A sample of the new concerto

 

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown writes a concerto for bass clarinet and stringsMy next composition isn’t quite ready yet.

But I really like it and want to share it with you NOW.

So, there’s a sample below!

It may seem my 7 year #PsalmQuest has been on hiatus and maybe you even thought I’d given up already.

Well, I was ahead of schedule so after all the Christmas performances I did take some time off over Christmas and New Year to visit lots of people up and down East Coast USA, and then I embarked on my long-awaited Concerto for Bass Clarinet and strings.

It’s almost ready and we all have to be thankful to Calvin Falwell and Diana Hessinger for commissioning this piece upfront, as well as all the bass clarinet players around the world who are signing up for first year rights to perform – it’s very exciting being involved in such a forward-thinking, risk-taking consortium. Thank you!

So, without further ado, click on the video below for a sneak preview:

What do you think? Tell me below… if you dare!

Would you like to be part of the commissioning consortium? It’s very easy: promise to perform it at least once and send us some proof, basically.

Let me know in the comments below if you’re interested and I’ll make sure you and Calvin are connected – he has all the details.

Thanks for listening, and here’s looking forward to the full monty in the next week or two!

Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

You certainly asked!

THANK YOU to all who participated in the 3rd Annual #AskAConductor Day on Twitter earlier this week. Remarkable stuff! Some friendships were rekindled, some new ones made, and I’m hoping that those who like live music (orchestras, choirs, musicals, opera, film, etc.) are now more aware of what conductors actually do, how they do it, and why.

After all, that’s the purpose of giving you a global opportunity to ask a conductor whatever you want!

If you missed it, glean the incredible list of original tweets from the transcript linked below and make sure you join my mailing list so you get to hear about next year’s event ahead of time.

But grab a last-minute chance now – add your question in the comments below and I’ll put it to ‘the crew’ and have a go at answering it myself. We don’t want you non-Tweeters to be left behind, so ask away!

Here are some 2012 #AskAConductor stats:

  • 1028 total tweets between December 11 & December 13 (Eastern Time)
  • 860 original tweets, 68 Retweets
  • 56 participants
  • Most questions from gabriela_hb in El Salvador
  • Top 3 tweeting conductors (excl. me):

Be sure to join in the fun next year!

Click here to download the full transcript (131KB. Need Adobe?)

 

Composing B: And so it begins…

Following last week’s post about how to start a composition, well… how I am starting this composition… a few decisions have been made.

Whilst looking around for a compositional structure I came across several main elements:

Each have their own special qualities and after a little thought, I thought it would be nice to try Sonata form. I don’t remember the last time I wrote something in Sonata form (and stuck to it) so here’s an opportunity.

At the moment, Sonata form will form the dominating format, although during the creative process unexpected twists and turns can often lead compositions into completely unplanned territory.

Tweetable!
The creative process can take unexpected twists and turns that lead into completely unknown territory. via @Stephen_P_Brown

Sonata form structure:

  • Introduction
  • Exposition: A main theme (usually a melody) followed by a second theme in a different key*
  • Development: Both themes mixed together through wildly changing audio experiences, although still always related to the exposition somehow
  • Recapitulation: The main theme revisted plus the secondary theme in the ‘home key’
  • Coda: An ending unlike any other. Or, probably like every other.

Beethoven had a really hard time ending his music, so pieces like his famous Fifth Symphony could actually end many, many times but none of them actually do end the piece. Until there are no more chords left.

Dudley Moore had a similar problem:

Dudley Moore doesn’t stop…

So, quite imaginatively, let’s call our piece after its structure, “Sonata.” But who is it for? Well, it’s for a chamber orchestra of sorts. Not piano, nor violin or any other solo instrument. So we can expand the title of our new piece of music to: Sonata for Chamber Orchestra. Like it? I do. Don’t like it? Are there any other options? Yes. Lots. Think of a title and put it in the comments below.

(*)
I also chose to go with the key signature of G Major. The KEY of a piece of music tells the players what tonality to focus on. In the Western world we have developed a system using 12 different tones that repeat (on a piano, play every consecutive note starting with the left of the three black keys, F sharp(#). You’ll end up hearing ‘another’ F# 13 keys later). From those 12 notes, 8 of them form the basis of tonality – major (happy) scales and minor (sad) scales.

Again on a piano, find ‘C’. It’s the white key immediately to the left of the two black keys. Play that C plus only the 6 white notes to the right, and then finish with the 8th key which is actually another C. Repeat. And repeat. Start with any C and play the scale – they all sound the same only higher or lower. The combination of tones forms the scale, in this case a major scale.

Copy that combination of tones but start on G (G is 5 notes up from C, including C. It’s the white key immediately to the RIGHT of the LEFT-MOST of the THREE black keys. Got it?!). Only this time, instead of playing all the white keys, when you get to the 7th key, don’t play it. Instead, play the black key immediately to the right – that’s right, F#.

This major scale is what will form the tonal foundation of our new piece.

