The show must go on: Students of InConcert Sierra’s Composers Project donned masks for weekend of recording, with video concert to come
Special to Prospector
Curious happenings in the Miners Foundry back in mid-July. For two days, masked musicians dressed in concert black slipped through a side door carrying cases bearing violins, violas, a cello, French horn, clarinet and flute. In rolled a harp. In wheeled a marimba. All told, 20 musicians showed up, not only to rehearse and play, but to save the day for a group of young composers.
The students in Mark Vance’s Composers Project, a star feature of InConcert Sierra’s education programs, hoped to unveil their instrumental pieces at a concert in June. But like a myriad of other arts events, the concert was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The 13 composers in the project, ranging in age from 12 to 18, had been studying with Vance since September. They delved into music theory, harmony, history, notation and more. When the brakes were applied in mid-March, they switched to Zoom for both group classes and private lessons. And come summer, the ever-resourceful Vance devised a creative back-up plan for their live concert.
Over the course of two days, musicians gathered in the Foundry’s Stone Hall to record the students’ pieces — sitting in a semi-circle of chairs six feet apart. Cameras and a surrounding sound system were set up by local videographers Lou Douros and Larry Huntington, who generously donated their time and expertise to the cause. During the two-day period, every student spent an hour with the musicians performing their work, hearing for the first time their quintets, quartets, duos and trios come to full life.
Prior to the COVID shutdown, the composers collaborated with Sierra Harvest, a nonprofit connecting schoolchildren and families to fresh seasonal food. They learned about organic farming via hands-on activities, gleaning butternut squash from a regional farm for donation to those in need, and exploring Sierra Harvest’s Food Love Farm in Nevada City, gaining insight into the growing cycle of our local food. Subsequently, they based their new compositions on environmental themes — Garden Lullaby, Cloudburst and Life of a Strawberry to name a few.
As part of the collaboration, the students attended Sierra Harvest’s Food and Farm Conference in February, where they heard Vandana Shiva, the renowned environmental activist from India, speak about crop diversity, food security and the interconnection of all species in the ecosystem. This led Athena Giuliani, 14, to title her string quartet Interconnected—a piece that begins with a viola solo and slowly adds the two violins and cello to the melodic line, creating a lovely weaving.
All in all, Mark Vance considers collaboration to be a hallmark of his composition program — interdisciplinary learning. By engaging in the community and working with local organizations, he believes his students tap into a creative source, gaining musical inspiration while becoming better citizens as well. Although he’s been teaching composition for close to twenty years, he continues to be astounded by the innovation of his students, who by and large pick and choose their own ideas and their own instrumentation.
For example, take Noah Prescott, 16, who wrote a trio for violin, cello and trumpet. Seems an unlikely combination, but the trio is entitled Invasive Species, with the trumpet the odd one out. While the piece is mainly tonal, the parts are written so the trumpet has its own motific idea, separate from the strings.
In another case, Jamie Thomas-Rose, 17, wrote a quintet for violin, cello, clarinet, harp and piano — another unusual combination. His piece, Coalescence, represents the creation of a river: streams, creeks and tributaries winding and trickling downhill, all coalescing into one. Nikita Khryapin, 16, also wrote a nature-themed quintet — his called Life of a Raven, scored for violin, viola, cello, double bass and French horn. As one might anticipate, the strings form a shimmering background for stunning horn solos; as the raven soars in the forest.
InConcert Sierra has a mission to provide memorable musical experiences, preferably through live performances. But given present circumstances, barring large gatherings, the recording project was a worthy second choice. It will take a fair amount of time for Lou Douros and Larry Huntington to review and edit all their film, but when their production is complete, the polished show will be broadcast over the Internet later in the summer. And once the date is known, announcements will be sure to follow.
We are living in troubled times, and young people especially are facing a blankness in their lives, with no school, few outside activities and little chance to see their friends. But despite all the odds, when it looked like the young composers would lose the chance to hear their music performed live — doors opened, services were offered, and melody and harmony prevailed.
Julie Becker lives in Nevada City and is a longtime supporter of Mark Vance’s composition program for young musicians.
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