I have had a wonderful second year of my residence with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra! In my first year, I focused almost exclusively on offering a wide assortment of activities for education programs. These brought me to multiple elementary, middle, and high schools, colleges, and several organizations to work with students and adults of all ages. We also ran a chamber ensemble concert at the i-Hotel featuring CUSO musicians, as well as an Overture Composition Competition for regional composers.
For my second and final year with the orchestra, I kept some of the elements of the first year, while also diversifying in new directions. CUSO’s overarching theme for this season was “Our World, Our Music,” to tie in with the focus of various works of mine about our planet earth.
We brought my chamber music to old, new, and unexpected locations around the region.
- We started off the new concert season with a “Messages from Gaia” Concert at the i-Hotel in Champaign, IL. This concert featured several of my earth-themed chamber works, performed by musicians from the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra and two guest singers. Along with my String Quartet No. 3: Gaia and Phoenix Rising for solo flute, we performed two arias from Terra Nostra, my oratorio about the planet, as a teaser of our March 9, 2019 concert. We live-streamed the concert so people around the country could watch. Audience members took part in CUSO’s “Messages to Gaia” community project, creating artwork, writing poetry, and leaving messages on large pieces of butcher paper that we then featured at CUSO’s Terra Nostra concert in March 2019.
- We held a Gelato Social at the Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery in Champaign, IL, featuring free homemade gelato from the farm’s goats, accompanied by performances of my String Quartet No. 3: Gaia and Phoenix Rising played by musicians from the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. PFFC co-owner Wes Jerrell spoke about how he and Leslie Cooperband started raising goats in 2004, which led to their interest in making cheese and gelato. He also spoke about their farm’s sustainability efforts. Audience members also took part in CUSO’s “Messages to Gaia” community project.
- CUSO flutist Amanda Pond performed my Phoenix Rising in a number of locations. In addition to playing the piece at the i-Hotel concert and the Gelato Social, she performed it at the Urbana Farmers Market in September 2018, as well as part of our pre-concert events in Foellinger Great Hall of the Krannert Center for CUSO’s March 9, 2019 Terra Nostra concert.
I did a lot of mentoring:
- I designed and implemented two visits to meet with incarcerated participants of the Education Justice Project at the Danville Correctional Center in Danville, IL. For the first visit, I gave a workshop on how to unleash one’s inner creativity. We did this by discussing the decision-making process a composer goes through when composing, learning musical terms and how a composer tracks the tension within a piece, and analyzing some music together; we also created our own piece using graphic notation that we performed and then critiqued. On my second visit, I constructed a concert using a pre-recorded CD of my earth-themed works (recorded from our i-Hotel concert earlier in the month). Between these musical movements, I inserted ten texts about the planet from the libretto of Terra Nostra, my oratorio, which were read aloud by the incarcerated participants. A few of the participants in my earlier workshop shared creative projects as well during the concert. We concluded with O World, a group composition that we created together based on the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire), followed by a Q&A session with the participants in which they asked a range of questions about the music they heard and my composing process. Participants also took part in CUSO’s “Messages to Gaia” community project.
- I designed a two-day Composers Institute for composers that lived within a 200-mile radius of Champaign-Urbana. Twelve composers from eight Midwest universities joined us at the i-Hotel. We crammed a lot into our Institute! The first day focused on my “Craft Your Career” workshop series in which we covered strategies for composing, building an online presence, and music business basics. On the second day, we held an assortment of activities: CUSO harpist Molly Madden and CUSO percussionists William Moersch and Ricardo Flores gave demonstrations on how to effectively write for their instruments within an orchestra setting; we had lunch with Maestro Alltop in which we discussed navigating the conductor-composer relationship; and we had a fantastic reading session of three new works by Midwest composers Stephen Caldwell, Brian Hinkley, and Hunter Chang, workshopped by Maestro Alltop and the orchestra. Each of these three composers took part in a brief Q&A with me prior to the reading of their piece, as well as in a longer Q&A with our audience at the conclusion of the reading session. We live-streamed the reading session so people around the country could watch.
- Prior to the Composers Institute, I mentored our three selected composers for the Institute via Skype on how to prepare their full scores and parts for the reading session. I also mentored a fourth composer who we ultimately didn’t select, but whose music exhibited great promise.