G Major scale on a keyboard

G Major scale

 

Next week, lets look at the melody, or the ‘Main Theme’

Feedback for Tapestry Tampa Bay

Watch the whole video below…

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown presented his brand new composition “Tapestry Tampa Bay” to a new audience in Safety Harbor, Florida, on March 23 2012. Feedback has been amazing and very positive, with requests to orchestrate some of the movements as well as over 5,000 views of the concert video.

Check out why…

“Brilliant composition. Those of you that missed this concert, you missed out on a great night of beautiful and entertaining music.” -Barbara

“Tapestry Tampa Bay” simply amazing.” -Hamby

“Absolutely inspiring.” -Bill

“I’ll be Back for More!” -Mary

“Excellent. Can’t wait for the CD.” -Carlos

“Stephen is fearless in a new adventure, ready for a new challenge with a quiet confidence.” -Dale

“I love the stories, and then the music plays them out.” -Vanessa

“Totally refreshing and enjoyable. Please do it again.” -Ron

“What a wonderful surprise. I hope a tour comes out of this.” -Jill

Check out the video of Tapestry Tampa Bay on YouTube, and remember to LIKE it! (Give it a thumbs up). Also add your comments, similar to those above, to the video site:

Remember: Stephen is on a mission to RECONNECT hard-working, leisure-seeking people with that inexplicable element of music that affects us with laughter, crying and goose bumps. You can help by sharing this post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even your own blog! Thank you.
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Downtown

The first of my two favorite movements in my latest composition. It also happens to be the last movement actually written. “Downtown.”

There are many downtowns in the Tampa Bay area that could be represented by music: Dunedin could display a Scottish or bagpipe influence – after all, even their high school marching band has pipers! Or we could look to the very edge of Tampa Bay at Tarpon Springs, and include a Greek music influence. Certainly fun. Hoopa!

Clearwater, Tampa itself, Bradenton, Seminole, St Petersburg, Ybor, Egypt Lake-Leto, all have cultural influences from around the world, so the decision became tough. In the end, I decided to simply title the work ‘downtown’ and not make obvious clichéd references to cultures.

The piece is busy. It starts with a piano and marimba duet and the structure grew very quickly from there – an ascending sequence (rising pattern that repeats itself) but with different instrumental colors. A lovely little piano phrase keeps interrupting until eventually, everyone’s gone home.

Or so it seems. A pulsating backbone pervades the area with Tampa Bay’s nightlife preparing for the regular onslaught of visitors and locals alike. Songs burst from every nightclub and many restaurants, and the crowds grow in size and energy.

Unfortunately, like most great nights out that suddenly come to an end, the marimba & piano remind us that it’s time to go back to work. The grand finale of this movement wraps up with a full stop traditional ‘The End’ ending. It’s a fun movement.

Fish for music, not chips

I’m not obsessed with fish. Really!

Of course it’s a favorite dish of mine – I grew up in “Fish & Chip” land (and to be perfectly honest, still have not yet found anything that comes close to it in the USA). On overnight camping trips to Hastings we’d walk the promenade, play on the beach and watch the boats land on the pebbles before unloading their stock, indulge in crazy golf or the indoor amusement center (I once won £130 in pennies!) and then head to the local chippie. You really can’t get fresher fish than that! And, at that time, it was all cod with the occasional haddock or flounder. Yummy stuff.

So white fish has played a big part throughout my consuming life. No surprise, then, that moving to Florida opened up plenty more opportunity for immediate (i.e. fresh) and inexpensive fish dinners.

But what was this thing called Grouper? Eventually I tried it. And really liked it! Big, meaty, fleshy, moist, almost impossible to overcook white fish. It is great in a sandwich, or just plain. Don’t spoil it by deep frying it in less-than-perfect batter, either. I began eating Grouper almost everywhere I could, and eventually came across this video:

Can you believe the size of this fish? Not all species of Grouper are this large. Some are bigger:

No hoax: check here

http://www.hoax-slayer.com/giant-warsaw-grouper.shtml

So, how could I do anything but write a piece of music about this giant in a piece about the place where I discovered it? So, movement three of “Tapestry Tampa Bay” is, in fact, called Grouper!

The movement starts out deep underwater, with some bubbles floating up from a rock-like bulge – actually a fish. The rock slowly turns sideways as more bubbles escape from underneath it. As it opens its mouth to impersonate a yawn, a few more bubbles interrupt and the fish gets annoyed. “Do you mind!” he exclaims. “I’m yawning.”

Again, an attempt at a yawn. More bubbles. Eventually, the fed-up fish doesn’t care and if it could growl, it did so. No more bubbles.

So off he heads, into the warm swirling waters. Being such a large fish means very little disturbs its direction or wake. Smooth and flowing, the gentle giant surveys his domain. Occasionally little spurts of bubbles emerge from his mouth, but all-in-all he is a happy fish. It takes a lot of energy to move such a large body, so eventually King Grouper settles down for a nap.

Is that really a piece of music?

Yes.

You wait ’till you hear it! And now, we are preparing to have the concert broadcast live online, too! Look out for details soon.