Art Talk: The Tallahassee Composer’s Orchestra

by Tim Storhoff

All artists have a different creative process as their work moves from conception to fruition. Composers, particularly those writing for orchestra, face a unique set of challenges in bringing their creations to life. Even established composers have trouble hearing their pieces performed, bringing Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts to write, “Every composition student is told never to write a long piece for orchestra because it will never be played. This is good advice.” While orchestras experiment with ways to reach new audiences, they still primarily perform selections from the classical music canon that has developed over the last 100+ years and mostly features dead, white, male European composers.

Throughout Florida, our universities are training the next generation of composers who all hope to hear their works move from the written page or computer screen to the concert hall. In Tallahassee, some of these composers have rallied musicians with a passion for contemporary music to guarantee that new pieces will be heard. In anticipation of the Tallahassee Composer’s Orchestra’s debut concert on Monday, November 25, I chatted with composer/conductor and orchestra co-founder Jamie Whitmarsh about the group and their upcoming performance.

Tallahassee Composer's OrchestraDCA: Jamie, this seems like a great project that will benefit not just the Tallahassee music community but promising young composers more broadly. Where did the idea for the Tallahassee Composer’s Orchestra come from?
JW: The TCO began last spring when Joshua Burel and I were hanging out and talking about composition related topics. Somehow it evolved to where we were both quite optimistic about assembling a group from the ground up to perform new music. Additionally, from the beginning we were both in agreement about programming Daniel Nelson’s Clarinet Concerto. So we knew fairly early on that this wouldn’t necessarily just be a concert of music by Tallahassee composers, since Nelson currently lives in Europe.

DCA: The Division of Cultural Affairs really believes in the importance of supporting individual artists, since they create the works that fill our galleries and performance halls. Previous recipients of our Individual Artist Fellowship for music composition have used their awards to support the performance of their work, but putting an ensemble together is not easy. What challenges have you faced while forming the TCO?
JW: There is always a chance that something like this could have problems getting off the ground. Assembling a 50+ piece orchestra from scratch is no small task! I think there were a couple of advantages we had going into this. One advantage that helped us recruit was that Josh and I had performed with or worked in some capacity with many of the performers in the group. Additionally, we are very much in the trenches with these performers. For instance, Josh is the concertmaster and I am performing the solo part on Joseph Craven’s Concerto for Tenor Pan in C. So there is definitely an attitude between Josh and myself that we don’t want to ask our performers to do anything we wouldn’t do.

DCA: Florida has produced a number of successful composers, and this concert will be featuring pieces by yourself and Joshua Burel who are currently local. Are there any Florida composers you’ve come to admire or who have influenced your work? 
JW: Since I’m from Oklahoma, I’m not as familiar with the composition culture in the lower half of Florida as I might be in a few years. I have certainly enjoyed working with Ladislav Kubik and the rest of the composition faculty at FSU. Clifton Callender’s Metamorphoses is a great piece. Working with Dr. Zwiilch is great as well; being able to form that relationship over time has been beneficial.

The Tallahassee Composers Orchestra rehearsing the Concerto for Tenor Pan in C. Photo by Bryan McNamara.

Jamie Whitmarsh leads the Tallahassee Composer’s Orchestra in rehearsing the Concerto for Tenor Pan in C. Photo by Bryan McNamara.

DCA: What can you tell me about the pieces that will be performed on Monday night?
JW: The concert opens with Crooked Sketch by Joshua Burel. It runs around 3 and a half minutes, and is designed to be a flashy concert opener. Following that will be my piece For Many Chairs (my crow some funny). If you were to pronounce the title several different ways, the nature of the piece might reveal itself a bit. The piece that will close the first half is Joseph Craven’s Concerto for Tenor Pan in C. For this performance, Joseph will be flying in to conduct the orchestra, as I am performing the solo part. The second half will begin with Joshua Burel’s work Incomplete (six), a fifteen minute work exploring the nature of Man’s incompleteness without God. Closing the concert will be Daniel Nelson’s Clarinet Concerto, with the solo part being performed by Lisa Kachouee. This piece is fantastic and will surely be a crowd pleaser!

DCA: After the group’s debut on Monday night, where do you see the Tallahassee Composer’s Orchestra going in the future?
JW: It is hard to say right now where the TCO may go in the future. Certainly the vibe in rehearsals is that this is something that should continue, and the performers all seem quite enthused. What form any potential future projects take is still anyone’s guess. Since we draw heavily from the student population at FSU, there is certainly a concern about overtaxing the performers or distracting them from their studies. At the same time, if this were established to be something that occurs annually, then performers could know that ahead of time and set aside room in their schedules. In the future, we’d like to see TCO concerts split the program between two works from Tallahassee based composers and two works from composers outside the area. We certainly believe a group like this is valuable and hope it will continue to premiere new works and expose listeners to more of the great composers working today.

