Freezing-in-Residence: Composer Rob Paterson Spends a January Week in Vermont

My recent residency week was a roller coaster ride of mostly wonderful, amazing and fun experiences. I arrived on Sunday afternoon, and experienced one of the coldest days (in some places it was 28 degrees below zero!) in Vermont in recent memory. Everyone warned me: “Bundle up!” “Bring your fleeces!” “It’s going to be very cold!” (You know it’s serious when a Vermonter says that.) I grew up in Buffalo, and even lived in Burlington back in the 90s, so I thought I knew cold, but nothing prepared me for that day. It was absolutely freezing! Luckily it quickly warmed up to “normal” Vermont cold (read: shorts weather for Vermonters).

On Sunday, I heard the orchestra rehearse my Suite for String Orchestra. After a rough start, it sounded pretty good at the performance at Harwood Union High School (still a few rough edges, but not bad), and significantly better at the VYO Winter Concert at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts that Sunday.

The week was a whirlwind of activity. I was interviewed by Ellen Gurwitz for the online Stone Soup Radio show, as well as by Cheryl Wiloughby for Vermont Public Radio. Both interviews were great ways to reach larger Vermont audiences than I can at concerts or by visiting specific populations.

I also visited Winooski High School and Harwood Union High School. At Harwood Union High School, I met with two different classes. The jazz instructor was in the audience and he was so into my music and what I addressed in the first class that he invited his entire big band for the second class, so I spoke to a huge room full of students. They all asked great questions, and seemed excited by my telling them what it’s like to make a living doing something you love. We also talked about technology, and how distracting Facebook and email can be.

At Winooski High School, I met with a few different classes taught by Cathy Mander-Adam. Her beginning piano class consisted entirely of ELL (English Language Learning) students who are part of Vermont’s Refugee Resettlement Program. These students are from all over the world, from countries as diverse as Thailand, India and Africa. Watching them connect – and facilitating this connection – through creating a short piano composition was a fabulous experience.

Between classes, Cathy told me a heartbreaking story. Before arriving in the U.S., some of these students had never heard music before as it had largely been banned in their particular villages and towns. Many of these students are experiencing music for the first time, right here in Vermont. I think many of us live privileged lives without even realizing it. We think of music as a normal part of our everyday existence, but there are places in the world where people are simply not so lucky. I hope the Vermont music community realizes what an important role it plays in offering students the experience of music. Music is something we should never take for granted.

At the University of Vermont, I gave a lecture entitled “How to Make It As a Musician: Twelve Secrets to Success I Never Learned in College” for the UVM music department. Also at UVM, I was interviewed by Daniel Lynch on UVMtv, UVM’s student-run television station. I also attended many meetings with VYOA and other collaborating organizations.

A highlight of my week was making dinner for Katherine Kjelleren and her family. At the VYOA online auction in November they bid on and won my offer of preparing a vegan dinner in their home. I commend them for trusting that I would make them something that actually tastes good!  I love to cook and have been vegan for almost twenty years, and I am actually working on a recipe book so I am well-prepared for a fun job like this. The menu consisted of a Thai Red Curry dish, Chinese Tofu and Black Bean sauce and stir-fried bok choy. We spent a few hours talking while I cooked so I got acquainted with her sons Kameron (a VYO tuba player) and Thomas, who plays trumpet. My primary interaction with individual VYO musicians has been from afar, while they are on stage rehearsing, so it is especially nice to have a chance to engage one-on-one. I hope I’ll have more chances to interact with the orchestral musicians in a more personal way next summer at Reveille! I also hope they may feel freer to approach me as I continue to residency work next season.

The Flynn concert was a bittersweet experience. Post-concert, I attended a going away reception for Ronald Braunstein and Caroline Whiddon. I’ve known Caroline for twenty-three years and she is a good friend of mine. In addition, I enjoyed the time I spent working with Maestro Braunstein. Looking forward, I’m eager to work with Jeffrey Domoto, the music director designate and with Randy Rowland, the interim executive director.

