Starting a chamber orchestra is not the easiest project. But Brett Wery, a conductor and music professor at Schenectady County Community College, has a special connection.
“The real story is that I received a commission to write a piece,” he said.
Instead of taking the full sum as his fee, he asked his patron to pay the artists fees for the musicians who would perform the work, which in turn, the college further subsidized. Voilà: The Binnekill Chamber Orchestra was created.
It will debut on Tuesday as the opening concert of the college’s chamber music series in the world premiere of Wery’s “Three Conversations with Coffee.” Also programmed are Dvorák’s Serenade for Strings, Copland’s “Quiet City” and Gerald Finzi’s Prelude.
“It’s a model that works out well for everybody,” Wery said. “I get a new piece performed, not just written. The person paying for the commission gets to see their piece performed in a timely manner; the college gets a chamber orchestra on campus for a good price and 16 area musicians — all top-notch players — get paid to do something a little out of the ordinary.”
Binnekill Chamber Orchestra
WHERE: Schenectady County Community College Taylor Auditorium
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 381-1231
Even better, he said, is that now that the word is out, there are other people looking to make another commission — the going rate is about $12,000, according to ASCAP. That will make the chamber orchestra, which is mostly strings except for the two wind soloists who appear in Wery’s and Copland’s works, trumpet Peter Bellino and oboe/English horn Karen Hosmer, something like the American Composers Orchestra in New York City, whose mission is to premiere new works.
A composer’s orchestra
“We’d like the orchestra to be a composer’s orchestra for premieres and to program around that and to have a flexible instrumentation,” Wery said.
He decided to name the group the Binnekill after the stream that runs underground beneath the school’s music department and parking lot. As for the title of his piece, that reflects the many conversations over dinners that Wery and his wife, Karen Hosmer, had with the donor, who prefers to remain anonymous, and his late wife.
“We’d go to dinner with them and listen to them talk,” Wery said. “He was an intellectual and the talks were fascinating. He liked my work and thought of pulling the money together to make the commission. It’s the first time he’s been a patron.”
Although Wery had the freedom to write what he wanted and would bring the sketches to the donor as they were composed, the donor made some suggestions.
“He’s not a musician but he knows what he likes,” Wery said. “He colored down some of the tonal harmony to have less dissonance. He was very appreciative of the form, though, because he’s a writer.”
There are three movements. The first has asymmetrical meters in standard sonata form of theme, development and recapitulation. The second has broad strokes with two themes each stated by the trumpet or the English horn, which then interact and combine, much like a conversation, Wery said. The finale is a rondo with a theme and its response with much counterpoint that reflects the transformative nature of the life-long conversation the patron had with his wife, he said.
The orchestra will get four rehearsals. Wery doesn’t see any problems as, he said, he writes difficult music but the notation is clear and not ambiguous.
He’ll have bigger challenges conducting the other pieces on the program.
Wery chose the Finzi, which is new to him and beautiful but rarely performed, because he wanted an English pastoral work that would mirror some of the palette of his piece. The Copland also has English pastoral writing and his signature open harmonies, and is a very calm work and a good match with Wery’s piece. The Dvorák, which is also new to him, is a different matter.
“I wanted to lure good players to the gig,” Wery said with a laugh.
The work is difficult enough technically for everyone, but a conductor must take extra care. Because he has never conducted the piece, Wery first does a broad harmonic analysis movement by movement. Since Dvorák knew every color of every instrument, this is very complex. Wery marks every phrase, notes every tempo change and any markings, such as notes that are held or phrases that slow or increase in speed and their relationships to the original tempo. He marks cues so he can better control balance and color and finally, every bow, breath or articulation.
“By then, I’ve learned the score and can easily answer any question a player may have,” he said, adding that the markings will help him if he does the work again.
Because the Dvorák was more complicated than most scores, it took him many hours to just mark the bowings, although his concertmistress later will review them.
“I prefer to do it myself and it cuts down on haggling among the strings over which bowing to use,” he said.
Using a score
Even if he’s conducted a piece many times, he said, he’ll always use a score.
“It begs a disaster without it,” he said. “I’d rather be able to put out a brush fire — such as wrong entrances, by having the score.”
The only time he might consider not using one would be if he were conducting a top-notch orchestra like the Philadelphia Orchestra, when the likelihood of mistakes would be almost non-existent. Wery also said that psychologically, when a conductor doesn’t use a score and the podium is taken away, it is a more intimate connection to the players.
All this aside, the important thing is that a new orchestra is in town.
“I’m hoping I can continue with this model,” Wery said. “It makes it quite affordable . . . and the fun part is programming around the new piece.”