Lembit Beecher and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
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[Photo: Lembit and Todd Lawrence interviewing Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (left) for Lembit’s new piece about the meaning of home.]
It’s been a wonderful and productive year working as the composer-in-residence of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The SPCO musicians, staff and patrons are an incredibly warm and welcoming group of people and I was fortunate to be able to make 7 trips to the Twin Cities over the course of the last year for concerts, meetings, and a series of interviews that will become the center of a piece that I am writing for SPCO. A focus of my time over the last year has been working with artistic director Kyu-Young Kim, artistic planning manager Paul Finkelstein, and the artistic vision committee, a group of orchestra players who help shape the artistic direction of the orchestra, to develop a new festival called Tapestry19 that SPCO with launch in February 2019. This inaugural iteration of the festival will focus on the theme of home: how people in the 21st century define home and create a sense of home for themselves.
The programing for the festival will be a mix of old and new, but we wanted newly commissioned projects to be a cornerstone of the two weeks of concerts. We identified three composers, Kinan Azmeh, PaviElle French and Maya Johnson, we were particularly interested in working with; these were composers whose work we believed in deeply but also composers whom we thought might be able to respond to the theme in personal and varied ways. I’ve had the privilege to work especially closely with PaviElle, an incredibly multi-faceted artist, and Maya Johnson, a talented 16-year-old composer, conductor and violinist, as they have been working on their projects, since neither has extensive experience in working with an orchestra. I’ve offered some musical feedback, but more than that my goal has been to prepare them for the idiosyncrasies working with an orchestra, making connections between them and members of the orchestra and the staff at SPCO, so that whatever artistic avenues or far-out sounds they choose to explore, there will be a level of comfort between everyone in the room at the first rehearsal.
During the course of this last year I’ve also been laying the groundwork for the large-scale piece that I am writing for SPCO to premiere at the festival. I wanted to write a piece that felt connected to the people of the Twin Cities, not just in a superficial way. I had previously written a number of pieces that used recorded interviews as source material. The challenge of weaving recorded text into the fabric of instrumental music has always felt inspiring to me, but in the past I’ve worked with a single person (my grandmother, for example) or small groups of individuals in the interviewing process. Writing this piece I wanted to involve as many people as possible, to hear from a cross section of people from the Twin Cities what home means to them.
We have been very fortunate to be joined on this project by Todd Lawrence, a Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas, who works extensively on ethnographic projects. Todd helped us develop the interviewing framework for the project, made connections with different community groups, conducted many the interviews and helped us think through different ethical questions that arose. Todd, Paul Finkelstein, and I completed about 50 interviews at various locations including the East Side Freedom Library (my new favorite place in Saint Paul!), the American Swedish Institute and Wellstone International High School. I’ve loved the chance to explore the Twin Cities and see glimpses of these different communities and hear from so many fascinating people.
We asked participants a series of questions about what home means to them but also asked them to read a poem that we had commissioned for this project from the amazing Twin Cities-based poet Chris Santiago, whose poetry often delves into questions of language and identity. One of the movements of the piece will use these recorded readings as its basis, a chorus of 50 people speaking the same words with different inflections, timbres of voice, tempos and expressions.
While working on this project it’s been a joy to hear the SPCO in venues across the Twin Cities, performing music from Italian baroque concertos to the crazy collaborations the Kate Nordstrum dreams up for the Liquid Music series. I had two works, Stories From My Grandmother and Small Infinities performed on the SPCO chamber series in October and it was fascinating to hear the concerts in three completely different venues with different audiences: Icehouse (a bar/performance space), the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis, and a more traditional concert hall: Sundin Hall at Hamline University. In April, the SPCO performed The Conference of the Birds, a substantial (dare I say epic?) piece of mine for 18 solo strings. This performance was live-streamed and is available in SPCO’s impressive listening library.
Lembit Beecher Brings New Music and Memories to the SPCO
The post is recreated from a blog post originally appearing on the SPCO website.
