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February 22, 2007

University Orchestra to premier pieces by 2 Pitt profs

Two works written by music department faculty members will have their world premiere at a March 1 concert in the Bellefield Hall auditorium.

The works, “Pulse Stream” by Amy Williams and “ardent life” by Roger Zahab, were commissioned by the Atlantic chapter of the Music Library Association as part of the group’s joint conference with the Society for American Music, which will take place Feb. 28-March 4 in Pittsburgh.

Williams’s orchestra piece and Zahab’s work for orchestra and trumpet solo will be performed by the University Symphony Orchestra as part of a concert that features area composers.

James P. Cassaro, head of the Theodore M. Finney Music Library at Pitt, is chairing the conference’s local arrangements committee. “We wanted to highlight Pittsburgh composers,” Cassaro said, noting that the program is illustrative of composing in Pittsburgh over the centuries. “We want to show the conference attendees the breadth of what has taken place musically in Pittsburgh,” he said, adding that 650 music librarians and scholars from around the world have registered for the joint conference. In addition to Zahab’s and Williams’s works, the program will include Pitt faculty member Eric Moe’s 1996 “No Time Like the Present,” which was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony.

“This concert is very difficult,” said Zahab, who also conducts the University orchestra. “It’s exciting to be presenting a whole program of music that’s almost entirely unknown.”

And while no concert spotlighting Pittsburgh composers would be complete without a nod to Stephen Foster, the orchestra will be playing some 19th-century quadrilles that are among Foster’s rarely heard dance works.

Concertgoers also will hear 18th-century Bohemian composer Anthony Philip Heinrich’s “The War of the Elements and Thundering of Niagara.” Heinrich, a self-taught musician who lived for a time in Pittsburgh, “wrote a lot of pieces with interesting and descriptive titles,” Cassaro said.

“We’re going from the past, right into the present and future,” with the concert program, Cassaro said, adding that he was particularly interested in commissioning a work by Williams because she is the newest composer among Pitt’s music department faculty.

Williams, who came to Pitt in 2005, said she was pleased to receive the commission. “I was hoping to write a piece for the school orchestra anyway when I arrived here,” she said, adding that she tailored the piece to the players. “I really had this orchestra in mind.”

To prepare to write, Williams spoke at length with Zahab and attended orchestra concerts. “I had an impression of what I thought would be a way of exploiting their strengths,” she said. “The ideas came.”

She received the commission about a year ago and began writing in August, completing the piece in November.

“The more instruments, the more time it takes,” noted Williams, who mainly writes chamber music, but writes an orchestra work every two or three years. Williams also recently has written works for flute and piano and for violin and piano.

Among the challenges of composing a work for orchestra is that she can’t try things out, but must imagine how the music will sound, Williams said. “There’s no orchestra in the composing studio.”

Another challenge was in writing for a non-professional orchestra that rehearses only once a week.

“It’s an interesting challenge for a composer to write for an amateur group,” she said, adding that when writing for professionals it’s expected the musicians can play anything a composer can write.

With those who don’t make music their living, she had to ponder how to write something sufficiently challenging given the short amount of rehearsal time. “It’s still not an easy piece,” Williams said. “They won’t be over-rehearsed.”

Following a read-through of the music earlier this month, the orchestra had its initial rehearsal of “Pulse Stream” Feb. 14.

“It’s scary and exciting at the same time,” Williams said. “When you’re performing, you’re in charge. When you’re writing for a group, there’s no control. It’s terrifying and exhilarating.”

Four percussionists and a piano anchor the rhythmic 8-minute piece. While they hold the pulse — sometimes obscured, sometimes in the forefront — other instruments respond.

As conductor, Zahab directs the rehearsals, but Williams is attending practices to help hear the orchestra’s balance from the audience perspective.

And even though she’s hearing the piece being practiced for the first time, Williams said she will resist changing the piece until after the first performance. “For me, a piece is never done,” she said, adding that it would be easy to tweak and tweak forever but a steady flow of other work makes it necessary to move on.

She said she plans to attend the concert, but won’t immediately listen to the recording. She’ll wait for some time to pass first. And while she may adjust the piece, she will resist the temptation to keep tinkering. “You have to say it’s done,” she said.

Like Williams, Zahab wrote his composition with the strengths of Pitt’s orchestra in mind. His piece was written for trumpet soloist Andrew Levin, a Pitt senior majoring in neuroscience. “He makes a beautiful sound on the trumpet,” Zahab said.

Zahab writes several commissions per year — among them even a solo for steel drum.

When Cassaro approached him with the commission, Zahab delayed starting the work until he knew what the other pieces on the program were. “Each piece is different from one another,” he said, adding that he intentionally wrote the 10-minute “ardent life” to emphasize the trumpet’s lyrical qualities.

He began writing in August and finished on New Year’s Eve. A trumpet and piano version was completed first, and the orchestration was finished on Feb. 4, he said. The final parts were completed just under the wire — on Feb. 13, barely in time for the orchestra’s first rehearsal the following day.

He said the piece, which was designed to be both easy and good-sounding, was well received by the players at rehearsal. In addition to the trumpet at the forefront, each section of the orchestra is included. “They all have something to do,” Zahab said. “I gave each section an interesting part.”

Zahab, who describes himself not only as the orchestra’s conductor but also its provocateur, commends the players, who number between 50 and 60, for their dedication. The conglomeration of undergraduates and grad students, with a sprinkling of staff and community members mixed in, put in long days. Many are science or engineering majors, others juggle jobs, tutoring or teaching duties, yet they find time at the end of the day for rehearsal.

He says his job in part is to revive and revitalize them.

“We all go out and try to do our best,” he said, adding that because the group isn’t comprised of music majors, they occasionally miss a note here and there. “But they make up for it with their energy and interest in the whole piece,” Zahab said.

Part of his pleasure is wrapped up in exactly that. While professional musicians may play familiar pieces as if they’re punching a time clock, his orchestra members come to life with the excitement of the music.

“I’m always conscious of the fact I’m introducing them for the first time to great classics,” he said.

While some pieces considered to be standard to professional musicians may be new to some of his players, the March 1 concert stands out in that it’s an entire program of unfamiliar, unusual and new works.

That makes for even higher stakes and heightens what Zahab calls “the danger and uniqueness of a live performance.”

Like Williams, Zahab said he prefers to write for performers he knows so he can take into account their personalities.

“When you write a piece, it’s not just a recipe,” he said. “It’s a collection of possibilities,” able to be interpreted in a variety of ways by various performers, he said. If the ideas contained in the score are good ones, talented musicians should interpret the work in their own ways. “It’s like writing a script for gifted actors,” Zahab said: He expects he’ll find surprises in the way his works are played.

“It’s something I can’t foresee. I’m always discovering new things,” he said.

The free concert begins at 7 p.m. March 1. For more information, call 412/624-4125 or go to online.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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