My Pandemic Percussion Concerto

A Homecoming

My story of 2020 is largely a communal one: the anxiety of the rising death toll from Covid-19, the madness of the Trump administration and Antifa (etc.), the racial injustice and protests, and the emotional and psychological fallout from months on end of quarantine formed a backdrop of noise and angst against which art-making felt very strange (at times even sadly inconsequential).

I was luckier than many. After years of being in and out of academia and hustling as a real estate agent in NYC to make ends meet, I had accepted a tenure-track position at Kent State in 2018, which meant that my income remained stable during 2020, unlike that of many of my artist and performer friends, for whom I felt deep pangs of empathetic suffering. As a parent to twin toddlers, my life also changed little in comparison to other parents, as we didn’t have to pull our young children out of school and plan full days of activities around our own work schedules. I found that teaching composition online, the bulk of my work, felt seamless in comparison to the stories I heard from colleagues about teaching instrumental zoom lessons, for example. 

Even so, there were still several obstacles to overcome in my creative life. Some were practical. The dizzying whirlwind reality of teaching lessons, preparing for classes, sitting on zoom committees, changing diapers, playing with kids, cooking meals, and cleaning the kitchen created the need for a militaristic schedule in which meal prep sometimes had to happen before the crack of dawn just so I could get through a day. A low level exhaustion colored nearly everything. Finding time to compose was a constant struggle, and the pressure to use that time well was intense. 

Other challenges were more intangible. Like so many artists, I had written a piece for a concert that had to be cancelled. Recording sessions were postponed. In short, many activities were put on hold, cleaving the conceptual and writing aspects of composing from the realization of the music in the world. A sense of futility clouded writing. When will anything I write be performed? Take away the social aspect of music-making, and composing can feel extraordinarily theoretical. 

In my case, a commission from the New Albany Symphony Orchestra for a new percussion concerto for the young virtuoso Cameron Leach helped me stay focused and structure my work around a concrete goal (covered here by WOSU Classical 101’s Jennifer Hambrick).

The commission had come at an important time for me. I had just taken the job at Kent State and was moving back to Ohio—to my surprise—after having lived since the age of 19 in Rochester, Cambridge (MA), Vienna, Istanbul, and NYC, and was both excited about the opportunity, and anxious about who I might make music with. In NYC, new music activity is so dense that there are competing concerts nearly every night of the week, and a buzz that the next collaboration might be right around the corner. What kind of projects would I find in Ohio, if any?

This anxiety was tempered by the fact that my music had already found something of a life in Columbus, due to the energetic work of Zoe and Jack Johnstone through the Johnstone Fund for New Music.

When I left Columbus at 19, the new music scene in Columbus was largely nonexistent. I had discovered the rebellious Charles Ives Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano as a 15-year-old student composer at the Brevard Music Festival, which had awakened in me an Emersonian spirit of self-reliance and exploration. Back home in Columbus, OH, in the early internet-days, I attempted to educate myself through checking out CDs of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Otto Leuning, Fred Lerdahl, and others, from the Columbus Public Library (shout out to the Whetstone Branch). I found a wonderful first composition teacher in Marshall Barnes and a teacher in life and art in his wife Dorothy, who just passed away in November, 2020, an exceptional artist who worked with natural wood and bark in a very personal approach to basketry. I would show Marshall my scores, improvise on the piano, and we would all drink tea and talk about life. I will forever be grateful to the Barneses for opening up their house and space to me, which was a stimulating and safe place for me as a budding composer to find a sense of belonging in my hometown. 

When I moved from Istanbul to NYC at the end of 2014, I quickly became aware of the Johnstones and the small but very lively new music scene they had fostered in Columbus. They were close collaborators with Michael Rene Torres, saxophonist, composer, professor, and conductor, and Erin Helegeson Torres, flutist and professor. Michael runs CODE (Columbus Ohio Discovery Ensemble) and Erin plays flute seemingly everywhere, and is an excellent interpreter of new music. I remember hearing a concert at a gallery on Summit St. where they played, among other works, a striking piece by Anthony Vine, an internationally performed composer from Columbus. The Johnstones have been active supporters of groups and artists like Bearthoven, Mark Lomax II, Transient Canvas, and andPlay duo among many others, and before long, I had had several pieces of mine performed in Columbus, a possibility I had not imagined before 2014. 

Fast forward to 2018 when I land in Kent, OH for my first semester of teaching, and Zoe Johnstone tells me I must meet Cameron Leach, an amazing young percussionist who has just received his Master’s degree from Eastman (also my alma mater) and who is adjuncting at Kent. My first memories of Cameron are of us zipping by each other in the halls. “Hey man,” he’d say and we’d say a quick hello. Cameron struck me as handsome and put together in a J-Crew kind of way; he often wore a tie and was always smartly dressed. 

