Composing for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

There can be few more valuable experiences for a young composer than hearing your work come to life in the hands of a professional symphony orchestra. I am very honoured to have been selected for a program that provides this very opportunity: the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program. In this post I will describe my personal experience of the program in what was an intense but richly rewarding year-long process.

Once the initial wave of excitement in being selected passed, I began to think in earnest of how I would get the most out of this unique opportunity. My allocated mentor was in many ways an ideal choice: Julian Yu, one of the very finest and most imaginative orchestrators around, with outstanding pedigree as a composer. Before I had made much progress on my piece, I arranged to meet Julian for the first time at his home in north-east Melbourne. A warm and likeable man, he explained the importance of restricting the number of "elements" in the piece to ensure structural and textural clarity. He also encouraged me to think beyond simply dividing the orchestra in the traditional way (winds, brass, percussion, strings) and to consider how other properties of the instruments relate, such as their ability to sustain. Pizzicato strings, certain percussion and harp could be thought of as a 'non-sustaining' class of instruments, while woodwind, brass and bowed strings could be used together as 'sustaining instruments'. This discussion had a considerable influence on my approach to orchestration in the piece.

Composing kaleidoscope (as it eventually became known) was my most difficult task yet as a composer. The instrumentation for the Cybec program is unusual - the heavily reduced string section (2.2.2.2.1) requires careful balancing. Furthermore, there is a certain level of pressure associated with composing a commission for a professional orchestra for the first time, and this lead me to second guess much of what I put on the page. The result was a slower, more drawn out process than usual - one which encouraged me to be precise and considerate of the smallest details. One person who was able to help greatly in this regard is Brenton Broadstock, another established and respected Australian composer with whom I received individual lessons at the University of Melbourne. As a teacher, Brenton is respectful but honest and precise in his suggestions. His familiarity with obscure composers who have influenced me (especially, Peter Racine Fricker and Robert Simpson) was an advantage and meant that he was readily able to access my style and musical intentions. Often, Brenton would pick up faults which I had been only subconsciously aware of, and not yet admitted to myself!

Through all this, kaleidoscope began to take shape. As usual, I composed straight into full score: I haven't yet been able to bring myself to compose passages of orchestral music in short score. For me, the musical material is inseparable from the instrument which plays it - the sounds of the individual instruments are how I imagine music in the first place! And if I am already aware of exactly what instrument will play what, why not skip the short score? Kaleidoscope was written mostly from start to finish, though along the way I would go back and add or remove bars, trying to address any structural imbalances. Getting started is always the hard bit - once the first ten or so bars are done, the music starts to compose itself. As always, I forced myself to build the whole piece out of one or two musical objects to ensure unity and fuel my creativity. 

After a substantial period of score editing and part production (during which the MSO Librarian, Alastair McKean, was very helpful!) and an enjoyable workshop day at the ABC Centre with a small number of MSO musicians, the process was nearly complete. One significant part remained: the rehearsals and performance. All four of us arrived the day before the concert at the ABC Centre and I, at least, didn't really know what to expect. We had a brief meeting with conductor Brett Kelly immediately prior to the rehearsal to discuss a few musical details, and then headed down to the Iwaki Auditorium where the MSO were warming up. This first rehearsal went very quickly - there is so much information to process when hearing your work for the first time and it can be overwhelming. Brett took control of most things and Brenton was available to assist the composers with any details or issues that arose. The second rehearsal was the next morning and there was a little more time to fine tune smaller details. 

But it was the performance that evening which really blew me away. The orchestra lifted beyond my expectations and produced a reading of wonderful intensity and commitment, showing a subtlety of musical shape and phrase which only world class orchestras can produce. The MSO were similarly impressive in their performances of the other works. John Pax's Surface and Separation opened the program: a short and subtle piece, full of extended techniques and employing an inventive orchestral setup, with the instruments sorted into three groups. The second piece was Alex Garsden's Faculties Intact (con tutta forza). This is an extraordinary work which, like Pax's, consists largely of extended techniques but organised into gestures of great clarity and imagination. Its highly satisfying structure contains both moments of great drama and serene repose. The third piece was Alice Humphries' Undertow, a simpler but still very effective work with a sparse, reflective sound world, its ostensibly tranquil foreground frequently shadowed by rich, dark undertones. 

A week later I was delighted by the news that kaleidoscope (alongside Garsden's Faculties Intact) had been selected for a second performance at the MSO's Metropolis Music Festival concert on May 9. I am enormously grateful for this opportunity, and extend my warmest thanks to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Cybec Foundation for supporting such a wonderful and immensely important program for young composers!

More Information

The Cybec Program: 

http://www.mso.com.au/education/young-artists-programmes/cybec-composers-program/

Metropolis Music Festival: 

http://www.mso.com.au/news/2015/03/metropolis-new-music-festival-works-written-for-and-inspired-by-the-moving-image/