July 18, 2018

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Final Concert of Composition Institute

By Nancy Plum

No matter how much doubt is shed on the future of orchestral music, it is clear that there will always be composers looking for opportunities to present newly-created musical works. In Princeton, thanks to a collaboration among the Edward T. Cone Foundation, Princeton University, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, four emerging composers have had the chance to explore in depth symphonic composition as part of the Fifth Annual NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute. Conductor David Robertson, Institute director and composer Steven Mackey and members of the New Jersey Symphony mentored four composers in creating significant musical pieces, as well as learning the business aspects of the field. This year’s Institute culminated last Saturday night in a public performance of four new one-movement works at Richardson Auditorium to an audience which has continued to grow over the five years of the Institute. Composers Jonathan Cziner, Brian Shank, Aaron Hendrix, and Natalie Dietterich spent last week in Princeton receiving an invaluable experience and education as a huge stepping stone in already successful careers.

Like his three Institute colleagues, New York City composer Jonathan Cziner has an impressive résumé of new composition premieres. Cziner found inspiration for Resonant Bells in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells,” transferring Poe’s use of bells as a symbol of foreboding to the disquiet of today’s current events. Resonant Bells explored the musical texture of bells while they, as Cziner described, “grow a bit of attitude and a mind of their own” within a dark and powerful orchestral palette. Conductor Robertson led the orchestra with broad and clean strokes, bringing out a variety of orchestral colors. A vibraphone from within the percussion section particularly echoed through the hall, as the NJSO strings added to the atmospheric sense of apprehension. Cziner’s piece exhibited a continual senses of urgency, as the music raised the question of whether or not current events were on an inevitable course.

Brian Shank’s Into the Rose Garden was also based on literature — the poetry of T.S. Elliot and W.B. Yeats. Shank in particular looked to Elliot’s “Four Quartets” and the poet’s concept that every decision made in one’s life still exists and is accessible “inside of the rose garden.” Shank’s piece was in two parts, tied together with elegant English horn melodic lines played by Jeff Reinhardt. Shank’s orchestral writing was ethereal and delicate, with calm passages interrupted by the jarring effects of glockenspiel and percussion.

Houston native Aaron Hendrix drew on the childhood memories of nighttime train sounds for his appropriately named Night Train. This one-movement work conveyed Hendrix’s lifelong fascination with the sounds of trains, recapturing a childhood comfort in a dreamlike atmosphere. Under Robertson’s direction, Night Train rolled along smoothly, appealing well to all who remember the familiarity of night sounds, aided by sweeping passages from a solo harp and the bleat of train whistles from well-played brass.

Hailing from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Natalie Dietterich has a connection to the local community, further strengthened by her enrollment this coming year in Princeton University’s PhD program in composition. A longtime violinist, Dietterich learned orchestral sounds and palettes from within ensembles, and her one-movement Aeolian Dusts made full use of symphonic layers and colors. Dietterich created a peaceful atmosphere with a series of orchestral layers, with calming sonorities and unusual percussion effects. Subtle strikes from the harp were especially effective as the piece rose from and returned to nothing.

These concerts have always included a piece by Institute Director Steven Mackey, in this case the final movement Echoes from Mackey’s 2014 Mnemosyne’s Pool. Mackey’s work was based on the concept of memories, including those “emerging from a chaotic subconscious.” Mackey’s music bubbled over, as a chipper trio of clarinets was complemented by graceful melodies played by oboist Jeff Reinhardt and clarinetist Karl Herman. Robertson conducted the work energetically and smoothly, as Mackey’s work summed up well the future of orchestral music and composition in this country and the important role of this annual summer Institute.