There are very few times when I have been so moved by a concert featuring young musicians than I was at Arizona State University's recent Concert Band and Philharmonia concert. Three of Leading Tones Music's composers (Eric Xu, Zachary Bush and JP Lempke) had works premiered at the event by grade school soloists from The Harmony Project Phoenix - an organization dedicated to providing after-school music lessons to students who otherwise might not have the opportunity.
The ASU Philharmonia accompanied seven students ranging in age from seven to fifteen on new pieces for string orchestra written specifically for the project. Eric Xu's Brightly as the Summer Sun featured grade 1 flute and clarinet playing simple intervals over rich and dynamic string writing. While the young performers seemed a little nervous to play in front of so many people, the warmness of the audience was palpable. Xu's piece was followed by Dominic Dousa's lush and lyrical Songs from a Mountain Trail, which featured three soloists on the violin. Dousa's brilliant string writing in the accompaniment made me forget for a moment that the simple melodies in the solo part were performed by students who had only been playing for a year or less. The rousing applause that followed made it clear to me that many in the audience had similar experiences.
Zach Bush's concerto for double bass, Dusk Mountain, showed young bassists that there is equal room in the spotlight for their instrument as any other. Bush's energetic solo part showcased the great strengths of both the low and high ranges, and represented an optimism for an expanded pedagogical bass repertoire in the future. Perhaps the most daring offering of the evening, however, was JP Lempke's aleatoric Fill in the Colors White. Pedagogical works rarely feature nonstandard notation, harsh dissonances, or sounds borrowed from electronic music (Lempke's usual fare). The inclusion of all three elements made Fill in the Colors White a standout piece of the evening, which was otherwise almost entirely consonant and tonal. The singular experience of hearing Lempke's shifting textures was only heightened by the fact that the violin soloist was perhaps the youngest of the group.
This year's collaborations between ASU and The Harmony Project Phoenix have clearly demonstrated the educational and cultural value of mixed-level musical experiences involving living composers. In nothing was this made more apparent than the ear-to-ear smiles of the young students as they acknowledged their audience's appreciation. The future of such collaborations is indeed bright.
Stephen Mitton is a full-time music teacher in Phoenix, Arizona and co-founder of Leading Tones Music, LLC.