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California Symphony's support for American composers runs deep

The East Bay based California Symphony just announced its 2014-2017 Young American Composer in Residence program, open to all American composers under 40. YACR is a pretty remarkable initiative that remains somewhat under the radar, especially given the the press that similar programs receive. Some of the notable features include multiple commissions, paid travel and copyist expenses, and recorded rehearsals of in-progress works.

The California Symphony, founded in 1986, has a well-established history of promoting young composers, something newly minted Music Director Donato Cabrera plans on continuing. "I certainly want to continue the tradition of performing works by living American composers," Cabrera said in a recent interview with San Francisco Classical Voice. "Aside from the California Symphony’s tradition of promoting composers who have become well-known — Chris Theofanidis, Mason Bates — there are many composers I went to school with who have gone on to major careers — Nico Muhly, for example. The California Symphony has a great openness to living composers, and I want to celebrate that."

One of the things that sets this residency apart is that because of its extened length, composers and players have the opportunity to really get to know one another as they work together from season to season. At a recent rehearsal several orchestra members greeted and chatted with current composer in residence D. J. Sparr prior to reading through the first section of his new work Dreams of the Old Believers. Sparr is in the third and final year of his residency but his first encounter with YACR was back in 1997 when his college roommate Kevin Puts was in the program. “I saw what a great opportunity it was to be able to work with the orchestra in the reading sessions, where you really get a chance to fine-tune your craft and ideas so that in the future your works can go into intense rehearsals and come off with as much polish as possible.


Sparr's new work Dreams of the Old Believers is inspired by the story of a Russian family who fled deep into the Siberian wilderness to escape religious persecution in the 1930s and subsequently became utterly isolated from the rest of humanity for decades. Prior to beginning the piece Sparr said that Music Director Cabrera challenged him to compose a work that fits in with the Russian theme of this season's final concert. In response Sparr drew inspiration from that story and also selected a few iconic musical moments from Russian symphonic literature to serve as the musical basis of the piece. "I am using some tonalities from famous Russian masterpieces as a jumping off point to create a symphonic poem about the aspect of the story that I was most moved by, which was that to entertain each other the family would tell each other about their dreams." Those masterpieces are Borodin's On the Steppes of Central Asia [one of my absolute favorite pieces growing up], Scriabin's Prometheus (the Mystic Chord), Stravinsky's Petroushka (the Petroushka Chord), Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (Juliet's Death Scene), and the pounding augmented fifths in the timpani in the Finale of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. 
Scriabin's Mystic Chord

 At the reading session in September the orchestra played through the first few minutes of Dreams of the Old Believers multiple times, with Sparr tweaking the orchestration in several places and making adjustments on the fly. The piece opens with call-and-response snare drum rolls sounding through a uncertain haze of sustained strings. Short musical gestures rise and fall before a raucous woodwind "folk choir" belts a few Petroushka-esque verses. Here Sparr, Music Director Cabrera, and the California Symphony woodwind section experimented with the speed and intensity of their vibrato to find just the right folksy, unvarnished sound. Moments like this are perhaps the greatest aspect of YACR. Young composers like Sparr have the opportunity to essentially rehearse the orchestra. They  can to talk to them, try different things, and communicate person to person, way beyond what they are able to say with the indications printed in the score. Given moments like this it's easy to understand why Sparr calls his residency "one of the most rewarding experiences in my career so far."

You can hear D. J. Sparr's Dreams of the Old Believers alongside works by Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov on Sunday May 4, 2014 at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek.