Rick Trostel conducts the Juneau Student Symphony at a performance last summer.
From left, Margaret Ross, Franz Felkl and Ethan Seid pose as winners of the Juneau Symphony's 2008 Youth Concerto Competition on June 4, 2008. Ross will be the featured soloist when the Juneau Student Symphony performs Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 1" March 14-16.
Story last updated at 3/11/2009 - 10:58 am
JUNEAU - The "Alaska Sinfonietta" was written for the Juneau Student Symphony by Australian composer Thomas Reiner in 2008. But he wasn't alone in its formation. Throughout the composition process, Reiner was in contact with JSS musical director Rick Trostel as well as with the orchestra members who would eventually be performing the piece.
Reiner's Sinfonietta will premiere in three upcoming JSS performances March 14-16, also featuring Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 1."
Trostel first hear Reiner's work when Reiner premiered one of his pieces in the 2006 CrossSound music festival in Juneau. Trostel liked Reiner's style, which he called "new music with a nod to the traditional."
"One of the things that really attracted me to Thomas' music was he didn't forget in his music to bring the listener from the familiar to the new rather than reaching for the edge of familiarity without any respect for the audience," Trostel said.
Trostel is an admitted fan of most "new music," though he said the style can be hard for a lot of audiences to swallow.
"If you ever go to a new music concert, it may be the last one you go to," Trostel said. "One of the major goals of a (new music) composer is to compose something that you've never heard of before, and in order to do that sometimes they go so far off the deep end that it's incomprehensible music. But Thomas has the ability to start with the familiar, take people to the edge (and) then take it back again. They've had a musical experience, but they haven't been assaulted."
Reiner composed the Sinfonietta in three movements, entitled "Innocence," "Lament" and "Hope."
"My job as a composer was to find musical analogies for these emotions and integrate them in a work that has its own musical narrative and form," Reiner said. "Of course, every listener will respond to the music in their own way, but I am confident that the audience will sense the underlying moods as the music unfolds."
Said Trostel: "That arc from 'Innocence' to 'Lament' to 'Hope' is an arc of a lot of maturing human beings. We start out innocent, we get knocked around a little bit, and hopefully we survive the trials and come out hopeful and creative human beings."
Trostel described the first and third movements as conventional and the second movement as "the most edgy."
"It's helpful to know that ('Lament') is firmly rooted in the note 'C,'" Trostel said. "Somewhere throughout that entire movement, someone is playing a 'C.' It's fascinating what (Reiner) has done with that single note."
Reiner has paired that single note with combinations of varying intervals. The movement switches back and forth between notes played in perfect harmony and notes in clashing intervals. No single instrument carries the melody line for longer than a few seconds.
"It's like musical pixels or a pointillist soundscape," Trostel said. "No single pixel makes any sense until you put them all together."
In the final movement, the symphony is joined by the Alaska Youth Choir singing lyrics by poets Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer. The lyrics were inspired in part by a Tlingit mourning song, a lament composed in 1912 by Aanti Yéili, whose English name was Joe Wright.
The Dauenhauers wrote the following about the lament:
"It is important for Native voices to be heard on the ancestral land; it is important for the voices of grandchildren to be heard on their grandparents' land. This is the living link. In Tlingit tradition, it is fitting that a song be raised in response to a song. It is fitting that this song in particular be sung by youth. With the performance of this piece, a new generation of voices is heard on the land. In giving permission for others to use our song, we only ask that the singers acknowledge our clan ownership and recognize the song as a serious dirge or lamentation. People who don't understand this often use the song carelessly, not realizing the pain we experience when we hear the song used improperly, or incorrectly attributed or described. The Sinfonietta is a response of youth and for youth, a new voice on the land, and a prayer for the Raven man who composed his song almost a century ago."
Reiner took inspiration from the lyrics of the song when it came to drafting notes on the page. The music rises when the choir sings of mountains, and at the mention of shimmering water, the instruments produce a musical representation of what shimmering water might sound like.
While Reiner was composing the piece, he sent drafts to Trostel, the choir director and every member of the symphony so that all of the players had a chance to give feedback about their individual parts.
"The 'Alaska Sinfonietta' is in many ways a collaboration, and while I take full responsibility for the music, the multidimensional quality of the work as a whole is an outcome of the diversity of participants and their generous contributions," Reiner said. "I am very grateful for Nora's and Richard's beautiful poetry. Their words helped to convey the feeling of hope and a sense of here-and-now. The presence of the poetry strengthens the music's link to the culture and geography of Southeast Alaska."
The symphony will be joined by pianist Margaret Ross for Beethoven's 212-year-old "Piano Concerto No. 1." Ross began taking piano lessons with Trostel when she was in first grade. Now a junior in high school, she received an honorable mention in the Juneau Symphony Youth Concerto Competition last June.
Concertos often allow soloists to shine while the orchestra plays a subservient role, but in this piece the orchestra has quite an equal part. The orchestra starts the piece and it's not until five minutes in that Ross begins to play.
Trostel said Ross has the entire 18-minute piece committed to memory and "plays with a flare and sparkle."
The Juneau Student Symphony will perform March 14 at 7:30 p.m. and March 15 at 4 p.m. at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and March 16 at 7 p.m. at Auke Bay Elementary. All performances are pay-as-you-can.