Here at the USM School of Music we share a lot about performances – for instance, our spring season is getting underway this week with “Favorite Works, A La Carte,” a Spotlight Concert from our own Brian Diehl on trombone. And we enjoy highlighting our student talent throughout the semester as our student ensembles take the stage. But a recent surge in interest in writing music has shifted our attention to the composers among us. The School of Music just held its first-ever Composition Competition, with three winning student compositions to be performed at the upcoming Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra concert on Feb. 11.
The orchestra will perform “Unbearable,” by Aaron Pettengill, a junior violin performance major from Saco and Lewiston; “Symphony of Stars,” by Timothy Burns of Buxton, who recently achieved his undergraduate degree in Music Education and is now starting graduate studies in composition; and “Opening Id” by Nicholas Merriam, a third-year music student from Bucksport.
“This competition came about because of the tremendous growth of composers in our midst,” says SMSO conductor and School of Music faculty member Robert Lehmann. “Thanks to Drs. Dan Sonenberg and Nancy Gunn’s efforts, the School of Music has been a hot-bed for up-coming composers, so much so that the Composer’s Ensemble is bursting at the seams. It’s an honor for SMSO to give the world-premieres of these winning works.”
The student composers have written three vastly different pieces:
- Tim Burns has written a 4-movement piece for orchestra that shows his knowledge of the 20th-century orchestral literature, featuring outer movements that are defined by Bartok-infused dissonant counterpoint, and inner movements alive with the humor and color of Prokofiev.
- Aaron Pettengill has written a work for string orchestra, a relative of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in both its extended tonality and its lyrical, sustained build to a gripping climax.
- Nicholas Merriam’s work is characterized by complex polyrhythms in its opening, and lush, jazz-infused harmonies as it continues.
School of Music faculty member Daniel Sonenberg, who directs the USM Composers Ensemble, finds each skillfully conceived and accessible. “The competition and performance has given these composers an opportunity to have an orchestral composition rehearsed several times and performed – a rarity in this day and age for composers at any level,” he says. “The three pieces were selected from a pool of very strong entries, demonstrating that student composition at the University of Southern Maine is as strong as it has ever been. All three of these composers have experience playing in USM’s major ensembles, in some cases extensive experience, and this is demonstrated by music that is idiomatically conceived for its instruments, and cognizant of the relevant orchestral literature.”
The students may have extensive experience in the ensembles, and some have had original works performed in the past, but they are still experiencing a nervous excitement as the concert approaches.
“I really like writing my own music because it allows for more personal expression but I find that performing my own music is far more nerve-wracking than performing someone else’s music,” says Pettengill. His creation process relies on a strong start. “For me, a piece starts to come together once I have a good beginning. Once I had an idea in my head for that, the rest just fell into place.”“I write music because it’s in me to write,” says Burns. “Just as any author or poet doesn’t write to replace the works of others, I simply have ideas that I want to share with the world. I’m honored to have my piece played side by side to one of the greatest composers ever – Jean Sibelius.”The SMSO will perform the winning compositions as well as the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. at Gorham Middle School, 106 Weeks Road, Gorham. Tickets cost $6 general public; $3 students, seniors, USM employees and alumni, and will be sold at the door. Snow date is Feb. 15.