The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Westside Connections series will showcase Music: The Mirror of Time at Santa Monica’s Moss Theatre on Thursday. The Orchestra will begin the series with an exploration of British composition, featuring Bernadene Blaha, an associate professor of practice of keyboard studies at USC Thornton.
The larger of the two pieces is by Edward Elgar. Written in 1918 while in Brinkwells, the composer found inspiration from the beautiful forest setting.
“You can hear that in the writing of it, the music is kind of really dense. In that regard it’s a mirror in time, and the imagery he uses and portrays,” said Blaha. “He spent a good part of a year really in this cottage he and his wife went to and wrote some of the most important chamber music. It was an incredibly inspiring environment for him to be in.”
The second piece is written by Andrew Norman, known for his blend of eclectic sounds and often nonlinear story telling. His work has been recognized in recent years, earning him numerous awards, including Music America’s 2017 composer of the year.
Working on the composition faculty at USC, Norman is a colleague of Blaha’s. He also was a student of hers not long ago in one of her classes.
“Andrew’s piece is short, about a 10-minute work, and it’s a collection of five sonnets. They’re really creative in the way that he uses the instruments,” Blaha said. “In Andrew’s notes, these are miniatures for sure. He calls them ‘micropieces,’ and he uses the term ‘sonnets’ or coming from the Italian word sonetto, meaning ‘little songs’ or ‘little sounds.’ Each of his five sonnets take as its title a fragment from a Shakespeare sonnet.”
Blaha finds the way Norman manipulates each instrument to have a distinct sound particularly intriguing.
“He writes really different sounds for the cello and piano, it’s very creative in the way he uses the instrument,” Blaha said. “I think for the listener listening too it’s very imaginative. He’s able to capture these little fragments or snippets of time.”
Preparing for the concert comes down to being able to get into a pace with the other musicians and compare their interpretations.
“The preparation takes place with the musicians who I’m collaborating with,” Blaha said. “The process of working together and studying that music and coming to interpretation that comes from the entire group that collaboration has a lot to do with the preparation.”
Each player comes into the piece with their own background and knowledge, creating a different experience by simply switching the people in the orchestra.
“Some of us would have played the Elgar quintet before, and just by changing the partners and having everybody bring their thoughts and interpretations to the rehearsal, that helps shape this performance,” Blaha said. “Really, everything is coming from the music that we see in front of us, the way we read the score, and the way we work with each other.”
One way to engage the piece is to follow the directions of the composer. While in many cases the composer is deceased, with this particular concert the instrumentalists have the opportunity to interact with one of the composers directly.
“One of the most interesting aspects for me is that tomorrow we have a rehearsal with Andrew. For musicians it’s always a real thrill when the composer is living and you’re able to meet with them and have their input to the preparation, that’s particularly exciting,” Blaha said.
For the Elgar piece, and others that make it impossible to have the composer present, there are other ways of being able to follow their intent.
“In a sense they are there through the way they mark the music and the notes or indications that they leave for us, and of course we call them interpretation as we look at the marks that are in the score and we work out what we the performer think that means,” Blaha said. “We try to honor the text and make the music come to life through honoring the composer’s intentions.”
In order to make the composer’s vision come to life, a copious amount of fine-tuning is necessary. This process is often time consuming, and with most musicians taking on multiple projects at once, it can often present the greatest challenge.
“It certainly isn’t a nine to five calendar – it’s full time. I think we as performers live with the preparation process around the clock,” Blaha said. “Each one of us in the quintet has not only this concert coming up, but has other concerts we’re rehearsing for, other work that we’re doing which includes teaching orchestra performance for them.”
In addition to an engagement in San Francisco the week after the concert, Blaha also has to juggle her responsibilities as a teacher.
“As far as the teaching goes, that’s an incredible commitment because most of my work is one-on-one private instruction, and so each student has their own program of study that they’re trying to do, their own music that they’re trying to prepare. Each one is different,” Blaha said. “There is no set curriculum for each student, so it takes quite a bit of time to get to know them to understand wherethe challenges and issues and progress and talent lie. It’s completely rewarding, and exhausting.”
Ultimately, being able to work with the other string players and Norman is worth the exhaustion.
“The most exciting part of it for me is to work with the string players I’ll be working with, who are all in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. They’re incredible. I’m really enjoying the rehearsing aspect and looking forward definitely to Thursday night’s concert. The work on Andrew Norman’s piece especially, being able to play a composer I’ve known for a couple of years, that’s particularly exciting.”