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Classical Notes

Given time to write at BMOP, Norman produces ‘Play’

Composer Andrew Norman (right) demonstrates some of the unorthodox techniques called for when conductor Gil Rose (left) and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project play his music.DINA RUDICK/Globe Staff

Getting things wrong is an essential part of the creative process. Going down wrong paths, ending up in cul-de-sacs, reversing, retrying, revising — all are critical to the working through of ideas.

Andrew Norman is unusual among composers in that moments of doubt, regression, indecision — even failure — themselves show up in some pieces. One of his best known orchestral works, “Unstuck” (2008), dramatizes a period of writer’s block Norman suffered; musical ideas get caught up in repetitive patterns before finally freeing themselves. The 2011 chamber piece “Try” is, in the words of Norman’s program note, “a messy and fragmented” work that “circles back on itself again and again in search of any idea that will stick.”


“There’s an aspect to my personality where I’m actually a very indecisive person,” Norman said during a recent phone interview. “And being a composer is like making a thousand decisions — it often stops me in my tracks. And several years ago, I sort of realized that I could make really interesting musical forms out of this idea of trying all the doors and seeing where they go.”

Norman, 33, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012, has spent the past season and a half as the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s composer in residence. On Friday, BMOP will premiere his new orchestral composition “Play,” the writing of which has dominated the Brooklyn, N.Y., composer’s time in Boston. At the beginning of his residency, Norman talked about wanting to get to know the city’s new music scene and doing some educational outreach projects.

As it turned out, though, composition ate up all of his time. “I’ve never been given the opportunity to have free rein with an orchestra and to write whatever I wanted, however much music I wanted,” he said. “So that’s been the thrust of my residency — writing the most ambitious and personal music that I could for BMOP.”


The word “Play” has a host of meanings, and several are important to the piece. There is, first, the play of musical themes. As in “Try” and “Unstuck,” “the music has a bunch of different ideas that are jostling back and forth,” Norman said. “They’re sort of playing with each other, and [the music] is trying to find its direction as it goes.”

He was also drawn to the physical act of playing instruments, the “inherent drama of watching people make sounds.” Norman is a violist, and he was planning on bringing his instrument to BMOP rehearsals to demonstrate the unorthodox techniques he had come up with to achieve specific sound effects.

“I’m also interested in how the orchestra is played, as a sort of meta-instrument,” Norman said. “How it has all these moving parts that can play with each other, apart from each other, against each other.” As the piece unfolds, the percussion instruments begin to act as decision makers or “triggers,” as he called them, causing other sections of the orchestra to do different things. “It’s a little like they’re playing everyone else,” he said.

Finally, there’s a darker sense of play at work — the idea of manipulation — “like when we say that someone ‘got played.’ ” For Norman, the relationship between conductor and orchestra has this sense. “The conductor waves his arms and people do things — it’s very much a chain of command, and who’s playing whom is always very clear.”


Without giving anything away, the composer said that in the piece, “I try to monkey with that a bit.”

Gil Rose, BMOP’s artistic director, said that “Play” is the biggest work Norman has taken on. His music “comes off as flashy, because it’s so technically brilliant. But he’s a serious composer too. It’s got that wrapping, but it’s also got a real substantial thing inside.

“He’s the real thing,” Rose said.

He‘s not a secret, either. When I spoke to him, he was in Philadelphia for performances of “Unstuck” by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Simon Rattle. He is also in the midst of a three-season residency with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

For a composer of his age, Norman’s achievement is significant; yet he thinks his artistic evolution has had its share of the tentativeness, the incertitude, that his pieces strikingly enact.

“I always feel like I’m at the beginning of the journey,” he said. “I feel like I’m a long way from being the composer that I want to be. But I’m also a lot better than I used to be. My pieces are all about the journey of finding something, an idea working itself out. You could even say that my trajectory as a composer is about doing that, too, over the long run. And, you know, it involves a lot of jumping back and wrong turns.”

Changes for Chorus pro Musica, Aston Magna

Chorus pro Musica has chosen Jamie Kirsch as its new music director. Kirsch is director of choral activities at Tufts University, where he also teaches music theory and conducting. He was director of the Cambridge Community Chorus from 2008 to 2013. He holds a doctoral degree from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Coincidentally, that is where Betsy Burleigh will assume a position after she steps down as the chorus’s music director. Her last concert as its leader is May 31, with a program that includes Mozart’s Mass in C minor and a new work by Peter Child of MIT.


Also, Aston Magna, the summer early-music festival, has announced two changes to its leadership. Its new executive director is Susan Obel, whose resume includes arts management positions with the Harlem School of the Arts and Theatreworks/USA. She replaces Aston Magna’s longtime director Ronnie Boriskin. The new board chair is Catherine Liddell, a lutist and theorbo player who has been a frequent Aston Magna participant. She succeeds Robert Strassler, who served as its chair for 28 years.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.