Guest Blog: Percussionist Colleen Phelps on the Collaborative Process

Nashville-based percussionist Colleen Phelps specializes in performances of experimental works featuring spoken voice, found objects, and singing – as heard on her Solo Soundbox concert earlier this season.  On the New Concerto Project, she’ll be premiering CSB Co-Founder Rachel C. Walker‘s percussion concerto On a paper nautilus.

Commissioning a piece can be a genuinely scary process. We, as performers, take a leap of faith and put the fate of the performance into someone else’s hands when we decide to ask a composer to write something for us. The performance date is already set, and we’re committed, even though we don’t actually know what it’s going to sound like! It’s a process that only works with a significant amount of trust and open communication between the composer and performer. Thankfully I have that with Rachel.

Choral composer Alice Parker compares the process of composing to cooking. You would never make a gourmet meal without knowing who is going to sit at the table. With a good performer/composer relationship, performing new commission rather than an existant concerto feels like visiting someone’s home kitchen as opposed to a restaurant. There’s plenty of good food in restaurants, like there’s plenty of great concerti you can buy sheet music for. But having someone create a dish just for you really is delicious. Rachel knows my playing well enough to know my likes and dislikes, my strengths and weaknesses, and how to lean into the gestures I enjoy performing. Likewise, I knew her work well enough to trust that the piece would fit my personality and performing style.

I’m looking forward to performing On A Paper Nautilus, and adding it to my repertoire. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Interview with Pianist Holly Roadfeldt

Pianist Holly Roadfeldt is known for her insightful performances of new music.
We’re excited to have her join us tonight at 8.30 the Hoffner Lodge in Northside in the next installment of our Solo Soundbox series!


CSB: You are known for your frequent work with new music and collaboration with living composers – what initially drew you to new music and when did this interest start?

HR: My interest in contemporary music began the first time I heard Crumb’s Makrokosmos I on a field trip when I was in junior high.  I thought it was incredible.  When I realized I could play brand new music as an undergrad at Eastman I was hooked.  I premiered quite a few pieces on Eastman’s student composers concerts.  It never stopped!  As a student, I adored playing music written by classmates. 

CSB: For our readers who might not be familiar, could you talk a bit about your work with Kirk O’Riordan on The Preludes Project?

HR: I’m not sure I can talk a little bit! 

My relationship with Kirk began when we were both students at Indiana University.  I played concerts with him in a sax/piano duo, he has conducted several concertos that I performed with orchestra and symphonic band, and I have premiered a number of his works.  I also married him!

For the Preludes Project, the idea started in 2013 when I was hired to perform all of Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes with Compagnie Marie Chouinard, a modern dance ensemble from Montreal. This live performance, which occurred as part of the Williams Center’s Footlight Performance Series at Lafayette College, entirely changed my perception of these preludes. Hearing them while seeing a modern choreographic interpretation of the music invited even more possibilities of discovery. I became fascinated with the expressive potential of these small pieces, and hoped to help the genre continue—and since our present-day ears already perceive the music in a completely different way from when the preludes were initially heard, it made sense to challenge the expectations of contemporary audiences. 

At the end of 2013, I began commissioning 15 composers to write preludes for me.  For three seasons, I performed newly composed works on the same program as preludes by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Chopin. Every concert was slightly different yet the response by audiences was astounding. Not only did they accept the newly composed preludes alongside the standard repertoire as a logical historical progression; they also listened to their favorites with more wonder and more inquiry. While I noticed this as I was talking to audiences from the stage, it was also evident in the many questions I received from attendees after the concert. 

I was happy to record Kirk O’Riordan’s Twenty-Six Preludes for Solo Piano along with Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes and have it be released by on PARMA’s Ravello label a few months ago. It is wonderful to perform new music for ears that are accustomed to a contemporary language, but it is also fabulously rewarding to perform new music for people who are not sure what to expect.  After three years, I gave 59 prelude premieres by 15 living composers for 44 audiences and 33 full-length recitals in 16 states.  It is still going even though I am starting new projects! I am really happy with how it turned out. 