Finally, I’m especially excited about working with Jeffrey Buettner and the VYO Chorus this April when they premiere my new choral work. Entitled Did You Hear?, I wrote it specifically for this choir, with their input, and it contains theatrical elements and includes allusions to Twitter via Tweeting sopranos – among other things! I’ll be working with the Chorus during April 4 – 9 as they put the finishing touches on their presentation of the piece. I look forward to seeing you there!

Rob Paterson, Music Alive Composer-in-Residence
Robert Paterson is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the VYOA. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras & Meet the Composer.

The Paterson Effect: Reveille!, Gossip and Crisp Whites

It has been a great week at the Reveille! Music Festival! Although, I miss the intimacy of Reveille! taking place at the Elley-Long Music Center at Saint Michael’s College, the main campus is very beautiful, and the weather has been gorgeous so I have no complaints about camp being moved this year.

One of the biggest highlights of the week for me was meeting with Jeffrey Buettner and members of the VYO Chorus. I will be writing a piece for the Chorus (a cappella or with piano accompaniment) for their annual spring concert in 2011. This piece will serve as a “warm-up” of sorts for a twenty-minute composition I will be writing for the VYO and the VYO Chorus. This larger piece will be premiered by the two groups at the end of my third year in residence with the VYOA in 2012.

Jeff had an idea for a piece with the theme of “gossip.” I told him that I would rather see what the chorus members thought first. If they were really interested in this topic, I would pursue it. At first, the choir members were a little reserved, but once they figured out that Jeff and I really wanted their input, they opened up. We devised a whole scenario and even discussed form and a story line, and whether it should be uplifting or dark. They want a piece that is more humorous than not, and since I am known for my humorous work—and there is so little of it in the world of choral music—I agreed. The next step is to find someone to write the text. I have a few excellent poet and writer friends in NYC who might be interested in helping with this project. Once Jeff reviews it to make sure I am on the right track I will compose the music. The whole project will be a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see what the students will think of it.

Another highlight for me was meeting new VYOA Music Director and Conductor Ronald Braunstein.  He seems to enjoy wearing white! I am astonished that he is able to keep his white clothes so immaculately clean, especially in a cafeteria full of people running around with ice cream cones, fries with ketchup, and bowls of pasta and red sauce. Not once have I seen a stain – that alone is impressive. He is definitely unlike any other conductor I have ever met—and the students seem to really like him. I can’t wait to watch him conduct.

The faculty recital was one of the more interesting concerts I have been to in quite a while. It was an eclectic mix of pieces that included everything from a movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet with the addition of pianist Annemieke Spoelstra, to an avant-garde piece for bassoon and playback recording played by Rebekah Heller. This sounded like a didgeridoo played Punk Rock style infused with amplifier feedback. There were two violin duets that I didn’t get to hear because I was backstage, but they were a big hit; I hope I’ll have a chance to hear them later. There were also interesting pieces for winds, brass, and percussion, a great bass clarinet and tape piece by Beth Wiemann (an accomplished composer and Reveille! clarinet teacher), and a rocking timpani solo played by Jeremy Levine. Art DeQuasie, VYOA Director of Operations, was the rock star of the evening. The hooting reception he received when he walked on stage to perform a lovely piano solo from memory served as a great measure of student love for him.

Although I am not one of the performance faculty members, Anne Decker graciously allowed me to perform a piece I wrote eleven years ago entitled Duo for Flute and Marimba for flute, alto flute, and marimba (played with four, five and six mallets). I performed this with Deborah Boldin, the wonderful faculty flute player at Reveille! It was fun playing this piece, especially since I’d written this originally for another marimba player, so I had not yet played it myself. My favorite moment occurred after the concert when the percussionists had the chance to play my five-octave DeMorrow marimba, which I’d brought with me from New York.  Penual Leavens seemed particularly excited about it. I told the percussion students that they could all play it if they found a chance to get away from camp activities for a moment or two.

Finally, Caroline Whiddon gathered together a few faculty members for an informal chat with students on the grass outside the dorms. There, we each discussed our individual starts in the music business and the progression of our careers thus far. A good conversation!

In my next posting, I’ll talk a bit more about my general observations on the final concerts and the VYO performance, conducted by Maestro Braunstein.

Robert Paterson is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the VYOA. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer.

