You think the job market in your field is tough? Try being a composer. Not only are you competing against other living composers out there to have your works appreciated and performed, you’re also up against an even bigger pool of dead composers whose pieces are revered. It’s quite common for a typical professional symphony orchestra program to feature a lineup of composers who are all long gone. For the flesh-and-blood variety, it can be hard to be heard.
But that’s exactly what Kenneth Froelich, a Fresno State music composition professor, is achieving this weekend. At Sunday’s Masterworks concert, the Fresno Philharmonic will perform Froelich’s “Spinning Yarns.” (The program also includes guest soloist Awadagin Pratt in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.) To mark this notable event in Froelich’s career, here are 5 Things to Know about the piece and the composer — plus a bonus item about the rest of the concert. And go to the end of this post to learn how you can win two tickets to the event.
“Spinning Yarns” is inspired by a jazz concept. And it’s not the kind of yarn you might think.
In jazz, the term “trading fours” refers to a point in which the horns and drummer each improvise four-bars of music at a time, exchanging back and forth in a rather transparent musical dialog. The title “Spinning Yarns” evolved from this idea.
“In my mind the ideas being exchanged between sections of the orchestra mimicked the idea of stories being shared by individuals in a group setting,” Froelich says. “In other words, each section is ‘spinning a yarn’ to each other. It should be noted that the music is lively and bombastic. These are intense stories being shared by the musicians.”
Rei Hotoda, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, was immediately drawn to “Spinning Yarns.”
“The piece is exciting and dramatic, driving and percussive,” she says. “I’m certain that audiences will love this work.”
Her selection is part of her commitment to both the local arts scene and American composers in general.
“Fresno has an incredibly vibrant arts community, one that that I truly believe needs to be showcased and one that we should all be very proud of,” she says. “I will be programming other Fresno-specific composers in future seasons as well. And showcasing American composers is always important to me. I pride myself with being a champion of the music of our time. It is vital that we support the Mozarts and Beethovens of today and perform, program and recognize works that should be part of the classical canon.”
By the way: “Spinning Yarns” is the second movement of Froelich’s Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Dream Dialogs.” Each movement deals with dialogue as a core concept. He designed the “Spinning Yarns” so it could stand along as its own work.
Froelich is a nerd. And proud of it.
In fact, one of his albums is titled “Nerd Songs.” The title is taken from his “Nerd Songs” cycle for soprano and piano, which he composed for soprano Ann Moss.
“These are nostalgia pieces, taken from my more ‘nerdy’ pursuits — video games, ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’ “Star Trek,” etc. One of the songs is even written in the BASIC programming language! To this day I still consider myself a proud nerd and it’s part of my personality that enters into many of my compositions on one level or another.”
He keeps busy as professor. He teaches, advises, attends committee meetings — and even composes if he can find the time.
There are currently 11 students in the music composition program. I ask him about how he inspires creativity among his students.
Teaching creativity is probably the single hardest part of teaching composition. While I can provide tools for the student to develop their creativity, the student needs to be inherently curious in the first place. Without curiosity, it becomes near impossible to have the student grow beyond what they already know. Assuming the student IS curious, I then provide them with a laundry list of works by living composers for them to listen to and study. As they explore new music, I instruct them to dig into the works that they both love AND hate. I ask them to emulate these approaches, and – over time – develop them into their own music. By exposing the student to the sheer diversity of music out there, the student hopefully will find a new part of their voice that they didn’t know was there in the first place.
Froelich owns 150 board games. And some of them are real brain burners.
Many of the games are “eurogames” — a name attributed to the fact that many games in this style originated in Europe. They tend to be highly strategic. You’ll find him playing those games with his family: He’s been married to Jennifer Ostwalt for almost 14 years, and their daughter, Katerina, will be turning 11 in March. They also have a Russian Blue cat named Albina.
Here’s a fun fact about the family: All three of them practice Taekwondo. (The cat took a pass.)
“We are currently Black-Stripe Belts, and assuming we are able to continue practicing at our current pace we will all test for our first-degree Black Belts sometime later this year,” he says.
He’s happy to have a piece performed by the Fresno Philharmonic. Thrilled and overjoyed, to be specific.
“This has been something that I have wished for some time now — well, really, ever since I moved to Fresno in 2005,” he says. “What composer doesn’t want to be performed by their hometown orchestra? It means so much to be able to have my music performed by our professional orchestra, giving me the opportunity to share my compositions with the greater community of Fresno. I am deeply thankful to Rei and Stephen (Wilson, the orchestra’s executive director) for this opportunity.
But wait, there’s more: There will be at least one more opportunity to hear Froelich’s music in Fresno this spring. On April 29, the chamber series Orpheus will perform his large-chamber work “Through Cloudy and Cracked Lenses.” You can get a preview of it on the “Nerd Songs” album
The rest of the concert
Along with “Spinning Yarns,” the orchestra will perform Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 (with guest artist Awadagin Pratt) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
Hotoda has told me in the past she often likes to put together programs so they have a theme or story she wants to tell. I ask her if this concert has one of those loose narratives. She tells me:
You know, I think I want to turn this question around. Given that we are doing a new work, have a phenomenal guest artist, and have pieces by two powerhouse composers, I’m actually curious what the audience members will take away from this concert. So, I am personally inviting everyone who comes to hear the Fresno Philharmonic this Sunday, to stay afterwards for our new “Stay Tuned” series. It is a relaxed post concert event and provides a very unique opportunity to have a conversation with me and the soloist (Awadagin Pratt) in a fun and inviting way. There is no pressure, no need to be shy. So, come to the lobby, have a snack, ask questions, make comments and enjoy. I promise you will not be disappointed.
Sounds like a great chance to enrich your musical experience.
You can win a pair of tickets to the Jan. 28 Fresno Philharmonic concert. To enter, leave a comment on this post telling us if you’ve ever considered yourself a nerd. (Or, if you’re shy, just say why you want to attend.) Deadline to enter is 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26. I’ll send out an email Saturday morning, so be sure to check yours if you enter.
Fresno Philharmonic with Awadagin Pratt, 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, Saroyan Theatre. $25-$79.
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