It took us a while to connect over coffee, which we finally did at Scribbles, one of the three good coffee places in Kent, and the one with the best grungy atmosphere. Through our conversation, it became clear that Cameron was ambitious, and that he was actively pursuing a career as a percussion soloist, with the aim of commissioning a new body of concertos written for him. Colin Currie appeared to be a model. At a back table at Scribbles, Cameron pitched the idea of writing a new concerto for him. I immediately said yes, but wondered aloud who would pay for it, and more importantly, who would play it? As a composer who has written infrequently for orchestra, I was uncertain that we would be able to secure an opportunity. The truth is I thought I wouldn’t hear from Cameron again about this idea. 

To my great surprise, I did hear from Cameron again just a few months later with news that the piece was being funded by the Johnstone Fund for New Music, and that the New Albany Symphony Orchestra was going to premiere it. I was shocked and delighted. And also curious. Who was the New Albany Symphony? 

New Albany is a wealthy suburb of Columbus, OH and home of the (in)famous Victoria’s Secret founder Les Wexner. In 2007, resident and professional violist Heather Garner started the orchestra, enlisting cellist and conductor Luis Biava to be the maestro. They perform four concerts a year in the beautiful Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts; if the wealth of New Albany can be measured, it can in part by the realization that this gorgeous hall belongs to the public high school. The orchestra is comprised of over 120 community members that include students, amateurs, and professionals, which allows for mentorship and plenty of opportunities for community outreach. A particularly touching regular offering is their “sensory friendly” concert series, which is meant for children with special needs. During these shortened concerts repertoire is excerpted, and audience members are free to move about, sing, dance, and shout. I was quite moved by hearing parts of my concerto played for an audience that was clearly excited by the percussion and responding with wild movements and sounds!

My music is not easy, and I am not interested in “writing down for a group.” Knowing that it was a community orchestra, I wasn’t sure what the orchestra would be able to handle, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they had already performed music by Augusta Read Thomas, my first professor at the Eastman School of Music, and Elliott Carter. I knew I would strive to write my ideal piece, which is the only option I feel I ever have.

I shortly had a contract with an 11/15/20 deadline. I began researching percussion concertos. One obvious challenge to writing a percussion concerto is sorting out what instruments/sounds to use and how they might interact with the orchestra. The possibilities are daunting. The percussion concerto, with a few exceptions, is a relatively recent genre, and seems to have been taken up by largely American composers, such as Christopher Rouse, Jennifer Higdon, John Corigliano, Avner Dorman, as well as James MacMillan and Helen Grime. The concerto that resonated with me the most in my research was Kalevi Aho’s Sieidi, a sprawling work that offered dramatic inroads for my imagination. 

It was hard to get started writing though. Just as I was gearing up to work on the piece, waves of cancelations were rolling in, and my belief that my efforts would result in a premiere was shaky at best. When summer arrived I touched base with Heather, and it was still green lights, though there were questions about exactly how many players could fit safely on stage. 42 players ended up being the final count. 

I had already been “sketching,” which consisted of writing bits of percussion music by hand, improvising on my twin toddlers’ toy percussion instruments, and trying to imagine the fully orchestrated piece. In the early summer I got to work in earnest, writing the first movement and starting the second. Then I put the piece on hold for July and August. When the fall semester hit, I realized I had just about 2 ½ months to finish the second movement and write two others, and panic set in: between twinning, teaching, cooking, etc. I wasn’t sure how I would accomplish this task. But through family negotiations and support from Vicki, my mom and stepdad—our Covid pod—I found composing time, and after many pressure-filled sessions, I had a draft by the deadline. 

Cameron was helpful and influential throughout the process. I knew for example that I wanted to write a spacious, dramatic opening that consisted of loud drum strikes and airy, breathy, scratchy—in short, unpitched—sounds, in the orchestra. But which low drum would we use? My conversations with Cameron steered me to a concert bass drum, which may seem like an obvious choice, but I had also considered a low conga. Cameron let me know I could make some passages more difficult, and I ended up revising and ornamenting a few figures in the first movement.