The Tallahassee Composer’s Orchestra debut concert will be in the Opperman Music Hall on Florida State University’s campus at 8:00 PM on Monday, November 25. The concert is free and open to the public.

A Day in the Life: Composer Chuck Owen, Individual Artist Fellowship Recipient

by Tim Storhoff

While Chuck Owen directs the Center for Jazz Composition at the University of South Florida School of Music in Tampa, his compositions reflect a musical taste that include many genres alongside jazz. He has said, “Years of classical piano training, performance with jazz rock/funk bands as a trombonist, and ongoing appreciation of American folk music traditions as well as those from many other countries – particularly in Latin America & Europe – have all shaped my outlook as a composer. Although I never set out with the notion of forcibly trying to ‘fuse’ these elements – I delight in playing with what, at least to me, seems like their natural intersections.” In playing with these intersections, Owen has amassed an evocative and delightful body of work.

Individual Artist Fellowship Recipient Chuck Owen. Photo used by permission of Chuck Owen.

Individual Artist Fellowship Recipient Chuck Owen. Photo used by permission of Chuck Owen.

Many of Owen’s compositions have been performed by Jazz Surge, his big band founded in 1995. Additionally, he has composed for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, Tonight Show Orchestra, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Dave Liebman Big Band, and Roger Williams. His compositions have won him previous Individual Artist Fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, an ASCAP/IAJE Commission in honor of Louis Armstrong, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He has also served as a panelist for major awards, most recently chairing the Pulitzer Prize in Music panel in 2011. In addition to composition, Owen is a dedicated educator who has received numerous accolades for his teaching at USF and served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education from 2006 to 2008.

Owen received his BM from North Texas State University and an MA in orchestral conducting from California State University-Northridge. While both of these degrees included formal composition instruction, Owen claims he has primarily grown and continues to grow musically through listening and studying the scores of great works while remaining actively engaged with other musicians, composers, and students. He said, “As a jazz composer, I feel one of the greatest educational experiences I had was years of gigging as a professional pianist. Since so much of jazz performance practice extends beyond written notation, there simply is no substitute for a jazz composer.”

Recently, Owen has devoted much of his time to the creation and release of his project River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone, and Orchestra, which will be issued in early April 2013 on Summit Records. He describes this composition below:

“The product of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, this concerto spans 5 movements and runs almost an hour in length.  I drew on a lifetime love of rivers as well as specific raft/canoe trips for inspiration. Each movement is linked to a specific river but also tries to portray characteristics of the rivers. While it’s clearly a mixed genre piece – incorporating aspects of jazz, contemporary classical, American folk, and other musics; I’ve tried to retain the loose, improvisational feel of jazz throughout.” The movements of the piece are:

  • Prologue – Dawn at River’s Edge  1:54
  • Mvmt. I – Bound Away  17:53  Greenbrier & New Rivers (West Virginia)
  • Mvmt. II – Dark Waters, Slow Waters   12:37 Hillsborough River (Florida)
  • Mvmt. III – Chutes and Wave Trains  11:29  Chattooga River (Georgia, South Carolina)
  • Mvmt. IV – Side Hikes – A Ridge Away  7:56  Green & Colorado Rivers  (Colorado, Utah, Arizona)
  • Mvmt. V – Perhaps the Better Claim  11:42  Salmon River (Idaho) – The River of No Return

This piece, which evokes a sense of place that stretches across the nation, also stretches Owen’s music into new areas, reaches new audiences, and has fostered new professional relationships with musicians outside the jazz world. Featured soloists for the recording are Jack Wilkins (tenor saxophone) and LaRue Nickelson (guitar). Also prominent though not in featured roles are Corey Christiansen (acoustic guitars), Rob Thomas (jazz violin), and Danny Gottlieb (drums). In addition, Owen used the members of the Jazz Surge big band (some of whom have been with him for over 15 years) as the core ensemble which he then surrounded with orchestral players – most of whom hail from the Florida Orchestra.

Watch for River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone, and Orchestra in April. To learn more about Chuck Owen’s career and hear some musical examples, go to http://www.chuckowen.com, and to learn more about the jazz program at USF, visit the program’s webpage here. We would like to congratulate Mr. Owen on his receiving another Individual Artist Fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and we look forward to working with him over the next year.