MU student composers collaborate with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

This marks the second year of the collaboration.
Graduate student Mikkel Christensen is one of the three MU students composing pieces for the St. Louis Symphony.

Three MU student composers will have their works performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra this year.

The opportunity arose as a joint project between the Mizzou New Music Initiative and the St. Louis Symphony. Student composers Mikkel Christensen, Ben Colagiovanni and Libby Roberts were selected by the SLSO Resident Conductor Gemma New, and were tasked with writing new works for the SLSO’s 40-person chamber orchestra.

“Being from St.Louis, it's cool to be able to say that your hometown Symphony, that also happens to be one of the best Symphonies in the U.S. is going to play a piece of yours,” Colagiovanni said. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I’ll wake up and think ‘oh my job for school today is to write a piece for the St. Louis Symphony.’”

The works will initially be played in a private session on Wednesday, Oct. 31 where they will receive critiques. The students will then have the opportunity to revise their pieces, and present them publicly at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 3 at Powell Hall.

This is the second year the initiative and the Symphony have collaborated.

“[The pilot] was so successful and unique because I have never seen this type of opportunity where students really have time to go back and revise based on the experience they had and then have a second chance,” said Carolina Heredia, who has a doctorate in music composition. She is also an assistant professor of composition at MU and private instructor to the student composers.

Roberts said that composers at the university were asked to submit sample scores to the composition faculty, which selected several to send to Gemma New. She then selected three and those composers were asked to write for the symphony.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I was one of the three chosen,” Christensen said. “I think between myself and the others we are going to all have three very different pieces just like last year.”

Once the pieces are played in October, the student composers have four months until their public performance. During this time, they are expected to revise their pieces, but also take a step back.

“Ideally they should stay away from the piece for a little while and let it marinate,” Heredia said. “You have to forget about it and come back later with a fresh mind. It comes to the point where they can't look at that piece anymore and they start hating it.”

Heredia recommends the students take on another project in between their two performances, in order to come back to the piece with a fresh perspective.

While this iteration of the collaboration is only in its second year, the concept dates back to several decades earlier in MU history. In 2009, the New Music Initiative was established, and the initiative began working to revive the program.

“From what I understand, this project was actually around as far back as the ‘70s,” Colagiovanni said. “There's several people I’ve talked to who are alumni from the composition department here who said that the St. Louis Symphony would just come here and read student pieces.”

Composing for the orchestra presented the students with new challenges and opportunities. Because there are so many different instruments in the orchestra, the students had to compose for a greater variety than they had previously.

“My piece is a little different in that I wrote it originally in 2014 for piano...” Roberts said. “So, I’m just orchestrating. There is some material that is not original to the piano work, just because it’s a bigger ensemble, a different sound and a lot more that you can do. It’s more of an extended version of the other piece.”

Additionally, having the opportunity to write a piece that will be performed in a public concert allows for the students’ music to reach further than it normally would. “One of the most beautiful things about being a musician, especially an introverted type, is that it's hard for someone like me to vocalize how I feel, especially in such a crazy world where there's not a lot of time where you can sit and speak and be listened to,” Roberts continued. “Being able to share something powerful with other people and actually have it affect them and have them dwell on that for a moment is really special.”

The inspiration for the composers respective pieces is varied. Colagiovanni, whose background is in jazz, relied on personal experiences to flesh out the meaning behind his piece.

“My piece is called Slow Burn--that's kind of a colloquialism but I'm using it to describe grief,” Colagiovanni said.

He said his composition was inspired by his experience missing a year of school a few years ago to deal with an intestinal parasite.

Colagiovanni began working on the piece at a festival in Waterville, Maine called the Maine International Film Festival, and realized despite two years of working through grief, a part of it would stay with him forever.

“We have to decide what we're going to do with it and how we negotiate with it,” Colagiovanni said. “The piece is representative of that process; it starts slowly with this realization of a moment of grief then builds to the climax of dealing with it on the surface. The ending of the piece mirrors the beginning because I’m trying to say musically that this little piece of ash at the end was once a fire and those embers remain in your consciousness even if you sweep the floor.”

Edited by Morgan Smith | mosmith@themaneater.com

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