While my piece is simply titled Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, the movements have more colorful titles. The first, “Deep Spacious; Fast, Winding,” begins with the aforementioned spacious introduction, followed by raucous music played on a “classical drum set,” and which itself is followed by a contrasting section on marimba, which sounds a bit like a microtonal, complexified version of the Moldau. Rhythmic layers develop and the music peaks at a high virtuosic climax on the marimba that’s balanced by a ff orchestral tutti chord and Cameron flying up the marimba from the lowest to the near-highest register of the instrument. As Cameron’s material dissolves, we are left with frozen string chords; time has suddenly come to a near stop. Colorful string sounds—circular bowing and tremolo glissandi—emerge as the music drips downwards. Cameron walks meditatively over to the metal station and plays a singular, quiet melodic strand on the vibraphone, which rings and blends beautifully with the orchestra. This gesture is an anomaly in the first movement, as it is the only vibraphone appearance. For that reason, and because it is framed by inactivity on the part of the soloist, it has a precious quality to it. It also foreshadows the next movement, which features metals. 

The second movement, Night Sky, begins with ethereal bowed vibraphone melodies that reverberate through the orchestra with sul ponticello trills in the strings. Winds respond by echoing the melodic lines, building into sustained harmonies. The metal station consists of vibraphone and glockenspiel, which create an extended keyboard, and four selected crotales, which Cameron bows at a key moment in the second movement, just as the first section comes to an end and the music stands absolutely still. Out of these bowed sounds, a meteor show emerges, with objects flying around each other at different speeds. Cameron heads to the drum station for this section. The music then returns to the opening texture, but is texturally altered, as if debris from the meteor shower is floating in the air in the form of natural harmonic glissandi and wind trills. 

The third movement, Spiral, is a breathless play of sinuous lines. Cameron places a xylophone at a right angle to the marimba, creating an extended wood instrument that mirrors the metal setup. Quick exchanges between Cameron and the orchestra build to a waterfall of sound where Cameron plays descending scales, switching from the xylophone to the marimba at lightning speed while the orchestra performs powerful pillars of sound.

The final movement, Fractal, begins with Cameron on the classical drum set, playing hocketing rhythms with the orchestra. The music is punchy and angular. Then a short section features rapidly descending wood block figures punctuated by kick drum attacks. An orchestral interlude leads to rhythmic marimba music. The piece cycles through variations of these ideas again, leading to a massive climax in the orchestra which gives way to a cadenza. I tried my hand at writing a cadenza, but in the end we decided that Cameron should improvise one, and I’m thrilled he did. I’ve long felt that the modern separation between composer and performer is unnatural, and that the fluidity of the creative process should be acknowledged. 

When I arrived for a rehearsal on 3/15/21, I was a bit shocked to hear that there were some balance issues. With the winds seated so far back, I couldn’t hear much at times, and I couldn’t tell if it was just the distance, or if players would project as they became more confident. As the week went on, the professional ringers began showing up and filling out the orchestra, and the piece began to blossom. By Sunday, 3/21/21, the orchestra gave a committed and excellent performance and Cameron was on fire. 

The entire experience of working with Cameron, Luis, and the orchestra was heart-warming and meaningful in a way that is hard to put into words. The orchestra members embraced my piece with an open spirit, and while it was challenging, Luis worked with the orchestra patiently, and their progress was rapid. After a year of planning, adjusting, hoping, waiting and working, to make music on this gorgeous stage with these players felt truly cathartic. That this 30-minute concerto was being premiered 15 minutes from where I had gone to high school and had started composing was surreal: for me, new music had been a rebellion, a free space contrasted against the conventional academic backdrop of daily life, and I would have never predicted that 25 years later this premiere would be taking place at my old stomping ground. In many ways it felt like a homecoming. 

Backstage, minutes before going on, an adrenalized Cameron paced excitedly, tears welling up in his eyes. He had spoken earlier in the week of how disconnected he felt from music-making when rehearsals had started; in fact, he reported feeling nothing at first, no nerves, no excitement. After a year of being disconnected from his performing life he had to teach himself again how to connect to music. It was clear though that seconds before going onstage he had fully reconnected. I wondered how it felt to take all of that emotion into a performance. “It’s like a drug, taking the energy and controlling it,” he said. We walked onstage and were greeted by Christopher Purdy, a longtime classical radio host in Columbus and a mainstay of my childhood. 

Heather Garner, NASO Artistic Director, Jack Johnstone, Adam Roberts, Zoe Johnstone, Cameron Leach, Luis Biava, conductor, Ariane Sletner, concertmaster

Four days later, on Thursday, I woke up alone in my house in Akron. I had thrown myself back into teaching on Monday and Tuesday, then drove back to Northeast Ohio to lead a Kent State New Music Ensemble rehearsal on Wednesday night, with Vicki planning to return from Columbus with the twins on Thursday afternoon. When I woke up at home in Akron, it was the first moment I had to catch my breath since the premiere, and my body was still, but my energy was still vibrating from the past week. I was overwhelmed with emotion. After a year of uncertainty and quarantine, this experience will forever represent a reemerging into music-making, hope, and new life.