Student compositions take center stage

Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music is renowned for the musical training it provides its music performance majors, but perhaps less well recognized is their music composition major. Last Friday, though, three of Carnegie Mellon’s music composition students got the chance to shine when the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic performed its compositions at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall.

The first composition of the evening was “Fanfare: A Short Piece for Symphonic Orchestra” by senior music and computer science major Robert Kotcher. It started off, as expected, with a high-energy trumpet fanfare. It sounded as though the trumpets were all playing different fanfares simultaneously, which occasionally sounded messy, but mostly sounded intricate and layered.

The piece alternated between high-energy fanfare and the eery sounds of quiet, high-pitched strings. Although the dynamic contrast might have been difficult for some orchestras to maneuver, the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic was able to masterfully control its dynamics. As the title of the piece implies, the song was surprisingly brief, leaving the listener wanting more.

Next was a composition titled “Pirates!” by senior music major Rebecca Talisman. The beginning of the piece was reminiscent of an epic journey, evoking images of a rolling ocean. The tension built slightly with the cellos, but then inexplicably subsided into a soft, sweet section.

The oboe then came in with a solo, played beautifully by junior Amelia Cessna. The tension built once more into a louder section, but it still seemed too melodic and smooth for a song about “pernicious purloiners with booty on the brain,” as Talisman described her piece in the evening’s program notes. Like the first composition, “Pirates!” was startlingly short.

After Talisman’s piece, there was a brief intermission, and the stage was prepared not for a student composition, but rather for a performance of “Totentanz: Paraphrase on ‘Dies Irae’ for Piano and Orchestra” by Franz Liszt. The performance featured piano soloist Junyi Liu, a graduate student in the School of Music.

Liu’s fingers flew, seemingly effortlessly, across the keys as he played complex strings of notes. His playing had a marvelous expressive range — it sounded heart-achingly sweet during the piano’s solo cadenza, loud and forceful as he played with the orchestra, and even playful at one point as his fingers danced across the keys.

When playing a piece with a featured instrument, it can sometimes be difficult for orchestras to balance how loud they are with the volume the solo instrument; however, this was not a problem during Friday’s performance, as the orchestra struck the perfect dynamic balance between itself and Liu.

After the conclusion of “Totentanz,” Liu played a delicate piano encore that was sweet and, at times, hauntingly beautiful. As he ended the piece, he paused over the keys, letting stillness fill the room before sitting back to let the audience applaud.

The piano was then removed from the stage, and the orchestra prepared to play the final student composition of the evening, senior David Grabowski’s “L’Appel du Vide.” As Grabowski explained in the program notes, “‘L’Appel du Vide’ is a French phrase meaning literally ‘the call of the void....’ It is the urge to take the plunge, to do something unexpected.”

The composition started off quietly, with a single cello sustaining a long note; eventually, other instruments joined in on the note, building up until the music burst into a frantic — but not uncontrolled — cacophony of sound. The piece then alternated between beauty, mystery, and a frantic sense of urgency before bursting into something grand and beautiful. The contrast might not have boded well in the hands of a lesser orchestra, but the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic was able to expertly navigate the sharp changes in mood and pace.

Overall, the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic served as an excellent vehicle for the School of Music’s composition students to shine and to show off their variant compositional styles.

Anna Walsh | Pillbox Editor