I’ve been a member of the Boston Symphony since 2010, during which time I've played more than 1,000 concerts and hundreds of pieces of classical music. I'm not bragging really, you probably didn't hear much that I had to offer in more than like, 50 of those concerts, unless you're into low notes on the trumpet, or, like, REALLY great hair. Anyway, I’m certainly still a young snot-nosed kid, but I do love me some new music...when it’s done well. When new music is done (“done” = composed and/or performed) poorly, it’s like an itch that you can’t scratch that turns out to be this nasty infection that’s embarrassing to talk about and makes you the weird dude that only puts sunscreen on his nose and refuses to remove his Nickelback shirt at the beach. (No, I don't own one. Really. I DON'T). Most of the time, when we see “Premiere” on the BSO schedule, we shudder/yawn/eyeroll/retch/call in sick 4 months in advance. But almost always, the new music we’re premiering turns out to be at least decent, and occasionally quite good. Even more rarely, we’ll happen upon something truly special and unique (looking at you, Thomas Adès, a.k.a. #TheBritishBadass).
Which brings me to a premiere I was actually responsible for: a gargantuan commission from one of my most influential and significant mentors, Mallory Thompson, Director of Bands at Northwestern University, (also my Alma Mater). You may have heard about Northwestern’s recently-completed and brand-new-state-of-the-art music building/display of architectural and financial muscle/stationary cruise ship (and if not, here now you’ve heard of it.) This past year also marked Mallory's 20th as Director of Bands, which in itself is an incredible milestone at an institution like NU. Factor in the recordings, conference appearances, and myriad professional-level concerts given by Mallory and the NU Symphonic Wind Ensemble (SWE), and you’ve encapsulated one of the truly great and rare conductor tenures in the country. Not just collegiately; not just band…ly; all of it. This commission is reflective of both of these celebratory achievements by Northwestern and Mallory (or “MBT” for "Mallory Beth Thompson" as she is affectionately/fearfully known by her conducting students), both in scope and orchestration.
When we first discussed this project in 2013 (I e-mailed her asking if I could write her a symphony because I'm an egotistical idiot), we both wanted to create something huge in scale and meaningful not just for Mallory and the current SWE, but all past and future ensemble members because, as she put it, “every musician that has ever played in this ensemble is directly responsible for the sound of the current ensemble and in that way, the SWE’s of the future are forever connected to the SWE’s of the past and vice versa.” I was a member of SWE while at Northwestern, and can honestly say that I learned how to play in orchestra from my time in her wind ensemble, which may sound strange, unless you’ve ever heard her ensemble play.
And so “Lontano: Symphony for Wind Ensemble” was born...three years later. Eight months to finish and 25 minutes long across three movements, it’s by far the longest piece I’ve ever written (by like, roughly 20 minutes), but it's also the piece I’m proudest of and closest to. I now know what real-deal composers mean when they talk about going on a journey writing a piece. I learned more than I’ve ever learned writing, and realized potential in myself as a composer that I never knew existed (special thanks have to be given to John Mackey, who was an incredible source of wisdom and Moscow Mules through the many episodes of writer's block endured in those months). I also show basically everything I write to my eternally-patient-and-beautiful wife, Cassie, and if it she doesn’t like it, I re-write it until she does: the Cassie Test. She lived with it every step of the way almost as much as I did, which might have interfered with her objectivity of the finished product, but regardless, she cried over the ending. Actually I never asked about the tears...maybe there were onions around or like, she couldn't stand the midi sounds?. Regardless, the piece itself IS a journey, traveling from the depths of loneliness to the heights of joy. Or it's about traveling through the vastness and blackness of space to arrive at a beautiful horizon. Or it's about dying, glimpsing hell, and going to heaven. It's like a "choose your own adventure" except different because you don't really get to choose anything. But it does end loud, so at the very least people will know when it’s over and when to clap/leave/go somewhere to start/finish drinking.
I asked Mallory recently why she entrusted me with such a massive undertaking as an unproven composer, as my library of original material isn’t exactly prolific, and contains mostly pieces that involve me and my not-famous-in-any-way brother playing in front of a band. She said she wasn't sure, but that she trusted me and knew somehow that I wouldn't screw it up. I hope she was right and hope you think so too!
Okay, that’s all for this one. Thanks for reading this many words.
[P.S. The artwork above is by the incredibly talented Jeffrey Curnow, who I guess moonlights as Associate Principal Trumpet for the Philadelphia Orchestra in his spare time. You may recognize his style from NPR’s constant display of his work.]