Toledo Symphony Orchestra


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Music from head to hand: Toledo Symphony plays student composers' work

Published Thursday, November 8, 2012

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A student looks at the score of Mark Witmer’s “Inside Out” score before  the Student Composer Reading Session with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra Tuesday in Kobacker Hall at BGSU. (Photo: David Dupont/Sentinel-Tribune)

The Toledo Symphony Orchestra came to town Tuesday to bring the work of young composers to life.
The university hosted the first ever Student Composer Reading Session Tuesday. 
Four young composers, Mark Witmer, Corey Keating, Evan Williams and Zachary Seely, had a chance to hear sounds that had only previously resonated inside their heads.
"I had a good idea of what it maybe would sound like," Keating said of his composition "Gardens of Stone," adding: "It's always a revelation to hear musicians actually perform it and to hear how much you conceived actually translated into music."
Witmer said he was surprised how well his piece worked.
Kobacker Hall was turned into a workshop for the event. The orchestra was dressed in street clothes, and music stands holding the scores were placed around the hall allowing listeners to follow along.
Jeffrey Pollock, the Toledo orchestra's resident conductor, said playing the student compositions was "a fantastic idea."
"Any composer will tell you how hard it is to get a composition performed by an orchestra," he said.
The discussion was all about the details and subtleties of writing for orchestra aimed at helping the composer "take what's in their heads and out it in the hands of the musicians," the conductor said. 
After playing through Witmer's "Inside Out," Pollock gave a wry instruction to a percussionist. "I never thought I'd get to say this, but 'more cowbell.'"
During the intermission, a flutist and a bass player approached Keating to make suggestions about writing for their instruments.
Players received their parts in advance, but Tuesday's event was the first time the orchestra has played the compositions.
Christopher Dietz, the faculty member who organized the session said, that having not just an orchestra, but an established orchestra, makes a difference. The level of communication built up among the members and between the ensemble and conductor better helps to realize the young musicians' visions.
The four pieces were selected from eight submitted for consideration. It was a tough choice for the faculty panel that selected them.
"We picked ones we felt would be doable and were the most interesting and engaging," Dietz said. "There were a lot of variables to weigh."
The recordings made at the reading session will be invaluable, said Mikel Kuehn, another music faculty member. The students studying for their master's degrees will be applying to doctoral programs, which require them to submit a piece for orchestra or band.
Competition for admission is "so fierce," Kuehn said, so having a recording of their piece, especially one done by a professional orchestra will "give them an edge."
That should help them achieve their goals.
For Williams that means fulfilling a dream based in a love of movie music, especially that written by John Williams, sparked by his father's love of "Star Wars" and other sci fi adventures.
His own piece "Prelude in Tempore Belli" showed some of that narrative inclination. He wanted to write a score based on the emotions surrounding war, without making a partisan statement.
His pieces had quotations from a folk and popular tunes, twisted and dissonant. At the end he instructed the musicians to play the notes "like ash falling."
Seely said he started composing  as a college freshman in New Jersey when his guitar instructor suggested he write something for guitar and then suggested he add a couple wind instruments. 
Even though that first composition was "a disaster, and so was the performance," he was intrigued by the possibilities of hearing sounds he imagined played by others.
The music played Tuesday by the orchestra were actually excerpts of a larger work. "You don't go through the full story," he said. Still he was pleased with what he heard.
The selected parts demonstrated how he used "the full densities of the orchestra."
All the pieces employed unusual instrumental textures, but his more then the others, having the string players lightly tap on the bodies of their instruments and horn players breathe through their instruments.
Dietz said he hopes the session, which was made possible by a contribution from music supporter Karol Spencer, becomes an annual event.