Composition creation


A night at the symphony evokes images of black-and-white-clad performers, silent save their instruments and the impeccably rehearsed pieces they bring to life. At this morning’s student-composer readings in Mandel Hall, audience members got a behind-the-scenes peek at how the magic comes together. Led by Cliff Colnot, principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary MusicNOW series and sometimes U of C orchestration instructor, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra—now in a three-year residency at the University—rehearsed, discussed, and tweaked graduate student David Smooke’s composition Breathing the Water. Smooke was one of four composition students to have his work performed and critiqued by the ensemble during the two-day event, organized by University of Chicago Presents.

The energetic, 13-minute piece incorporated piano, strings, and a mix of percussion including the marimba xylophone and crotales, metal discs known for their high-pitched, bell-like tone. Working section by section during the two-hour reading, Colnot made occasional on-the-fly revisions. “Mark that dynamic as forte instead of fortissimo,” he instructed the musicians. The ensemble also helped hone the piece. “Feels like between [measures] 37 and 41, there should be a crescendo, but there’s not,” volunteered the pianist. “Yes,” agreed Colnot, “there’s an implied build there.” Smooke, seated onstage behind the conductor, quietly recorded the suggestions.

The final product, played from start to finish an hour into the reading—and only after the union-member musicians voted and received the go-ahead from their personnel representative to slightly postpone their scheduled break—bounced from dark, jolting chords to soft, dreamy tones. At times menacing and frantic, at others somber and mysterious, the piece experimented with major and minor notes sliding together (“like Stravinsky,” commented Colnot during the reading), gentle piano and strings, and even a waltz-like moment. After the peaks and valleys, it ended quietly, like a violent wave subsiding, gently returning to sea. But the orchestra’s work was not yet done. “There are still three or four things in top quarter to work on,” instructed Colnot. He then released the musicians for their break


Photo: Colnot leads the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at Friday's student-composer reading.

January 20, 2006