- In the Spring of 2018, Maestro Alltop, CUSO, and I held an Overture Composition Competition, in which we selected five 3-minute overtures from an open competition, written by composers of all ages who lived within a 200-mile radius of Champaign-Urbana. We held a reading session in which the five works were workshopped by the orchestra in front of an audience, then the audience and orchestra voted on whose pieces they’d like to be performed on a CUSO subscription concert. The winners were Maya Benyas’ Fantasy House Overture and Roger Zare’s Strontium Red. Over the course of 2018/19, I mentored Maya Benyas in preparing her full score and parts for the upcoming performance. Both Maya’s and Roger’s works received performances by Maestro Alltop and the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra on April 27, 2019 in Foellinger Great Hall of the Krannert Center.
- Online videos of CUSO performance:
I visited a few more organizations.
- At the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), I took part in CUSO’s longstanding tradition of pre-concert talks for the organization. Prior to CUSO’s performances of Krakatoa and Terra Nostra, I introduced each work to OLLI members in Friday morning talks.
- Also at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I gave a 90-minute talk called “How does a composer compose instrumental music?” This was a follow-up to a presentation I gave in the Spring of 2018, in which I addressed how a composer composes vocal music. I built these presentations so that people with no musical training can get a very accessible glimpse into a composer’s writing process. Both of these talks were received very well, and I have started to give these presentations elsewhere in the U.S. for general audiences.
- In the Fall of 2018, I gave two presentations at Urbana High School on how a composer composes choir music. I returned in the Spring of 2019 to give presentations on strategies for composing music for two music classes at Urbana High School.
The most exciting part was hearing CUSO perform my orchestral works!
- In January 2019, CUSO performed Krakatoa, my concerto for viola, strings, and percussion. Carol Cook, the principal violist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, was our soloist. The piece tracks the events of the massive eruption in 1883 of Krakatoa, a volcano in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. Carol and the orchestra brought the volcano’s eruptions to life in an explosion of color and energy.
- The biggest performance of my entire CUSO residence was that of Terra Nostra, my oratorio about the planet, and how we can live in balance with it. The whole final year of my residence built up to this March 2019 concert, and it was very exciting! Members of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra were joined onstage by the soloists Sarah Gartshore, Betany Coffland, Stephen Soph, and David Govertson, the University of Illinois Oratorio Society (Andrew Megill, conductor), and the Central Illinois Children’s Chorus (Andrea Solya, conductor), with Maestro Stephen Alltop leading the joint forces. We started the evening with a pre-concert event, featuring CUSO flutist Amanda Pond playing my Phoenix Rising; then Maestro Alltop and I had a conversation in which we introduced the 3-part structure of Terra Nostra to the audience. We also highlighted various texts and particular moments of the piece for which the audience should listen. Then, we performed Terra Nostra – the piece is 71 minutes and done without an intermission. Immediately after the performance, we had a talk-back featuring the conductors, soloists, and myself, in which we answered questions from the audience. To round out the concert experience, we handed out seed packets to the audience (this gesture ties in with the oratorio’s messages of humanity being stewards of the earth). Also, CUSO Guild Board’s Vice President Anne Sharpe beautifully designed two large display panels to feature all of the artwork and messages people created in our “Messages to Gaia” community project that we have held throughout the year at various events noted above.
Throughout it all, I blogged.
- I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts and experiences about my journey over the past two years through blog posts that I put on the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra’s website, along with New Music USA’s site.
Thank you, Champaign-Urbana and Music Alive Program!!
Thank you so much to everyone that has played a role in my residence – Executive Director Gerri Kirchner, Maestro Stephen Alltop, the musicians of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, photographer/videographer Darrell Hoemann, Anne and David Sharpe, Rebecca Ginsburg of the Danville Correctional Center’s Education Justice Project, Wes Jerrell and Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and all of the Champaign-Urbana community members and volunteers — you have all greatly enriched my residence experience throughout the past two years. Thank you as well to the Music Alive Program, funded by New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras, for funding the residence. Without these organizations, I wouldn’t have had this wonderful opportunity to learn and grow as a composer and mentor.
It has been a joy to bring music and the discovery of composing to people of all ages and from all walks of life. I hope all of the activities we carried out over the course of the past two years have inspired people to be creative in any manner that speaks to them, be it making music, gardening in the backyard, singing in a community chorus, or painting artwork in the park.
And with this, my residence ends. Champaign-Urbana, you will always hold a dear place in my heart.