It’s not too often that a major symphony orchestra plays a high school student’s composition in concert, but thanks to a new program, the Kansas City Symphony will do just that.
The Young Composers Institute, featuring five high school students, is the brainchild of this year’s symphony composer-in-residence, Adam Shoenberg.
Kansas City Symphony conductor Michael Stern commissioned Shoenberg’s first work in 2007, and when he got the opportunity to return to Kansas City, he jumped at the chance to make education part of the experience.
All five students are from Olathe: Grace Baugher, Olathe East; Charlie Tink, Olathe North; Grant Topjon, Olathe Northwest; Isaiah Hastings, Olathe South; and home school student Spencer Arrowood.
The goal is for each student to compose a four-to-seven minute piece for a group of about 10 musicians. And then members of the Symphony will play their compositions at a concert this spring in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Shoenberg hopes that the Symphony will continue the program in the future with other composers-in-residence after his residency is done this year.
“Those who end up going on to college for music will have a professionally-recorded piece they can submit as part of their portfolio. It’s a great opportunity for them on a number of platforms,” Shoenberg said.
Each year, the Symphony works with a different school district to put on a benefit concert for that district’s fine arts department. This year, it was the Olathe School District, so when the idea of the institute came up, symphony Education Manager Stephanie Brimhall turned to the Olathe schools to nominate students for the program.
“The kids range in their compositional abilities. One student has never composed anything before; a few have written for various groups,” Brimhall said.
Because Shoenberg lives in California and visits Kansas City every few months to work on his own compositions with the Symphony, the institute is taking advantage of 21st-century technology. Students send him PDF files of their work, along with mp3 files of recordings. They also chat about composition, orchestration and any number of other issues via Skype.
When Shoenberg does come to town, he meets with each student for private lessons but also teaches a group session.
One of the challenges of orchestration is that students are writing for instruments that they may not play. Grant Topjon plays violin, but his piece also will incorporate flute and clarinet.
Shoenberg “gives us the range of the instrument, what it sounds like, the usual stuff a clarinet plays and how it differs from the other instruments you’re writing for,” Grant said.
The young composers have been working on their pieces since September. To get them started, Shoenberg had them write a melody, then make 10 variations of the melody, plus a harmony and a counter melody. They’ll pick their favorites from the 10 to include in their finished products.
“Orchestration is something that keeps coming up. How I can blend (sounds) — it’s almost like the work of a blacksmith,” said Spencer Arrowood.
One of the more nerve-wracking parts of the experience for the students was sharing their initial compositions with each other in November at a group lesson.
“It was amazing for me to see how different each person’s piece was. Some people had really rhythmic pieces, some lyrical, some atmospheric,” Shoenberg said. “(Now) the exciting part is going to happen. I can start to weigh in with more detail.”
The important thing is to keep writing. Charlie Tink has been writing music since she was 7 years old, and her school orchestra has performed several of her pieces. However, she’s never had any formal education in music composition.
“I have always done music, but I’ve never had good parts to play. I want to be the composer that writes for basses and cellos,” she said. “I want to give violins the bass part.”
The moment of truth will be at 6 p.m. May 10 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center, when members of the Symphony play their orchestrations. The free concert will be open to the public.
“As a composer, you have to rely on performers, because they breathe life into the music,” Spencer said. “Without them composers wouldn’t exist.”