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BSO to premiere work honoring Baltimore philanthropists

Anna Clyne, Mead Composer-in-Residence at Chicago Symphony Orchestra in her studio space in the Fine Arts Building in Chicago.
Anna Clyne, Mead Composer-in-Residence at Chicago Symphony Orchestra in her studio space in the Fine Arts Building in Chicago. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Titles don't always tell the whole story.

Take "Abstractions," for example. There are actually lots of specifics behind this orchestral piece by Anna Clyne, which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will premiere this weekend as part of a program celebrating women in music.

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The London-born, New York-based Clyne was commissioned to compose a work for the BSO and music director Marin Alsop in honor of Baltimore philanthropists Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, major supporters of the orchestra and its OrchKids educational project. The commission came from their friend Bonnie McElveen-Hunter.

For its centennial season, 2015-2016, the Baltimore Symphony looks back on its history, with return visits by favorite conductors and soloists, and embraces the now with dozens of contemporary works.

"It was unusual for me to be invited to write music for specific people," Clyne says. "It was wonderful to get to know Bob and Rheda."

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The composer also was introduced to Meyerhoff's highly regarded private art collection of modern masterworks, as well as items he and Becker have given to the Baltimore Museum of Art. That exposure helped to generate Clyne's "Abstractions."

The score is in five movements, each related to a piece of art, including the late Ellsworth Kelly's bold black-and-white lithograph "River II" from 2005 and a 1980 photographic seascape by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

"Art has a color palette that can be translated ... into harmonies and orchestration, but my intention was not to be literal," Clyne says. "The challenge was to be inspired by the art, but not be limited by that. It was also a challenge to write five quite contrasting movements and hold them all together. I learned a lot through this process."

The 36-year-old Clyne is a quick learner. She didn't start composing in earnest until she was 21, "which is quite late," she says. She soon made a name for herself as a writer of vividly colorful and expressive music (and as a confident wearer of hats). She has served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other major organizations.

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Yuri Temirkanov returns to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the first time in 10 years as part of the BSO's 100th anniversary celebration. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Her association with the BSO began at the start of its centennial season last fall, when Alsop led the East Coast premiere of Clyne's kinetic, prismatic "Masquerade," two years after the conductor gave the world premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. When Alsop learned that McElveen-Hunter wanted to commission a work for Meyerhoff and Becker, she recommended Clyne.

Becker connected Clyne with the BMA's curator of contemporary art, Kristen Hileman, who provided insights into works in Meyerhoff's own collection and the BMA's.

Clyne's choices of items for "Abstractions" include "Marble Moon" by Baltimore-born Sara VanDerBeek. This photograph, which incorporates an element of architecture in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, inspired "very quiet" music to open the composition.

For the second movement, Clyne sought "to capture the physical energy" in "Auguries," a color etching by Julie Mehretu. Energy is also part of the fourth movement, inspired by "3," an abstract oil-on-linen from the late 1980s by Brice Marden.

"When I was at the BMA with Rheda, we were both drawn to it," Clyne says. "Rheda felt the lines in the painting were 'dancing,' and I thought that was a really nice description. In this movement, the [musical] lines are vibrating."

In addition to meeting Meyerhoff and Becker and seeing a lot of great art works, Clyne has enjoyed getting to know the BSO.

"My first time hearing the Baltimore Symphony was when they gave a spectacular performance of 'Masquerade.' They have a vitality and energy that's really refreshing," the composer says.

The orchestra has more Clyne in its future. Next season, the BSO will perform "Within Her Arms," written after the death of the composer's mother.

Meanwhile, there's "Abstractions," and the chance for the two people being honored by the piece to hear it this weekend.

"I hope they enjoy the music," Clyne says.

Adds Becker: "Bob and I are really looking forward to it so much. It couldn't be a more imaginative and wonderful gift for anyone."

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