Few high school orchestras get the thrill of commissioning a work by a renowned local composer.
Few high school orchestras get the excitement of presenting a world premiere of a piece written especially for them.
Then again, composer Crawford Gates says, few high school orchestras are as large, as competent and have such an insightful director as the one at Brighton High School. Working with them, he says, "has been a wonderful experience."
"Brighton Processional, Op. 115," composed by Gates and "commissioned by and dedicated to Brighton High School," will have its premiere at a concert Tuesday night at the school, performed by the 85-member Brighton Symphony Orchestra.
"He wrote us a wingdinger," says Allen Madsen, director of the orchestra. "I adore it. It's a challenging piece, but it's exactly what I'd hoped for. It's tuneful. It's listenable. It has power and thrust and such rich harmony. The students love it, too. This whole experience has been a crazy, super-exciting endeavor."
There was a bit of serendipity involved, he admits. "Dr. Gates' daughter works in the career center here at Brighton. Four years ago, when I was hired, she was the one who took my picture for my ID badge. She talked about how her father was involved in music, but because her married name is Kern, I didn't make the connection. I finally asked her who her father was, and when she said Crawford Gates, I was blown away. I had known his music since I was a kid."
Gates is perhaps best known locally as the composer of the music for the popular "Promised Valley" musical. But he has had a stellar career, receiving acclaim both locally and nationally. His "Symphony No 2: Scenes From the Book of Mormon" was the musical track for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. He was commissioned by the Utah Symphony, under the direction of Maurice Abravanel, to do three major works. He has written music for hymns.
He was chairman of the music department at Brigham Young University for a number of years before leaving the state to become the conductor of the Beloit-Janesville, Quincy and Rockford symphonies in Illinois, where he also continued his composition work. After his retirement in 1999, he moved back to Utah.
During his career, however, Gates has written only one other work for a high school orchestra, a suite for strings published in 1991 (unless you consider the pieces that he wrote for his own high school symphony while he was a student.
But they were too hard for the orchestra to play, Gates says, so they don't really count.)
"We had the strings piece in our music library," Madsen explains, "and last fall we decided to play it. I thought it would be nice if we invited Dr. Gates to come to the concert." That led to an invitation for Gates to come to the class to talk about his career. "I casually asked him if he still had any composing time and if he'd be interested in doing something for us."
Gates was interested, but his busy schedule meant it would have to wait until spring. "He called me in February," Madsen says. "He delivered the piece by the end of March."
Composing is an interesting thought process, Gates says. "One night after I had gone to bed, the tune just came to me. I got up and wrote it down in about five minutes."
From there, of course, it was expanded, refined and polished. It is a four-minute composition done in a three-part format, "and I wanted to add a surprise at the end."
And yes, he says, it is challenging. "I had heard the orchestra play, so I knew where they were. But I wrote above that level. I wanted them to have to reach for it. I knew they could do it."
In fact, he told the students during a recent rehearsal, "I thought of you the whole time I was working on this. This is not a typical high school piece, but I know you will rise to what you can do. I love you all. This has been such a happy experience for me."
It has been a great experience for the students as well.
"It's an incredible opportunity to have a local composer come here," says Courtney Riech, who plays the cello. "As students, we're so lucky to be able to work with someone who is so renowned."
"I didn't know him before," flutist Cindy Lodder says, "but now I've listened to a lot of his music and I really like it. I love this piece. It's really pretty. This experience is just awesome."
"It's a gorgeous piece," adds Jeff Cardon, who plays the bass and is president of the orchestra. "It's epic, but soothing, too. It's packed with so many 'wow, in your face moments.' It keeps you on the edge of your seat because you don't know what to expect next."
"I love the piece. All the brass is just brilliant," says Kyle Gibbons, who plays the trumpet. "And the harmonies just jump out. You have to speak the language to really get it, but Mr. Madsen has taught us to speak the language. He and Gates they're both brilliant."
That kind of response tickles Gates. "There are some people who maintain that classical music is dying. Here's a perfect example that it's not. I respect the students' enthusiasm for the piece. That's something that, as a composer, you can't demand. You can't even expect it. It happens spontaneously, and when it happens, it's a marvelous thing."
So many pieces, he says, "die before they even get to be performed. For a composer to meet this enthusiastic response is the best thing that can happen."
Gates has been so pleased with the whole experience that he planned to donate the work to the school. "We didn't feel quite right about that," Madsen says. "Our principal, Rebecca Laney, suggested that the school make a donation in Dr. Gates' name to the charity of his choice, so that's what we're going to do."
Not that you could in any way put a price tag on the experience, he says; it has been priceless.
Gates hopes to have "Brighton Processional" published so it can be played by other high school orchestras at least, the better ones, he jokes, not the average ones.
But that's what high school orchestras are all about, he says. They are about stretching, rising to the challenge, proving to yourself that you can achieve something more. And they are about falling in love with music, if not professionally at least personally, for a lifetime.
If you go
What: Brighton High School Orchestra Concert
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Brighton High, 2220 Bengal Blvd.
E-mail: [email protected]