When Tears = Wipeout. The Final VYO Concert of 2010.

My first two years as a VYOA member were spent in Chamber Winds on Saturday mornings, followed by a year in Philharmonia. The best two years of my life so far were spent as a member of the VYO.

Last year, I would listen to Kelly Herrmann (VYO flute, 2009) as she played. I was able to take a lot away from her vibrato and tone, which helped me to become a better musician. She really taught me how to lead a section. After she left, I thought, “It will only be a year until I have to leave,” although then, I never thought that the time would ever come when I would actually leave.

To be perfectly honest, it hasn’t quite sunken in yet. We played our final concert yesterday.  I emerged without a single tear. Prior to the concert, Lauren Muckstadt described a potential chain reaction that could have happened if one person started crying…that would be Maggie Connors. If Maggie started crying, Lauren Donnelly and I would have too, and if we started crying, Konrad Herath and Lauren Muckstadt would have, and then Sarah Winokur, Evelyn Reed and Allie Homziak. Within thirty seconds, the entire wind section of the orchestra would be wiped out. It would only take another thiry seconds until the strings were wiped out, too. Fortunately for the sake of the mental health of everyone in the orchestra, Maggie held it together! This shows the type of bond we have created with each other as members of the Vermont Youth Orchestra. Thanks to this Association and my friends here, I have created beautiful music with the best people in the world. There is nothing like it.

I will miss everything I did with the orchestra and everyone I met. Dearly. All of my experiences with the VYOA have built the person I am and I know that I’m ready to move on, however bittersweet it may feel when this reality finally hits me. Like the other seniors, I am about to take a huge step (college) and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the foundation of friendships and amazing memories that I’ve collected as a result of my experience with the VYOA.

Huge thanks again to Mr. Massey and to everyone who works behind the scenes of this organization. What a great five years.

Emily Wiggett, VYO flute, 2010

Photos:

Top: Emily Wiggett – photo by Stina Booth

Middle: VYO Performing at the Flynn Center 5/16/2010 – photo by                       L. Charlesworth

Being Andrew Massey

Riding home from Sunday’s rehearsal with Owen Tatum, we were chatting about it all – the rehearsal, Mr. Massey, and the upcoming concert – our last as VYO members. The conversation began with our memory of the Montgomery Center holiday performance in which Mr. Massey invited a handful of VYO students to participate. Mr. Massey’s wife had graciously brought us water just before the show started. But, we could not figure out how to open these impossible bottles no matter how much we fumbled with the caps! We were tugging, tearing and twisting the caps when Mr. Massey appeared and imparted on us these gentle words of wisdom: “Just imagine a cow and the little teats on her udder, and the bottle will be open in no time at all!” Yes, this was unexpected, yet this story illustrates my point exactly.

If not for Mr. Massey’s oddly hilarious puzzles and commentary, I could never have thought of the violin parts during the Dvorak as moments of virtuostic screaming in the grocery store, or of the harp part in Brigg Fair as a dream involving our most guilty food pleasures. Aside from making us hungry, these vivid scenarios helped us to convert written music into a mental images to further our understanding of the compositions we were exploring. Through this kind of commentary, we became more aware of what the composer actually intended the audience to hear. Also, our ears have learned to listen for subtle nuances and to make adjustments according to this information. It is this working style that is so entirely unexpected in Mr. Massey – so much so that he has become somewhat of a treasure to us all this past season.

Mr. Massey has clear tasks and works relentlessly to achieve them, but in the lightest, most efficient, and decidedly humorous manner. He seemed to know what mistakes we were about to make before they happened –  last fall, during our performance of the Overture to Romeo and Juliet, our rhythm suddenly collapsed, but within one measure and a precise wave of his baton, the problem was righted. Mr. Massey is prepared for anything and everything. (A relief to those of us who sometimes aren’t!)

