As FOOSA heads back to Disney Hall, composer Mason Lamb is in for a thrill
Exactly a year ago, on this Friday morning, I hopped on a bus bound from Fresno State to the stunning Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. On board were some of the most talented young musicians I’d ever met, along with their equally talented (and renowned) teachers. This was the annual FOOSA (Fresno Summer Orchestra Academy) pilgrimage to perform at Disney Hall. And I was lucky enough to be invited.
For these musicians, who descend on Fresno State each summer from around the world, getting to step inside Disney Hall is a treat. Getting to be part of a concert there is on an entirely different musical level. I detailed the experience in an in-depth post about the trip. I had a lot of fun writing it.
Pictured at top: Composer Mason Lamb’s ‘Solstice’ will receive its world premiere at Disney Concert Hall.
Now the FOOSA folks are repeating the experience. The orchestra will perform Symphony No. 2 by Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), described by the academy’s executive director, Julia Copeland, as “little known but suddenly hot,” and the always popular “Der Rosenkavalier Suite” by Richard Strauss.
Also on the program is the elegiac Kol Nidrei, by Max Bruch, performed by the great cellist Lynn Harrell. (At FOOSA, the teachers — who represent some of the nation’s finest orchestras and institutions of higher learning — perform alongside the students, adding to the thrill.) And there’s a world premiere: a piece titled “Solstice,” written for this occasion by Fresno-based composer Mason Lamb.
The Disney Hall concert is tonight (8 p.m. Friday, June 22), and I know that most of us can’t make it. But never fear: The FOOSA crew will hop back on their buses and return to Fresno for a free finale concert (7 p.m. Sunday, June 24, at Peoples Church).
I caught up with Lamb, the composer, to talk about the experience of writing a piece that will receive its premiere at one of the most famous concert halls in the world. We also talked about his travels, his family, and even his “surly, unappreciative beagle.”
Q: Disney Hall! I assume you’re going. How cool is that?
A: It’s absolutely mind-blowing! I’m thrilled, not just for the venue, but more so for the incredible orchestra that will be performing my music. I’m honored.
Q: You say that “Solstice” is written from the perspective of an individual charting a new course for their life. Is it personal or autobiographical in nature? If so, what course are you charting?
A: It’s very personal, yes. The piece is an emotional essay about the risks, challenges, and rewards that have come from the past year or so in my own life as I’ve pushed beyond where I was comfortable. Although I had attained a certain level of comfort working professionally as a musician, my own creative yearnings were far from fulfilled, even to the point I considered abandoning music. I realized a total change of course from what I had been doing was needed. One of the biggest changes was going back to school to complete my Master’s degree, which has opened up so many new opportunities for me. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, though. Any worthwhile endeavor comes at a cost, and I and my family have had to make some big adjustments. “Solstice” is a musical expression of the highs, lows, and ultimately triumph of making the effort to change the course of one’s life.
Q: Walk us through the logistics in terms of composing a piece. When did you get the commission? Were you given a length/duration to stay within? What other “content” requirements were you given? How long did it take you to compose it?
A: Thomas Loewenheim, the director of FOOSA, asked me if I would be interested in writing an overture a few months back as he and I were working together on the premiere of another piece. It’s fantastic to have a conductor like him so willing to share his orchestras with local, emerging composers. He wanted an exciting concert overture that would be about five minutes long. He made some suggestions in regard to pieces I should listen to for inspiration, but generally gave me a lot of attitude to craft the piece as I wanted. I would spend a few weeks mulling over ideas while I worked on completing other compositions I had already started. I also wanted to take the extra time in the conceptualization, composition, and orchestration to challenge myself to craft a piece worthy of both this orchestra and the venue.
Q: When you’re in the process of composing a piece, is there just a big musical swirl going through your head?
A: Very much so. Some compositions emerge fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Others, like this one, follow a more meandering process. I went through several “drafts” in my head, and a couple false starts, before I settled on the emotional core expressed in the first two, distinct musical gestures. The third section of the piece took the longest, however, as I wanted it to have a bold, declarative quality. What’s more, I didn’t want to simply rely on the habits and musical vocabulary I’ve become comfortable in using, but instead challenge myself to try new sounds. Bringing all these ideas together into a compelling, cohesive piece took more effort than I anticipated, but the result, I think, is worth it.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself. When did you know you wanted to be a composer? Did your parents/loved ones scream when they heard the news?
