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Friday, March 1, 2013

The Superconductor Interview: Out of the Wilderness

Contemporary composer Sean Shepherd is ahead of the curve.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mountain man: composer Sean Shepherd is inspired by the great outdoors.
Photo by Jamie Kingham. © 2013
The Spring of 2013 is a big season for Sean Shepherd. The Brooklyn-based composer, a fast-rising star in the field of contemporary concert music, has two premieres scheduled. On March 3, the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble will play Quintet, a new chamber piece. On April 18 at Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Orchestra will unveil Tuolumne, a triptych of tone poems based on the Yosemite photographs of Ansel Adams.

Quintet, which will be heard as part of the Ensemble's concerts at the Brooklyn Museum (March 3) and the Morgan Library (March 6) is written for five instruments (oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass) and unfolds over five movements. "Each movement," he explains, "is very different in terms of character. They are all miniatures, based on a very small amount of material. What I tried to achieve in each is focus within that material itself."

The sections of Quintet are aphoristic, in the model of works by the Second Viennese School. Each movement focuses on one of the five instruments. "It's not quite as distilled as (Anton) Webern," he says. "Each instrument gets its own little moment. The third movement ("Distant and Elsewhere") features the solo violin with commentary from the ensemble. It starts low in the register and by the end it's very high. In contrast, the fourth movement features the oboe and is called "Hissy Fit."

Tuolumne is a much larger work written for full orchestra. Mr. Shepherd was inspired by the photographs of Ansel Adams, with each movement corresponding to a different image. Tuolumne Meadows is at the top of Yosemite--it is a high mountain meadow. He took this expedition there in 1938 with a group of friends that also included Georgia O'Keefe. The middle movement, Winter Sunrise is after one of his more famous photos taken in 1944. It's high contrast. The third is inspired by the Lone Pine in the Merced Lake country. It's a gorgeous old tree with these fantastic, out-stretched, sort of twisted arms.

"When you look at these photos, they're abstract--studies in contrast. I think of them as being complementary to the thrust of each movement, with each movement creating its own emotional world. There's something really gorgeous here--I've tried to write this warm, rich kaleidoscopic music. You can hear the idea of granite and water flowing over the rock to create the flow of emotion. The second movement depicts the violence of the mountain's creation--there's violence and it's much more intense. The last is sort of a mystery still--I need to hear what it's going to sound like."

"It's becoming kind of a trope," he admits. "Tuolumne might be the last one like this for a while. I think very often I'm inspired by great literature or visual art, but there's something about outdoor places. I'm also a big architecture junkie and it occupies my imagination."

Mr. Shepherd first came to the public's notice in 2011 with Desert Garden a work he wrote as for the Reno Philharmonic. "Desert Garden was important," he reflects. "It was a memorial to my grandmother who I was very close to. She maintained this amazing garden--it was a kind of paradise, a little Eden. As soon as she died it was the quick things to go." He adds: "You become aware of the influence (of relatives) and of keeping things alive. IT was about a place and a person and something that was specific for the Reno Philharmonic, which I had known since I was a kid."

"I've added a few prefixes to my name in the last two years" he admits. "One of the things I've been thinking about is the meaning of that phrase: 'American composer Sean Shepherd.' I think that every composer has some sense of his own nationality." (Mr. Shepherd can add "award-winning" after becoming one of two composers to win the 2013 Kravis Prize, awarded for composition under the aegis of the New York Philharmonic. He'll write a new piece to be performed in 2014.)

"As a composer, I'm an optimist," he concludes. "I always feel my best music is ahead of me."

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