By Vivian Goodman
Jorg Widmann wrote his “Flute En Suite” for the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal flutist, Joshua Smith, and Smith loves the idea.
“I’m entering into this world that’s new, that has been designed just specifically for me in a sense. And I’m really excited about it.”
Excited enough to play a few bars for us while we wait for the world premiere.
The German-born composer of “Flute En Suite,” Widmann teaches composition in Freiburg, Germany, and performs all over the world as a clarinetist. He’s also the Cleveland Orchestra’s sixth Young Composer-in-Residence. Widmann arrived at Severance Hall in 2009 and says Smith’s flute caught his ear right away.
“I really fell in love with this kind of playing,” Widmann recalls. “He has this wonderful dark flute sound.”
It was Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser Most’s idea to have the orchestra commission a piece for Smith, but Smith says it was left up to him to choose the composer.
“ I did speak with Franz about potential ideas of composers. I also talked with Pierre Boulez a little bit for a list and just started listening to the music and Widmann’s name came up actually from both of these conductors. So I got a big pile of his music and really fell in love with it.”
Smith says he likes that Widmann “writes melody easily. He writes lyrically … which is also something I respond to. He’s not afraid of pushing, but it’s not just a catalogue of special effects.”
The 37-year-old Widmann is adventurous in his orchestrations and known for pushing instruments to the limit of their ranges. He’s decidedly avant-garde, but says he still loves a good melody “very much so. And sometimes I personally, I miss this in contemporary writing.”
On a Wire
Jennifer Higdon, whose “On a Wire” is also on the bill for this final weekend at Severance Hall, grew up on rock and roll, taught herself to play flute at age 15, and didn’t start composing until her early 20s. Today, the Pulitzer-Prize winner is one of the most frequently performed American composers.
“This year alone, I’ve turned down probably 50 commissions,” she says, “which is pretty staggering. I didn’t even think that was a possibility, but it’s quite incredible when you think there are that many people asking for works out there. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
She’s pleased, too, that her work has been called “accessible”, and thinks it could set a trend.
“We have had a return to more melodic music,” she says. “A lot of composers working now are aware of the fact that they want their music to speak. So, I think it’s just kind of a different focus on what’s important in the music for the people who are writing it now.”
Accessibility is important, too, to the orchestra managers who purchase new works.
World premieres are prestigious, but ticket sales are vital. So commissioning is serious business.
Commissions for contemporary classical music can cost anywhere from $9,000 to $95,000. Sheet-music printing costs can add thousands more to the bill and in-demand composers like Higdon command the highest commissions.
But tough economic times require new models.
Higdon’s “On a Wire,” a concerto for sextet and orchestra that will be performed this weekend at Severance Hall with the Grammy-winning, Ohio-born ensemble, “Eighth Blackbird” was co-commissioned by Cleveland and seven other orchestras.
“It’s kind of a new way to put together commissions,” Higdon says. “It kind of lessens the cost for the orchestras, it guarantees this piece gets quite a few repeat performances, (and) it gives me a chance to make little adjustments on the work. All around it’s kind of a win-win situation.”
Long history of new works
It’s long been “win-win” for the Cleveland Orchestra and the classical world for so much new music to originate in Northeast Ohio. Since Franz Welser Most took the baton in 2002, the orchestra has ordered up nearly two dozen new compositions.
And since the orchestra’s founding in 1918 it has commissioned almost one hundred works including the music of Morton Gould, William Grant Still and Howard Hanson, and more recently John Adams, John Williams, Philip Glass.
A joint commissioning project with Carnegie Hall, the Lucerne Festival and the Roche Pharmaceutical company has brought eight new pieces to life including Chinese composer Chen Yi’s “Sur Jee,” or “Four Seasons.”
And in the last ten seasons, the Daniel Lewis Young Composer Endowment Fund has brought six of the world’s leading contemporary composers to Cleveland to live here, work with the orchestra, teach master classes at area conservatories, and compose music.
Flutist Smith says he and the composer agreed Widmann’s newest composition shouldn’t be one of those showy flute concertos where the instrument chirps like a chickadee.
“This piece (is) a vehicle for me … to let it show off the more deep organic sounds that the flute can also make … sort of an earthiness in the sound of the instrument which I always respond to.”
Widmann has been a composer in residence with other great orchestras including the Salzburg Festival, the Berlin German Symphony Orchestra and at the Lucerne Festival. But he says there’s something special about Cleveland.
“It was pure joy,” he says. “For a composer, … it’s just the greatest gift that you’re allowed to work with people like that, … every style and also in every register and every section of the orchestra. It’s such a balanced sound.”
The admiration is mutual. Joshua Smith says even before the world premiere of Widmann’s “Flute En Suite” the orchestra is thinking of return performances.
“I already know that Franz enjoys it very much from having studied it and looked at it. So we’ve already talked about not letting this be the only time we ever do it.”
These last concerts of the season at Severance Hall will have a festive air. For the Friday at 7 event, the orchestra plans a post-concert barbecue with bluegrass by the Wayfaring Strangers.
For Jennifer Higdon, it brings back happy memories of playing at the Cleveland Orchestra’s summer home 10 years ago.
“Out at Blossom, they did a fanfare of mine to open a concert and I was incredibly excited to hear it so I’m thrilled to be going back and to have a chance to hear this incredible orchestra perform this work,” she says. “Eighth Blackbird, who actually also have an Ohio connection, they went to Oberlin, they are really excited about it. I just came from concerts with them in West Michigan and they’re all revved up, they’re ready.”
Eighth Blackbird will also play music by Pierre Boulez, Phillip Glass and others in the final concert of the season, Sunday at Severance’s Reinberger Chamber Hall.