As for those water bottles referenced in the beginning of my post, we got them open. I remember the look on Owen’s face when Mr. Massey told him to think of a cow’s teats. At first his eyes got really big and then he smiled a huge grin. This comparison was actually puzzling to me, but that’s probably because I grew up on a dairy farm and that more than likely I have a different mental image of  cow teats than the others. This is kind of cool because it demonstrates how different people interpret the same message. Mr. Massey gave us the ideas and left us the liberty to run with them in any direction we pleased…which is exactly how he has conducted our weekly rehearsals. Every week, his instructions have been translated stylistically and expressively –  our reading of the music in this way is what has made the Vermont Youth Orchestra so unique this year.

Mr. Massey has connected with each of us in some way or another during this past season. And, he leaves us with fond musical memories. I will never forget making music with him. He gives us energy and a purpose to play. He has encouraged all of us to push our limits and become better musicians. For me, he inspired my decision to major in music when I go to college next fall. Mostly, though, I thank him for every one of his philosophical comparisons, and for a great final year with the Vermont Youth Orchestra!

Emily Wiggett, flute

Photos:

Top: Andrew Massey conducts the VYO in a live “From The Top” taping at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, February 2010 – photo by John Servies

Middle: Taking bows with the VYO and soloist Tim Woos at Winter Concert, January 2010 – photo by L. Charlesworth

Air – Thirteen Bars Worth

There are only two weeks left until the VYO spring concert!

When we first opened up our folders to learn the spring program, we couldn’t wait to get started on Capriccio Espagnol. As soon as Mr. Massey had us play Rimsky-Korsakov, the wind and brass section perked up and the strings played more energetically than ever. This may not be serious and thick like anything Wagner wrote, but it sure is fun.  Alison Gagne’s clarinet solos soar over the bouncing cellos while the violins sing a sweet countermelody. Music like this is so refreshing for all of us, as we are swamped with school and life stresses and are desperate to simply play music. However, this piece merely holds a perceived lightness. It sounds light and happy, but each section struggles with difficulties that may not appear within the printed score. It’s upsetting not to play it perfectly! And so, we work.

Within the various movements, a variety of elements must happen. In the Alborada, dynamic contrast is crucial, especially in the solo sections. The Variazioni features English Horn, which Jon Lee plays stunningly. When I hear Jon’s solos, I think of a warm family moment. The flute has a solo as well. When I play it, I think of how much air I wish my lungs would hold. (Thankfully, thirteen long and painful bars of chromatic scales have become much simpler, thanks to Julianna Matthews and our trade-off technique.) In the movements that follow, there are numerous violin solos which are executed with light alertness. Capriccio Espagnol ends with a meaty A major chord which I know the audience will love.

The two Wagner pieces and the Delius are quite different that the Capriccio. The beauty of Prelude and Love Death could not possibly be described with words (at least not with mine), but each of us seems to have an individual emotional reaction to playing it. During sectionals a couple of weeks ago, Tim Woos stated that Wagner is the best composer that ever lived. I was unsure that I agreed at the time, but the more I play this piece the more I start to feel the same way as Tim does. Brigg Fair has also grown on me. This piece is right down Mr. Massey’s alley, especially since he shares cultural similarities with the composer – I find this inspiring! Evelyn Reed and Bronwen Hudson begin this piece with pastoral dreaminess and as the orchestration begins to build, Owen Tatum plays the main theme with perfect tone. We have spent hours, since February, assembling this piece. It poses an interesting challenge in that it contains so many musical changes, both huge and subtle; we need to stay keenly aware absolutely all of the time. And, since February, we’ve come a long way with it.

I am so proud of the members of the Vermont Youth Orchestra. We have all improved exponentially as soloists and as ensemble players. The personal preparation that we take on in preparing for our performances is immensely impressive, and it makes rehearsals that much more rewarding. This feeling of
satisfaction has made my senior year enjoyable, which is something that many of my school friends are unable to say. We still have room for much improvement, but I know that we will not disappoint. The orchestra sounds great—I cannot wait to perform. May 16, here we come!

Emily Wiggett, flute

Emily is a senior at Lakes Region Union High School in Barton, VT. She is currently the principal flutist for the VYO. Next fall, Emily will attend the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, NY, where she will pursue a double major in flute performance and music education.  (Photo: Stina Booth)

The Paterson Effect – No Powdered Wigs Allowed

Rob speaking at VYO January concert

It is difficult to put in words how much fun I’ve had during my amazing first year as the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with VYOA! I am thrilled that the Vermont Youth Orchestra gave such a wonderful performance of my orchestral work Enlightened City on January 24th at the Flynn Center, but the best part of my residency—by far—has been meeting and working with such enthusiastic, talented and interesting musicians, including the staff—and luckily, I have two more years of coming to the Elley-Long Music Center to work with the VYOA! How awesome is that? This is what I live for.

