Hershey Symphonies years ago), and conductor of the New Cumberland Town Band. Jeremy, who played the oboe, got his first “orchestra gig” with the Hershey Symphony through Earl Caton, playing saxophone in Gershwin’s “American in Paris.”

So by the time he began work on his symphony, he’d already had a few orchestral works under his belt. Still, he spent about 13-14 months working on a 19-20 minute piece, taking a lot of time to rework the opening while forging ahead with the overall idea and getting later sections down on paper. But the opening continued to frustrate him. Rather than stopping to work that out, he kept going, then came back and realized if he cut out about 40 measures of music from the opening, it might work. It was not easy – it never is – to do this kind of surgical editing, when you consider how long it took to write seven minutes of music, just to throw it away.

The symphony developed along one of two lines the 20th Century Symphony followed, taking after Sibelius who felt the symphony was an abstract, more architectural logical structure, as opposed to Mahler’s viewpoint that, as he’d said in his own famous conversation with Sibelius about The Symphony, that “a symphony should be universal, it should embrace everything.”

Part of Gill’s doctoral project was an analytical paper about Sibelius 7th Symphony, one of the great (and few) one-movement symphonies in the repertoire. He examined Sibelius’ process, looking at the germs or cells of musical ideas and how they expanded to create a logical structure over the span of 20 minutes, managing to give the sense that all four movements of a traditional symphony were contained within its still basically single movement structure.

There are several ways to do this: Schumann blurred the divisions between the four movements of what became his 4th Symphony by running them one into the next without the usual break in between (if nothing else, at least answering the question of whether to clap between movements when there’s no space to clap). That doesn’t really connect them, despite the motivic flow of certain ideas shared between movements (Beethoven had already done this in his 5th). Whether it’s obvious to the listener or not, there are usually some musical connections between movements of a symphony from Beethoven's time onward, though it’s often not something so overt as a Theme, something more subtle that makes all of these movements, however many there might be – 4 is standard – part of a whole rather than a collection of movements slapped together to make a symphony.

Samuel Barber also wrote a “Symphony in One Movement” – also his first: he later withdrew his second – in which the regular succession of movements is clearly delineated but the seams between them blended a little more to make it one continuous sweep.

But Gill found more inspiration in Witold Lutoslawski’s 3rd Symphony and his own teacher George Rochberg’s 2nd.

Pointing at various parts of the score, he told me he could make a road-map of what sections were inspired by (or “cribbed from”) other composers: on the second page was a passage for the strings that came out of the last movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, since he wanted to create the long lines and textures of Mahler’s string sonority. Here was a tempo indication directly quoted from Sibelius’ 7th; there a string passage recreating texture from Debussy’s La Mer. And so on.

Gill begins his symphony with two bell-like sonorities, ushering in a slow introduction – or what seems like a slow introduction - that eventually moves into a scherzo-like section (or movement or, more accurately, part of a movement) but then what sounds like it’s going to be the scherzo’s “trio” or middle-section becomes a new episode so that one has the feeling of multiple movements – or at least their moods – as one section morphs into the next. The “real” slow movement is less independent – a horn solo over an expansion of motives heard earlier – as the music sweeps on to the first of two explosive climaxes.

He is working more with long-scale motion and energy levels rather than the traditional key-scheme of a traditional symphonic structure. There are several motives, one of which mostly recurs only at the same pitch-level, never transposing off to another “key” which helps give the sound a “centricity” intended or not. He was surprised to hear someone describing it as a tonal work since he was not consciously using either the tonal system or the serial (usually atonal) system.

After hearing the work in its dress rehearsal and then at the performance Saturday night, I would say that even though the work includes many chords that would be considered dissonant, they create tensions (in their own way) that resolve (in their own way) to a more traditional consonant triad. Because it uses major and minor chords, his sound might appear to be tonal even though that implies more organization behind how those chords relate to each other: even the final chord (not a traditional triad) is less a resolution than a vague cessation of tension, a perfectly logical-sounding conclusion. And since this is something most listeners would associate with traditional tonality rather than unfamiliar atonality or serialism (or as one friend thought I was saying, “surrealism”) often coming across as all tension and no release, this music therefore must be “tonal.”

At the very end, neatly wrapping it up, are the initial two bell-like sounds before the final chord. Not so neatly, however, is a short duet in the clarinets restating a motive from those initial 40 measures that ended up on the cutting room floor. Though there was no logic to its being there, it made perfect sense to include it. I’m not sure, on two hearings, that it’s all that out-of-place: it seemed to me to be drawn from an earlier motive heard in the basses at one point but certainly didn’t stick out in a what “where the heck did that come from” sense.

Of course, there are things we learn in school and things we learn after school. A composer progressing from the age of 24 to his current age of 34, Gill hasn’t consciously followed any paths in one direction beyond the typical composer’s reaction of, having written one piece, deciding to do another one differently. One takes along things one learns in writing and hearing a piece and makes a conscious decision to avoid things that didn’t work or finds ways of improving it so, in the future, they will.

His first symphony may be a more “romantic” symphony than the one that’s germinating in his mind now, waiting for the commission to make it possible. His orchestral work “Novas” which the Harrisburg Symphony premiered under Stuart Malina in 2003 was a more texture-driven piece, more abstract. But he feels going from the symphony to Novas to several other long-form pieces to this symphony-in-waiting is all part of a natural progression, each piece generating itself.

This pending 2nd symphony would follow the “other” symphonic path, his 1st having already followed Sibelius.’ It would be more Mahler-like, embracing a variety of things including dance music and the voice, not necessarily choral but vocal soloists, something overtly dramatic – bringing to mind the apogee of Mahler’s universal symphonic approach in his 8th, the Symphony “of a Thousand.” It would have “huge amounts of variety” that would also, undoubtedly, take longer to unfold. But without a commission, it might take even longer to reach an audience.

After the first rehearsal on Thursday, I watched as composer Jeremy Gill was congratulated by, among others, the orchestra’s 2nd oboist, Tom Rowe (whom I’d hired for the orchestra back in the mid-80s), who had been Jeremy’s oboe teacher when he was still in school. It’s a connection like that that makes a performance like this special.

- Dr. Dick

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