Pitt Composers to Shine in Pittsburgh Symphony’s World Premiere This Week

Issue Date: 
February 3, 2014

The work of several composers with ties to the University of Pittsburgh will be showcased during the world premiere of a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra-commissioned piece, The Elements, to be held Feb. 7-9 at Heinz Hall.

As part of its 2014 “Year of the Pittsburgh Composers,” the symphony last year commissioned local musicians to create five movements that spoke to the city’s history and encompassed the elements of earth, water, air, fire, and metal. The musicians are Amy Williams and Mathew Rosenblum, Pitt assistant professor and professor of music, respectively; Bomi Jang, a doctoral student in Pitt’s music program; Reza Vali, a Carnegie Mellon associate professor of music who earned his PhD in music theory and composition in 1985 from Pitt; and Patrick Burke, an assistant professor of composition and music technology in Duquesne University’s Mary Pappert School of Music.

Each composer was tasked with creating a five-minute movement elucidating whichever element(s) they saw fit. The group worked under the direction of PSO Conductor Manfred Honeck.

For “Flood Lines,” Williams found inspiration in pictures of Pittsburgh’s 1936 flood, which covered parts of the city with as much as 46 feet of water. “They’re really striking photographs of the city,” said Williams, adding that she was especially struck by “the look on people’s faces as they trudged through waist-high water Downtown.”

Williams said she knew her “piece would encapsulate the rising waters, extending to the calm and peace” that ensued as they receded. She also incorporated fragments of music that would have been popular in 1936 or written that year. Though she does not directly quote the likes of Pittsburgh’s Mary Lou Williams or Romania’s Béla Bartók, she recreates the “music that was in the air.”

In writing to the images of the flood, she found “so many voices and so many possibilities.” Williams tends to focus on the group sound in her compositions, highlighting elements such as the piano and flute.

On the opposite end of the elemental spectrum, Rosenblum’s movement, “Eliza Furnace,” plays on fire and metal as it builds upon the image of Western Pennsylvania’s first hot-blast iron furnace, built in 1846. “I wanted something that was gritty and industrial and metallic,” said Rosenblum, something that helps people hear “the mind-blowing size of these places.” Though Eliza was only active for three years, it helped set the stage for the industry that kept Pittsburgh running for more than a century.

Rosenblum’s score pulses heavily with percussion that uses hard mallets and varied brass instruments. The string instruments and the second of two pianos are de-tuned, creating the effect of what happens when you hit a metal object. “It has a very complex tone,” said Rosenblum. “It’s really rich in terms of its overall timbre and spectrum.”

Rosenblum termed The Year of the Pittsburgh Composer project “ground-breaking” and “forward-thinking” because, he noted, major symphony orchestras do not typically feature composers from their own cities. “It’s a great way to bring artists together in the city,” said Rosenblum. “The hope is that they’ll do it again.”