A: I’ve been writing music, of one sort or another, since I was just a boy. Now, that’s not to say what I wrote was always good— I was no child prodigy, that much is certain— but the craft of artistic creation has always been what fascinates me the most. I decided to pursue composition and songwriting in earnest when I was in my teens. My biggest challenge wasn’t that people in my life were discouraging toward my aspirations of being a composer, but rather some of them would try to steer me in a musical path I really wasn’t happy taking. Learning how to separate the good advice from the bad (and moreover, how not to confuse the two) took me quite a while.
Q: It must be something to hear your piece played by an entire orchestra for the very first time. What was that like for “Solstice”?
A: Hearing a live orchestra perform my music for the first time is always a mixture of emotions. On one hand, it’s thrilling to hear the music become larger-than-life. One the other hand, I am constantly wondering and confirming to see if what I wrote on each part is clear and easily understood by the individual musicians. Solstice is a technically demanding piece in the way all the parts fit together into a complex whole. The phrasing, syncopations, and timings are complex, and I can tell the players are very focused and keen to make sure everything locks together.
Q: You love to travel. I just got back from Sofia, Bulgaria. What was your Bulgarian experience like? Did you make it to the Museum of Socialist Art?
A: I didn’t make it to Sofia while I was in Bulgaria. I was in Rousse where I had the amazing opportunity to spend a week practicing conducting with members of the Los Angeles Film Conducting Intensive and the Rouse Philharmonic orchestra. It was an incredible week — kind of like a summer camp for media composers — where we worked with a live orchestra every day. I had travelled in eastern Europe about 20 years ago, and it felt like slipping on a pair of comfortable old shoes. Cities like Rousse are actually my favorite places to go in Europe; they’re not tourist centers, and I think they make for more fulfilling travel experiences.
Q: Can you give an example of how you’ve worked a cultural genre or style into one of your compositions?
Q: Sure. About 25 years ago, I found myself taking a 30-hour train ride across Russia from Moscow to Perm. 30 hours is a very long time to travel, and I’ll always remember sitting in my compartment watching the Russian countryside go by, while there would be Russian music played through the train PA as a form of entertainment. It varied from traditional Folk music to Pop to Rock, but all very distinctly Russian. The people I met in Russia who were musicians were all remarkably dedicated to their craft, and had this beautiful intensity with which they approached their art, coupled with a certain amount of sadness. (This was not long after the collapse of the USSR.) When I returned home, I was compelled to write an electronic piece that incorporated not only the distinctive melodic cadences of the music we had been listening to, but painted an emotional portrait of that long journey.
Q: I can’t resist. Tell me about your beagle.
A: Ah yes! Atticus. He’s equal parts lazy bum and evil genius. One moment he’s an immovable brick on the couch, and in the time it takes for you to turn your back, he’s managed to dump the kitchen trash over and spread it all over the floor. He takes a ridiculous amount of convincing just to go for a walk, but if I leave the front door open for a microsecond, he’s outside and bolting down the street at top speed.
Q: What are your thoughts/hopes for the future?
A: In the short term, I look forward to completing my Master’s degree and premiering even more works I have composed. I’ll be taking on the role of artistic director of the Fresno State New Music Ensemble this fall, and I’m eager for the season of working with those talented students. After that, I’m giving serious thought to completing my doctorate in composition and theory. Of course I plan to continue composing, hopefully longer forms such as concertos or even a symphony, and continue to explore opportunities in the realm of media composition. Barely a year ago, I’d not have given serious thought to any of these. What a change of course it has been!
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Just that I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had, and all because I took a risk to change the course of my life. Perhaps no one has been more supportive and encouraging in all of this than my wife, Rhianna. She was the one who actually suggested I look into going back to school, and she has been patient and tolerant as our house fills up with scores, library books, and all the musical accoutrements that go along with it.
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