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Orchestra performs R.I. premiere of 'Chasing Light...'

Joseph Schwantner - educator, musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer - bestowed some of his creativity and intellect on Brown's campus during his residency last week. The Brown University Orchestra's spectacular performance of Schwantner's newest symphonic work, "Chasing Light...," was the pinnacle of the weekend. The piece, commissioned by 58 orchestras from all 50 states, is the largest consortium-commissioning project in U.S. history.

Brown was one of several smaller contributors that jointly funded the composition, which received significant support from the Ford Motor Company Fund.

Schwantner has served on the faculties of several conservatories in the country, including the Juilliard School and the Eastman School of Music. Though he has officially retired from teaching to devote the rest of his life to composition, Schwantner's natural affinity for learning and teaching is undeniable. He clearly derives satisfaction from spreading music as well as from learning about others' musical experiences, saying, "A wide range of types of musicians are participating in this project. We don't know what happens in the big middle of the country, and in some ways I'm learning about how much activity there is, because of the consortium I'm involved with."

The concert was the Rhode Island premiere of "Chasing Light...," which depicts a morning in the New Hampshire woods. In performance, the piece was flanked by Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor - with soloist Bryan Chu '11 - and Stravinksy's "Firebird Suite." Schwantner's clear, direct style was smartly framed by Tchaikovsky's obsessive thematic developments and Stravinksy's prancing and brooding ballet music.

"With all the colors, smells and textures you experience in the early morning - I wanted to capture that," Schwantner explained in a speech before the orchestra performed "Chasing Light...."

Though there is no pause between each of the work's four movements, they are easily differentiated by variations in tone and pattern. Though Schwantner's music is tonally and rhythmically complex, it is accessible to general audiences because of his emphasis on clarity, direct communication and sharing in the musical process.

Schwantner said promoting music education was not his explicit goal in writing "Chasing Light...." But his avuncular attitude and willingness to discuss process and form make him a natural teacher.

In a lecture in Grant Recital Hall last Thursday, Schwantner enthusiastically drew the music students who attended into a discussion on the composition process.

Praising the flexibility and creativity of percussionists, Schwantner asked, "Are any of you percussionists?"

When one student raised his hand, Schwantner joked, "If you ask them to walk across the floor on their hands, they'll do it for you."

"It's the sense of exploration that excites me about percussionists," he added.

Schwantner showed the same spontaneity and responsiveness in a workshop sponsored by Community MusicWorks, a musical education and outreach center in Providence that was started by Brown graduates. The composer - who based "Chasing Light..." on a poem he had written - described his creative process in a simplified form so that the elementary school children could understand and relate to it.

"He selected a poem one of our students wrote and did a really rough version of what he did with his piece," said Sarah Stalnaker, a resident musician at Community MusicWorks. "He composed a piece with us. The teachers were in the front of the room, and the students were in a horseshoe around him. It was an awesome eight-line poem and we were able to get through six lines with him."

Schwantner told The Herald his early experiences probably led to his gushing enthusiasm for music, especially on the subject of teacher-student exchange. He credits his high school band director - who also arranged music for a Chicago radio orchestra - with inspiring and enabling several students to become professional musicians.

"He set a very high bar in terms of his work as a professional composer," Schwantner explained. "Some musicians in my high school wound up being quite prominent in the Count Basie band."

Schwantner extolled the importance of teachers in turning young talent into mature, experienced musicians.

"People in music invariably start quite young," he said. "Two things happen: Their talent is identified, and their parents see to it that their talent is advanced. How many children do you know who want to be economists?"


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