(reprinted from the Democrat & Chronicle; part of the USA Today Network)
It’s not every day that a composer uses the words “bawdy,” “raw” and “unrefined” to describe her work.
But Stephanie Berg doesn’t seem like an everyday composer. And we’ll get to hear for ourselves: Her seven-minute work for full orchestra, Ravish and Mayhem, begins the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra program on March 3 and 5. Audiences will also hear Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) by Richard Strauss and pianist Vadym Kholodenko — gold medal winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Berg, the daughter of piano teachers, has a sort of built-in natural selection for creating music that stays with people.
“I think part of it is, the way that I compose is mostly reliant on memory,” says Berg, 30, who grew up playing piano and clarinet in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, and now calls St. Louis home. “Sometimes I’ll hear an inspiration for a piece, and I’ll write down what I call a kernel of it — some small link or some small bit that encapsulates the general mood of the piece, something that I can remember for later.
“Basically, if it gets stuck in my head and I can remember it for some time — years before I write it down — it’s probably going to get stuck in somebody else’s head. Or at least it has so far.”
Ravish and Mayhem, written in 2012, is a good example of that process.
“I had just heard the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound for the first time in concert, and I was so jazzed up about it. On the drive home, I was thinking to myself, ‘If I ever got the opportunity to write for Alarm Will Sound, what kind of piece would I write for them?’ I was really thinking about the energy and enthusiasm, the sheer vivaciousness of their ensemble. I really wanted to capture that.”
Rochesterians should know Alarm Will Sound, the 20-piece chamber orchestra that germinated in the cultural petri dish of the Eastman School of Music in the late 1990s when a handful of students realized the dearth of options for performing new music for large ensembles. Now based in New York City, the group continues to champion music written from the latter half of the 20th century through today.
In 2012, Berg did get that opportunity to write for them. As part of the Mizzou International Composers Festival, she was one of eight composers selected to write works that Alarm Will Sound would premiere at the end of the festival.
“So I knew exactly what I was going to write, and that’s how Ravish and Mayhem came into being.”
But what’s up with ravish? And mayhem?
“Sometimes I like to figure out words that really encapsulate the energy of the particular piece. This piece in particular … it’s a little bawdy. One wonderful colleague of mine, who shall remain unnamed, told me upon hearing the piece, ‘You know, this is the kind of music that makes me want to take my clothes off.’ ”
If that’s not enough to surprise an audience, the composer’s reaction might be. “I couldn’t help but smile a little bit and be like, ‘That was kind of what I was going for, actually.’ Not what I always do, but for this particular piece, it just seemed appropriate.”
Or, enticingly inappropriate. Berg was influenced by other imagery, as well, including a Middle Eastern street festival, "something a little exotic, with a lot of pizzazz to it. It’s really kind of chaotic and very exciting and very fun. And the two words I settled on were ‘ravish’ and ‘mayhem.’ ”
She concedes that the words aren't the same parts of speech, but that’s part of the fun.
“This piece is supposed to be kind of rough around the edges. It’s supposed to be really raw and really unrefined, which is the opposite of what usually happens on a classical stage. The thing that I usually have to tell an orchestra, if I tell them anything, is ... 'Don’t try to soften the edges. Make it sound a little worse. Make it sound a little rougher.' "
It's certainly not a direction an orchestra often hears. “This is not a ‘We’re dining in the halls of royalty’ kind of thing. This is a ‘We are eating street food while people swallow swords’ thing.”
Jann Nyffeler, a Rochester-based freelance journalist, is a recovering violinist who began her classical music career at WCPE-FM in North Carolina.