Young composers get a chance to hear their works

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North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor.  Photo by Joseph Gresser
North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the chronicle 05-08-13

by Joseph Gresser

DERBY LINE — At noon on a fine spring Wednesday, a stream of youngsters from elementary to high school age poured into the doors of the Haskell Opera House.  In front of the entrance to the Haskell Free Library a man sat gazing intently at sheets of paper in his lap as he conducted an invisible orchestra.

That man, Eric Nielsen, is a distinguished Vermont composer and one of many who work behind the scenes as part of Music-Comp.  That organization, once known as the Vermont Midi Project, encourages students in their efforts to compose music by having professionals mentor them through the Internet.

On May 1, preparations were nearing completion for the twenty-sixth in a series of concerts which allow student composers to hear their works performed by professional musicians.

Among the 26 composers whose pieces were to be featured on the evening’s bill were three from North Country Union High School — Adele Woodmansee, Erin Spoerl and Bradley Dopp.  Their teacher, Anne Hamilton, has been involved with Music-Comp since it began in 1995, and has heard many of her students’ compositions played over that time.

She guided her students through the rehearsal process, sitting with Adele Woodmansee on the stage of the Haskell as four players from the Burlington Ensemble ran through her String Quartet in D Minor.

First violinist Michael Dabrowski asked Ms. Hamilton, “Is our goal to learn the piece?”

“The goal is to have a conversation with the composer,” Ms. Hamilton replied.

Her response reflected an attitude of respect that permeates the program.

The musicians immediately got it, and began asking Ms. Woodmansee technical questions about how she thought the piece should be performed.

Ms. Woodmansee, herself an accomplished violinist, answered easily in a manner that revealed that she had given the questions a great deal of thought during the compositional process.

That she did so is in part due to the work of Mr. Nielsen and his fellow composer mentors, who look over compositions e-mailed to them by the young composers and make suggestions for ways the pieces might be developed.

The exchanges often grow lengthy as compositions change and new possibilities open up.

One astounding aspect of the concerts is that young composers are afforded instrumental possibilities that a professional would envy.  For the Opus 26 performance, composers had a string quartet plus a contra bass at their beck and call, as well as the forces of the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, a wind consort that includes flute, oboe or English horn, bassoon and clarinet.

Mr. Dopp’s composition Frosk, a Norwegian word meaning frog, he explained, brought together bass clarinet, contra bass and bassoon.

He, the musicians, Ms. Hamilton and some classmates squeezed themselves into a tiny dressing room for his rehearsal.

Bassist Evan Premo mentioned in an offhand way that Mr. Dopp had marked the tempo for his piece in a way that was difficult for the musicians to understand.  He took a moment to explain the math needed to figure how fast Mr. Dopp wished the piece to be performed, and made a suggestion about how to handle the matter in the future.

Clarinet player Steve Klimowski asked Mr. Dopp how he wanted a very quiet entrance performed.

The trio performed Mr. Dopp’s piece once and Mr. Klimowski made a major error, finishing long after the other two musicians.  A second attempt corrected that mistake.

Afterward, Mr. Klimowski explained to a curious onlooker that, although musicians receive the pieces well in advance of the concert, it is hard to know how an ensemble will sound without playing together.  He said there is time to work through any technical challenges an individual player might face, but only about ten minutes to play each work together.

The musicians worked through the afternoon until all trooped off to the Universalist Church for dinner.

As part of its Opus 25 concert, Music-Comp produced an e-book reviewing the organization’s history.  Executive Director Sandi MacLeod said the book will be available on the organization’s website in the middle of May.

Ms. MacLeod said the book was part of a fund-raising effort.  Grants that were available in the program’s early days are drying up, she said, and the organization is seeking new revenues.

One way they are going about it is by expanding Music-Comp’s horizons.  Ms. MacLeod said the organization changed its name in part because midi is old technology and in part because it is now a national organization working with students in many other states, including New York, Indiana and California.

Among those testifying to the effect the organization has had on them are a number of students from Orleans County, many of whom are now pursuing music as a career in one way or another.

Twins Matt and Adam Podd graduated from North Country and are living in New York City working as freelance pianists, arrangers and composers.  Matt Podd still maintains his connection with Music-Comp and works as a composer mentor.

Sam Schiavone of Greensboro, whose work was performed in four Opus concerts, is a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Vermont.  Another Greensboro participant, Mavis McNeil studies music at Skidmore College.

When students returned to the auditorium, and the audience filtered in, there was a moment not usually seen in the concert hall as composers, musicians and teachers crowded the stage for a group photo.  The performance began with a work by Susie Francy, a ninth grader from Leland and Gray High School.

Ms. Francy, who was the first from her school to have a work chosen for performance, was accompanied by her parents and her music teacher, Ronald Kelley.  She stood when her piece, called Child, was introduced and again at the conclusion stood for the applause.

Two composers, Ivan Voinov and Ms. Spoerl took turns introducing the pieces and reading statements from the artists. Ms. Francy said her composition, written for flute, oboe, cello, bassoon and clarinet, was a depiction of a child’s growth to adolescence.

Ms. Francy received a good round of applause, and the concert continued with pieces by younger composers, all of which belied their years.  It was only when a young composer stood to be recognized and was little taller than when seated, that his or her youth was apparent.

The younger composers took up the first part of the concert.  After an intermission the program was to continue with works by older students.

Instead, Ms. MacLeod stood and announced that the musicians were not satisfied with the performance they had given of Ms. Francy’s piece.

The five players returned to their places and performed the work again as a gesture of simple respect.

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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