Young composer’s dream comes true, as acclaimed orchestra performs his workBy Jennifer Carnig
Yao Chen is awe-struck. For the first time in his life, an orchestra just performed one of his compositions. It was not just any orchestra, either: It was the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the only full-time professional chamber orchestra in the country and one of the best in the world.
“This is just overwhelmingly amazing,” said Yao, a fifth-year doctoral composition student in Music. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so inspired. It’s just so wonderful.”
Yao, who gave the musicians a composition called Two Poems, sat on the stage in Mandel Hall as the 34-member orchestra learned his music and performed it again and again. Aside from the few times he jumped up to work with a bass player or a percussionist—just to make sure they knew exactly what sounds he was looking for—Yao got to sit back and listen. “A dream come true,” he said.
That dream was made possible through the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s three-year-residency at the University. Hosted by the University of Chicago Presents, the University’s professional concert series, the SPCO is now in the middle of its first year at Chicago. In addition to performing world-class concerts, the SPCO musicians also are teaching music education in three South Side elementary schools and coaching student musicians and composers.
“This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our students,” said Cathy Sweitzer, Director of Communications for the University of Chicago Presents. “The opportunity for these young composers to write for a chamber orchestra and then to hear their works performed and critiqued by one of the best chamber orchestras in the world is really a rare and valuable gift.
“Students do not even get an opportunity like this at conservatories,” she added.
In addition to Yao, the SPCO members read works by student composers Ben Hartman, Allison Ogden and David Smooke. Cliff Colnot, the principal conductor for the University’s Contempo, as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series, conducted the SPCO.
“It’s very difficult for composers in university settings to get access to performers of your level,” Colnot told the orchestra before the performances began. “Generally what happens is that they go around practice rooms at 11 o’clock at night, scavenging to find a clarinetist who will play for them. We’re so appreciative that musicians at your level are willing to do this.”
Colnot gave commands about dynamic levels and crescendo as the musicians made their way through the whimsical, almost dreamlike Two Poems. The string musicians alternated between bows and plucking while a vibraphone enhanced the mood. In the audience, a crowd of music students watched in awe, many sitting on the edge of their seats while the University’s three resident composers nodded approvingly as they shared in Yao’s excitement. Shulamit Ran, the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor in Music; Kotoka Suzuki, Assistant Professor in Music; and Marta Ptaszynska, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor in Music, all followed along on the over-sized, hand-written sheet music Yao gave them, smiling approvingly as the piece came alive.
Ptaszynska, an acclaimed opera composer and Yao’s composition instructor, explained that when she was a student at the Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland, she worked with a full professional orchestra every week.
“That is how I can do what I do—I can hear the orchestra playing the notes as I write them,” she said. “But in this country, that opportunity does not exist. That’s why this is such a fantastic opportunity. It’s almost like 40 years ago in Poland. It’s a beautiful thing.”
In addition to helping current students better hear the music they are writing, Ptaszynska said the SPCO’s residency also has influenced a rise in applications.
“We’re getting some of the best applicants we have ever seen, and several of them mention this program as they are applying for their Ph.D.,” she said. “It really enforces our reputation as a world-class institution.”