The SPCO is thrilled to introduce our audience to Music Alive Composer-in-Residence Lembit Beecher during chamber music performances this week, on October 19-22. Lembit has been working alongside the orchestra’s Artistic Vision Committee and administrative staff to craft intriguing programs and to push our artistic planning process in new and exciting directions. I recently spoke with Lembit about this week’s concerts and his plans for the residency, which culminates during the 2018.19 season.
Paul Finkelstein: First of all, welcome to the SPCO! In advance of this coming week of Chamber Music Series concerts, which you curated, could you tell me about the concept behind the program?
Lembit Beecher: Thank you! I’m thrilled to be here! The focus of these concerts is the idea of youth and in particular memories of childhood. The composers of these pieces all try to connect in some way across a generational divide. The SPCO will be performing two of my works, a chamber ensemble piece called Stories from My Grandmother, which was inspired by interviews I had done with my grandmother about her youth in Estonia during the Second World War, and a string quartet called Small Infinities, which was inspired by memories of my own childhood.
In addition, they will present a woodwind sextet by Leos Janacek, called Mladi or Youth, a wonderfully playful piece with a darkly sonorous sound (the instrumentation is an unusual combination of woodwind quintet and bass clarinet), a string quartet written by the 23-year-old Franz Schubert, and a really sweet violin and piano sonatina written by Antonin Dvorak late in his life for his grandchildren to play. I played this piece in high school with my violinist brother and fell in love with it. It features a gorgeous slow movement that Dvorak apparently wrote down on his shirt sleeve while visiting Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis in 1893!
PF: Can you give us a preview of what you are most looking forward to accomplishing throughout this residency?
LB: A lot of my work is focused on a curating a series of concerts in the 2018.2019 season that I’m really excited about. There is so much vibrant, meaningful new music being made now—especially works that involve combining different styles of music or different art forms—and I want audiences to experience the joy of hearing a new composer or musical moment that grabs their attention, makes them think either “this speaks to me” or “that was wild and crazy, and I’ve never heard anything like it but I want to hear more.”
A lot of the work I have done in the past has a documentary element to it, sometimes using recorded interviews or setting found texts, and I’m working with the SPCO to see how this sort of approach might be brought to an orchestral setting. Personally, I’m excited to develop meaningful relationships and learn from the fantastic players in the orchestra. (And hopefully connect with audience members as well!) A lot of the work I have done as a composer is writing chamber music and opera, and there is so much for me to absorb and learn from a chamber orchestra the caliber of the SPCO.
PF: This residency is made possible through a generous grant program called Music Alive from New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras. Can you tell me a little bit about how this composer residency is structured differently than a “typical” residency?
LB: One of the purposes of the grant was to allow for composers to become a real part of an orchestra, both administratively and artistically. The residency is both a great opportunity for me to learn more about the inner workings of an orchestra, but also, hopefully, a chance for me to have an influence on the organization—and hopefully the effect of the residency will last beyond the term of my involvement. There will be concerts of my music and I’ll be writing a new piece for the end of the residency, but a lot of what I have been doing is behind the scenes work—researching and forming relationships with lesser known young composers from all sorts of backgrounds, curating concerts and helping the orchestra cast a wider net in terms of the composers it works with and the types of projects it presents.
PF: What is particularly appealing to you about working with the SPCO?
LB: I love the creative spirit and sense of personal investment the players in the orchestra have. It’s a joy to work with an organization like the SPCO that has an administrative structure that fosters artist-driven decision making, and I love that the orchestra makes accessibility to their concerts a priority. I’ve always been drawn to intimate and personal musical experiences rather than large grand gestures; the mix of chamber music with orchestral works that the SPCO presents allows for imaginative, unusual programming.
PF: Is there anything else you would like to let the SPCO audience know about you or your music before this week’s concerts?
LB: Please come up and talk to me if you see me at a concert and want to chat!
Start and End Dates
09/01/2016 — 06/30/2019
Saint Paul, Minnesota