CSB: What are your relationships to the other composers on the program? 

HR: Kirk is my husband, my best friend, and long-time musical collaborator. 

I met Tony at a new music festival/conference in Indiana a few years ago and we kept in contact. He will be at the concert, which is fantastic!

I met Charlie on Twitter a few years ago and played his Metropolitan on a concert I was doing featuring New York and Philadelphia composers. He wrote 2 preludes for my Preludes Project and the one I am playing here was just premiered a few weeks ago.  We talk a few times a year and I was happy to spend time with him, his wife Micka, and his parents after I premiered Focus. 

I haven’t met Julia except on social media!  I love this story, though.  Garrett Shatzer decided to play matchmaker with composers and performers on Twitter.  He said he thought Julia should write a piece for me.  I am not sure how many other musicians took him seriously, but I contacted Julia immediately and asked her if she was interested.  I am so happy she wrote this piece and I hope to meet her in person soon.  

CSB: How do you personally approach learning a newly composed piece?

HR: I like to approach a newly composed piece in the same way I approach learning one that has been around for 100 years or more.  I love the first read-through.  I like to get the big picture as soon as possible.  I find the characteristics that resonate with me the most and then I begin my own psychological study.  Why did the composer write this?  What does s/he want to convey?  Then, I do the more important work:  what does the composer not know is there?   That is what I really explore.  It is really important to me especially with composers early in their career.  No one would be surprised if you said other people see something in you that you don’t see.  The same goes for the music.  The underlying character is what is interesting to me.  I only have this conversation with composers after I have known them for a while.  Most composers trust me to do what I need to do, but I am really private about the process in the beginning.  Just as it is highly personal for a composer when s/he is writing the piece, it is highly personal when I start learning it.  I don’t like it to be rushed.  It may take me a few performances, therefore, to really blend our voices. As much as I love premieres, I love preparing a piece believing I am doing the ground work for the fifth performance.  

Interview with Composer Charles Peck

TF08161-for-web-680x1024.jpgComposer Charles Peck writes dynamic works with focused energy.  We can’t wait to hear pianist Holly Roadfeldt perform several of his piano works on our Solo Soundbox concert this Friday, now at the Hoffner Lodge in Northside.


Could you tell us a little about the pieces on this concert and your collaborations with Holly?

The first piece on the concert, Metropolitan, I wrote back in 2011 – during my time in Cincinnati actually. I had been musing on a few of the cities that I had visited and felt compelled to document them somehow. There are five total movements, each with a contrasting, urban perspective. Holly came across this piece via twitter, believe it or not. After we somewhat randomly first connected there, I continually noticed her posts about performing new music and eventually decided to send her a recording of Metropolitan. Fortunately, she decided to program it and started a nice collaboration that we’ve had over the past several years.

The other piece on the program, Focus, is a new piece written specifically for Holly. Having heard her perform both my music and others many times, I wanted to write something new that would feel uniquely-suited to her musical spirit. She plays with rich character and a real sensitivity towards contrasting textures. Thus, Focus embodies those musical characteristics using the metaphor of light coming in and out of focus. It is full of layers and phrases that I knew she would interpret well.

How do you approach the solo piano medium?
Piano is an interesting instrument to compose for because there is an overwhelming amount of repertoire, including tonal, atonal, retuned, prepared, and inside-the-piano works. This potential for contemporary composers is massive, to say the least. And yet, we keep coming back for more because of the expressive power of the instrument and it’s ubiquity in the music world. Personally, I am most attracted to the physicality of the instrument. Watching a pianist go to work can be a visceral, yet beautiful experience. It requires subtlety and power in equal proportions. Much of my piano writing has sought to embrace this dichotomy, allowing the performer to showcase both ends of the spectrum either simultaneously or by contrast.
To what extent does location influence your music?  
Location plays a big part in Metropolitan, which was initially inspired by Philadelphia. The longer you live somewhere, the more you become accustomed to the varying and diverse sounds of the environment. In the case of cities, I have always loved how different an area can sound from one block to the next or from one hour of the day to another. At different moments in Metropolitan, you can hear car horns, night life, or people walking. And it was a fascinating compositional experiment to discover how to assemble this collage of sounds.
What are your current and upcoming projects?