A major part of my residency consists of outreach, whether visiting schools such as the Edmunds Middle School or organizations like the Colchester Rotary Club, or working with young composers through the Vermont MIDI Project. One interesting comment I received came from someone at the Rotary Club, who said, “Well, I have to admit, before hearing you speak, I thought to myself, oh great—a composer. This will be so boring. But you were really interesting! Nothing like what I thought you would be.”

Josh Morris, Nick Bonaccio, Rob Paterson, Tim Woos

This made me wonder: what did he think I would be like? That I would have a powdered, white wig, like in typical paintings of Mozart? Maybe he thought I would talk about “combinatorial hexachords”? I guess I can’t blame him. The thought of writing notes on a page seems so cerebral, doesn’t it? And I always joke that I should set up a composer cam, just so people can see how boring the act of composing looks. I think my mentioning that I do what everyone else does—go food shopping, mop the floor, change diapers, and so on—helped reenforce that composers are basically just like everyone else, except that they write music for a living.

This leads me to my main mission as a Composer-in-Residence, which is two-fold: First, talk to people about what it is like being a composer, and answer questions about what I do daily, how I survive, and so on. Second, and perhaps much more importantly—at least to me—is talking up the VYOA, and getting people to come to the concerts. Just like people who attend Little League games or school plays, everyone should attend VYOA concerts! Here is a perfect example of what mean: a few of my in-laws live in Vermont, and of course, I invited them to the concert. I also asked my sister-in-law Juliana and her husband Kevin to invite two friends. Keep in mind that their friends had never been to a VYOA concert, and aren’t musicians, relatives or have any affiliation with VYOA. For them, it was a first-time experience. Guess what? They loved it! They were blown away by how wonderful the performance was and how talented the kids are, and I have a feeling they might start regularly attending the concerts, just for the fun of it. So, what can we learn from this? Half the challenge is getting people in the door. If that happens, it is a LOT easier getting people to attend the second and third time, and make it a regular part of their lives.

This falls directly in line with some of my goals for the coming two years as the VYOA’s resident composer. I want to get to know everyone even more, and find out what they like, and their experiences. (I probably learn more from them than they learn from me!) I did get to know the very talented Nick Bonaccio, but he is a percussionist, and so am I, so that’s not fair! I want to get to know everyone, whether wind or brass players, violists, singers in the choral groups. In turn, I hope they will feel free to ask me anything they want. If nothing else, hopefully their experience of working with me will encourage them to work with other composers in the future.

Tim Woos performing at the Flynn Center in January

Next, I want to make it a goal to make sure all of the VYOA concerts are packed. Really packed! Every seat in the house! The energy at the last Flynn concert in January was amazing—especially the standing ovation for Tim Woos – who played the first movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto – it was very much deserved. The house was actually quite full, but I want it to be a standing room only crowd, with every single seat filled. How cool would that be? I want to help make that happen.

Finally, I want to write the best music possible for these musicians, whether I’m writing for the Vermont Youth Orchestra or the VYO Chorus. I want the students to feel excited about working with a composer. It is fun—and comforting—to play cherished classics by long dead masters, but to me, nothing is more exciting than performing music by living, breathing composers, whether the work was written by me, Erik Nielsen, Joshua Morris (a cellist in the orchestra who also composes) or your next door neighbor. I especially like premieres of new compositions: it takes a lot of courage to play a new work, but it’s not a sure thing, It could be great… or not! To me, that’s super exciting.

To everyone, it’s been a wonderful first year! I can’t wait until the Reveille! Music Festival this summer.

Rob Paterson, VYOA Music Alive Composer-in-Residence

Photos: Lisamarie Charlesworth, Cheryl Wiloughby & Jody Woos

Robert Paterson is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the VYOA. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer.