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Where classics are born

Cassie Pence
Special to the DailyMelinda Wagner, the 2005 Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festivals composer-in-residence
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VAIL Composing, believe it or no, is actually a lot of educated guesswork.A composer may use an instrument as a tool, like the piano, to figure out if a written chord sounds good or terrible, but for the most part, a music composition is developed in the writers head and then on paper. The romantic notion that a composer is some person walking around in the woods hearing a tune in her head is definitely true, said Melinda Wagner, the 2005 Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festivals composer-in-residence. Wagner relies on the fact that she has listened to a lot of music during her composing career. She knows exactly what an oboe sounds like. She knows what feeling a violin can give an audience. When she sits down to write a new piece of music, she begins in a very practical way. She listens to the genre, hearing what a trombone, for example, can do and how it sounds with various combinations.Some of it is guesswork, some of it is taking a leap of faith and some of it is a sure thing, Wagner said from her home on the East Coast. The product is always a surprise, but thats the really fun part about it. Musicians will bring something of themselves to the piece always. You never know what thats going to be.Wagner, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1999 for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, composed Concertino for Harpsichord and String Quintet for Bravo!. The piece will make its world premiere July 8 at 6 p.m. at the Ford Amphitheater.The instrumentation for the piece harpsichord, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, was suggested to Wagner by Eugenia Zukerman, flutist and Bravo! artistic director. Wagner usually chooses the instrumentation, but the composition is easier, she said, without so much freedom.I had so much fun writing this piece because the obvious potential problem in it is writing for harpsichord, which is an instrument from the past, so to speak, Wagner said. Harpsichord is such a soft instrument. Wagner had to really think about her combinations in order not to muffle its delicate sound. The final product is transparent and light, Wagner said.I tried to make sure every line could be heard very clearly. That the harpsichord could shine through. That nothing was too dense, Wagner said. I didnt want her (Kathleen McIntosh) or any other harpsichordist who might play this piece to be an instrument that just floats the other musicians. The harpsichord is often, in history, in the background. Thats not the case here.In addition to writing for the harpsichord, another challenge for Wagner was not knowing the musicians who will be playing her concertino. Fortunately, she was able to correspond via e-mail with McIntosh to get a feeling for her personality. Its really helpful to know the musicians youre writing for because you know what their attributes are and what their strengths are and also you can visualize them and know what theyll look like on the stage, Wagner said. The composer and musicians have an intimate relationship because the players are the ones delivering the composers baby.Theyre being midwives, Wagner joked.Wagner usually attends about three rehearsals with the musicians to coach them on the piece, which is not enough for anybody, she said. They always discuss tempo the speed and the dynamics how loud or soft the music should sound.At least with me I find its hard to find tempo when Im the only one in the studio working on the piece with my metronome, Wagner said. Sometimes my idea on how fast the piece will go is different in that context from the way it might be with real players playing it.The fact that Bravo! commissions a piece of music, like Wagners concertino, every season is very important to the world of classical music, Wagner said. Audiences crave new sounds, but if new music wasnt being created, going to a concert would be like going to a museum.Listeners who love music need to hear the music of our day, and that keeps the evolution of music rolling, Wagner said. Plus, when they hear new pieces in context, and what I mean by that is amongst pieces they might know, that might be a hundred years old, it doesnt seem foreign. Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 618, or cpence@vaildaily.com.Vail Colorado


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