Last spring, Brett Wery decided that when he took his fall sabbatical from teaching at Schenectady County Community College, he’d give himself a major challenge.
“It was to write three new pieces for different difficulty levels,” Wery said recently at his studio at the college.
He had three ensembles in mind, all of which he conducts: the SCCC wind ensemble, the Capital Region Wind Ensemble and the University at Albany orchestra. His goal was to fill a gap in the literature for each level of ensemble. What he got, he said, were three pieces more difficult than he intended, but each ensemble premiered its piece.
Schenectady Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
HOW MUCH: $7.50; $5; free, children age 8 and under accompanied by an adult
MORE INFO: 372-2500 or 346-6204
He was elated when Schenectady Symphony Orchestra conductor Charles Schneider agreed to have his orchestral work, “Three Canvases,” performed on Sunday at Proctors.
“I’ve always held Brett in very high esteem,” Schneider said. “I’ve championed many local composers’ work and will continue to do so.”
The “America the Beautiful” program, which features works by American composers, also includes pieces by Copland, Ives, Thomson and Gershwin.
Wery’s idea for “Three Canvases” was to represent three different painting styles through sound.
Before he began writing, however, he and his wife, oboist Karen Hosmer, spent much of last summer visiting museums in New York City to get inspiration.
“I had no individual painting in mind and I did not want to represent a particular painting,” Wery said. “This is more about style and the moods created by the tunes I picked.”
The first movement, “Canal Song,” is based on Thomas Allen’s 1905 song “Erie Canal.” Wery put a cubist slant on it, a la Picasso and Bracque, by using Stravinsky-like methods in which the tune is developed in a nonlinear way.
In the second movement, “Revival for Lola,” Wery chose expressionism such as Van Gogh’s cypress group and Edward Munch’s “The Scream.” For melodies, he turned to favorites sung by his grandmother Lola, such as Joseph Webster’s 1868 tent revival song “In the Sweet By and By” and “Shall We Gather at the River.” He referenced the Van Gogh by the painter’s method of indicating the trees through simple curvy shapes. Wery turned this into simple repeated short motifs.
He had the surrealism of Henri Magritte in mind for the final movement called “Homecoming,” in which two images prompt the idea of a third image. He took a bit of the Largo from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and paired it with the “Dies Irae.”
“My wife thought this was kind of creepy and that sealed it,” Wery said laughing.
The work took most of the fall to write, he said. Every morning, he’d sit at the kitchen table and write until lunch. Initially, he produced piano sketches and then did the orchestration at the computer. The experience has been enlightening, he said.
“I’m self-taught as a composer. I’ve dabbled since I was in high school,” he said. “But after teaching theory for 16 years, I saw I had ideas of how to write. I’ve discovered a discipline and a process that I can count on.”
He’s also learned how satisfying it is to hear his pieces played. Many of his previous efforts were never performed and are in the back of his files, he said with a laugh.
“Now, I would love to do nothing but compose — to write and conduct,” Wery said. “Once you get your fingers into the big picture by making music from the ground up, getting your fingers wet with reeds doesn’t compare.” (Wery is an expert woodwind player.)
Pianist Young Kim is also getting a dose of the spotlight in Gershwin’s Concerto in F Major. Kim, who teaches piano at The College of Saint Rose, came to Schneider’s attention through her students, many of whom have won the symphony’s annual piano competition. This will be Kim’s debut with the SSO.
Kim performed the same concerto last season with Union College’s orchestra, so she knows the work’s many pitfalls.
“I listened to a lot of Gershwin works to get ideas,” she said. “The dotted rhythms are jazz-inflected. So I had to get that and not do them exact. I also have to be more flexible as an improviser. It is a very playful piece. So I must be light-hearted and not use a heavy tone.”
This will also be her first time performing at Proctors. So she has visited the hall during concerts to determine what the acoustics were like. That affects how she strikes the keys, she said.
“You can’t force your sound or just play loudly,” she said. “My control must be in the soft passages. But it must not be a pale piano but speaking out. I will use gesture and emphasize tremolos and trills.”
The other works on the program include Copland’s “John Henry: A Railroad Ballad for Orchestra,” which is new to the orchestra; Ives’ “Variations on America”; and Thomson’s “Symphony on a Hymn Tune.”
“The Thomson is as Americana as you can get,” Schneider said. “I knew Thomson in New York City and his music is very powerful and seems fresh even today. He used gnarly harmonies and bitonality as dramatic points. I would have loved to have been in the Kansas City church when Thomson was an organist. In this piece, you feel like you’re in a Southern Baptist church singing ‘How Firm a Foundation’ and ‘Yes Jesus Loves Me.’ ”
After the show, the SSO will sponsor an American-themed dinner at 6 p.m. at the Glen Sanders Mansion for $32. For reservations, call 372-2500.