Ohio Ensemble Helps to Create ‘a Musician’s Dream’
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When conductor Timothy Russell co-founded the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra 33 seasons ago, he not only wanted to bring new music to Columbus, Ohio, but to expand the chamber orchestra repertoire. “From day one, our mission statement has included a commitment to the creation of a new American chamber orchestra repertoire,” Russell says.
Three decades later, the orchestra has made a major dent in this goal, commissioning over 50 new works and premiering more than 100. This season, the orchestra is releasing three new recordings, titled Triumvirate, Resounding, and a third, as-yet-untitled recording, featuring works composed and performed by 17-year-old pianist and composer Conrad Tao. Composers on the first two CDs include Joan Tower, Mark O’Connor, Christopher Theofanidis, and Roberto Sierra. Although the three recordings were produced between 2005 and 2009, the orchestra chose to hold their release until after the initial downturn of the economic recession.
The orchestra was founded in 1978, when, Russell says, Columbus was working hard to establish itself as a major American city. “Almost all cities have a symphony, an art museum, and the next level have an opera or ballet company,” he says. “But the truly great cities have chamber orchestras.
“We hit the right chord at the right time.”
Today, part of the mission of ProMusica is to record its commissions, Russell says. “If you look at great orchestras and commissions, if they commissioned Copland or Barber, they routinely recorded these pieces,” Russell notes. “One of the saddest things is that today not all commissions by famous composers are always getting recorded. What ProMusica is doing is pretty unique in the orchestra world.”
Cellist David Finckel, who has soloed with the orchestra, agrees with the importance of this model. “The whole package of having the piece written for us, having the performance with the orchestra, and then the recording opportunity folded in is a musician’s dream,” he says.
Triumverate, the first of the three recordings, is unique for featuring three new concertos, each written by a female composer. The first, “Compadrazgo,” by Gabriela Lena Frank, is a double concerto for cello and piano, performed by Finckel and his wife and frequent collaborator, the pianist Wu Han. The second work, composer Lera Auerbach’s “Fragile Solitudes” for string quartet and orchestra, is performed by the Borromeo Quartet. The third piece on the album, Joan Tower’s viola concerto, “Purple Rhapsody,” was written for and performed by violist Paul Neubauer.
The composition and rehearsal process was a collaborative one, says Neubauer. Tower came to rehearsals and made suggestions about dynamics, tempo, and interpretation. “Can you just imagine if you had Mozart there saying ‘I want more horns?’” he says. “It was so great to have her involved with the whole thing.”
When commissioning, the orchestra looks for a number of different things, Russell says. Important characteristics include composers with a unique voice, orchestrators who write in a colorful way, and pieces that can create a visceral connection with the audience on first hearing. ProMusica occasionally commissions works—such as the Tower piece—as a member of a consortium of other orchestras, so that all parties share the cost. According to the nonprofit group Meet the Composer, a commission less than 10 minutes in length for chamber orchestra can cost $7,000 to $21,000.
“It’s always exciting to premiere and record pieces,” ProMusica concertmaster Katherine McLin says. “When you’re playing a piece that really has legs and staying power, the legacy you’re creating by bringing that piece to life is incredibly rewarding.”