Schankman’s St. Louis: Mizzou Students Compose Music for the St. Louis Symphony

    The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) is teaming up with the Mizzou New Music Initiative in a unique joint venture, giving students the chance to have their compositions played for the first time by a professional orchestra.

    Three students were chosen recently to have their music played by members of the St. Louis Symphony, under the baton of SLSO Resident Conductor Gemma New.  She picked the three finalists from a pool of six entries selected for submission by the University.

    “I thought they were really beautiful,” New said. “The composers were focused on getting a lyrical lush texture for a lot of their music and there were deep emotions behind the compositions.”

    This is the second year for the competition, which began after a discussion in 2015 between Stefan Freund, the Artistic Director of the Mizzou New Music Initiative and then-SLSO Music Director David Robertson.

    “It is truly an amazing experience,” Freund said. “We have some composers who are from St. Louis who grew up coming to Powell Hall and hearing this amazing orchestra and now they have the opportunity to sit in this amazing space and hear their music being performed. It is really electrifying.”

    The pieces run six to ten minutes, and are written for a 40-piece chamber orchestra.

    “For me, it is like seeing your kid for the first time when you are giving birth,” said Libby Roberts, one of the three composers whose work was selected for a reading by the orchestra.  “This is what I have been waiting for and I don’t even know how to emotionally cope with what is about to happen.”

    The program is done in two parts:  The first, on October 31, was a reading by the orchestra at Powell Hall for the composers to hear their work played.  Following the performances, the students met with the Resident Conductor for a critique session.  The second part is a public performance by the symphony in the spring, after the composers have had a chance to rework their music.

    “Giving feedback is offering some very realistic notes, so I try to be quite practical,” New said. “Before I came to rehearsal, I put in a light blue marker over all the scores notes I’d like to share with the composers.”

    “It’s not always telling them or critiquing them, it’s asking them questions saying, ‘did you want this here,’ or ‘was this your intention?’ These are questions we’d love to ask Beethoven,” said New.

    “They said exactly what they needed to say, they were honest about things,” said Roberts.

    Each of the compositions also has a story behind it.

    For Roberts, her piece, “The Lament of Orpheus,” is based on a Greek Myth.

    Composer Mikkel Christensen wrote, “For a Thousand Days,” which he based on a hard rock song called “976-EVIL.”

    And Ben Colagiovanni, the only undergraduate among the final three, and the only one of them from St. Louis, based his composition, “Slow Burn,” on a real-life experience.

    “I missed a year of school because of an intestinal parasite and I had a lot of grief associated with that,” Colagiovanni said. “I just wanted to write a piece about dealing with that sadness and for me it was a very slow process and just when I thought I had gotten over everything, I realized I was never going to get over it so, the piece is kind of inspired by those feelings,” he said.

    The New Music Initiative is funded by the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, led by Dr. Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield, which also made the lead gift for Mizzou’s new School of Music building now under construction.

    “We want to find and grow composers here in the State of Missouri,” Freund said. “We also want to create new opportunities for the performance of new music because to have a vibrant new music community you need composers, you need performers and you also need an audience,” he said.

    “I always love it because you get to explore a new voice. Every composer has a unique way of writing and conceptualizing music so it is really fun, it is a good adventure,” said New.

    “It is always a leap of faith whenever you challenge a student with an opportunity like this,” Freund said. We are very fortunate at the University of Missouri to have students like this that rise to the challenge time and time again.”

    The public performance of the three compositions will be held April 3, at Powell Hall.