I have a number of exciting projects coming up. In two weeks, I have a premier of a piano quartet with the New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, which should be an exciting concert. Then, in June, I’ll be working with the Albany Symphony on my orchestral work Mosaic during their American Music Festival. And I am just now wrapping up a new piece for Alarm Will Sound that will be premiered in July at the Mizzou International Composers Festival. Should be a fun few months!

Guest Blog Post: Laura Harrison’s Concerto Inspirations

Laura Harrison

Today, we’re joined by composer Laura Harrison, a Cincinnati-based composer whose music is brooding and richly textured. Her new piano concerto Corners of the Sky will be premiered by pianist Kristofer Rucinski, conductor Jon Noworyta, and the Soundbox Orchestra.


One of my favorite aspects of being a composer is creating opportunities to work together with other incredible musicians and bring a brand new piece to life. It is an especially poignant experience when these collaborations happen with performers whose aesthetic sensibilities are similar to my own. Kristofer Rucinski is one of those performers. The first piece I heard him play was the Lou Harrison piano concerto. I was inspired not only by the piece, but by Kris’ visceral interpretation of it. His rich, confidant sound and his penchant for choosing driving, dissonant music made me want to write a piece for him. My first collaboration with Kris was also within the context of orchestra, but although the piano part was prominent, it wasn’t quite a solo. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to write a much more substantial concerto for him. The New Concerto Project proved to be the chance to do this.

The title Corners of the Sky is an adaptation of a line from a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca. When I read this phrase, I imagined a sky with a thunderstorm moving in from one direction, while the other direction is still clear and sunny. While this piece does not follow a specific program, the title felt like an apt description for the quickly changing moods in the piece. A dark, brooding opening gives way to a lively, rhythmic section, before settling into a more reflective character.

Guest Blog Post: Stephanie Ann Boyd on Ritūum

static1.squarespace.jpg

New York-based composer Stephanie Ann Boyd is no stranger to the concerto genre. Come hear her new bassoon concerto Rituūum, featuring soloist Andrew Marlin, conductor Alexander Colding Smith, and the Soundbox Orchestra, on our May 2nd concert.


Lately I’ve felt concerto writing is very akin to portrait painting in that the piece is so much more than simply an image captured in time: the personality and spirit of the commissioner/soloist must be present in every layer of the music; the music itself must be a true homage to the history and the capabilities of both the instrument and the soloist. 

Eric Tyler Barga approached me two years ago about writing a concerto for him. He knew that he wanted a three movement structure, an incredibly visceral and rhythmic style overall, heart-ache written into the second movement, the Dies Irae snuck in there somewhere, and we both agreed that it should reflect an obsessive, ritualistic, manic behavior throughout. I immediately went to my dear friend Google and looked up the word “ritual” and its Latin roots: up came the word Ritūum. 

With this concerto being not only a portrait of Eric but also a portrait of the bassoon — that absolutely magical and resonant log of wood — I made sure to spend adequate time in the piece on the capabilities of that instrument that strike me every time I hear them: the goosebump-inducing sighing/screaming/wailing of the high register’s long, celery green tones; the earthy, pungent pedal tones that feel impossibly low every single time; the ability to practically fly between slurred 16th notes (showcased in the first movement as sextuplet sixteenths) with radical agility, and the stunningly human middle register. 

And so in Ritūum you’ll hear a jumpy, manic first movement with an oasis-like middle section, a middle movement that sings of the coldness of winter and a descent into the one-sided begging, pleading of a love gone wrong. The third movement is a non-stop crescendo towards a triumphant, hopeful ending.