By Caitlin Custer
When Music Director Stéphane Denève arrived at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2019, he brought with him an enthusiasm for composers of today, continuing the SLSO’s ongoing tradition of championing music of our time. The SLSO’s 2022/2023 season features more than a dozen living composers, representing about 25% of all composers programmed. We asked Nathalie Joachim, James Lee III, Kevin Puts, and Oswald Huỳnh, to share their insights on life as a composer.
How do you start creating a piece?
For many composers, writing music comes only after careful planning and forethought. The SLSO commissioned Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Kevin Puts to create a new work, a Concerto for Orchestra. Puts emphasizes the importance of having plenty of time to sit with a piece. “I like to plan in advance,” Puts says, “and make sure that I’m adding something valuable to the repertoire, as well as accurately representing my own voice.”
James Lee’s compositional process for another SLSO commission, Visions of Cahokia, was informed by his many years of research on Native Americans, as well as a visit to the ancient site just east of the Mississippi River. When he was in St. Louis last year for the orchestra’s performance of his Emotive Transformations, he took an Uber to Cahokia Mounds in between rehearsals. “It was incredible to imagine this humongous city and think about how to reflect it in music.”
While some measure of planning is part of any work, some pieces start with a purpose that’s immediately clear to the composer. With Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti), Nathalie Joachim set her sights on a new direction. “For so long I thought I was a classical flutist…that’s what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing. In this project, I’m writing and performing in a way I would have been scared to do a decade ago.”
Oswald Huỳnh’s piece, Gia Đình (Family), started as a graduate school project and evolved into a full-scale work for orchestra. “I knew exactly what I wanted, which doesn’t always happen for me,” Huỳnh says, “There are ideas in the piece that had been floating in my head for a long time, such as exploring intergenerational trauma, my relationship with my heritage, and folk songs of Vietnam.”
What is exciting about working with music?
As an artform, music can be one of the most abstract. We can’t touch it or see it, but “it is such a direct sensation,” says Huỳnh, “both with our ears and with vibrations in our bodies.”
Puts notes that a piece can become “its own life. I’m trying to filter the process, while not fighting against the direction it wants to go.” If it’s going in the right direction, Puts says he’ll “feel excited—I love to tell stories and bring an emotional contour.”
Joachim’s experience of letting the music flow naturally is similar. The songs in Fanm d’Ayiti “have such deep meaning, and you just give yourself to it. Vocally, this project is the most I’ve been myself.”
How has the SLSO or St. Louis played into creating your piece?
Puts has had many conversations with Stéphane about his Concerto for Orchestra. “When Stéphane and I talk about this piece,” says Puts, “we talk about how best to feature different instruments, how they interact, as well as balancing idiomatic and virtuosic writing.”
Huỳnh’s road to the SLSO began with a student project at the University of Missouri. The Mizzou New Composers Project invites students to submit work, and, if chosen, the SLSO workshops their piece on campus in Columbia. Once selected, Huỳnh had about four months to write his piece Gia Đình (Family). He called the project a “fresh start,” and noted that it allowed him to “conceptualize and create a structure and form.”
Lee’s piece aims to mirror the brilliance and eventual decline of Cahokia. “There are moments of bright, brilliancy in the orchestration,” he says, “and then everything dies away—because the city was actually in decline and the inhabitants moved away.” Lee also shared that he hopes the premiere performance encourages a renewed interest in Cahokia for all St. Louisans.
What do you hope for when the audience hears your work?
When Lee first learned about Cahokia, he was surprised that so few people know about it. “I really want to highlight this story, this mega city.” More generally, when Lee attends concerts he says it is “always interesting to watch audience members notice something, especially if they’re pleasantly surprised. It’s great to see their engagement.”
Huỳnh’s Gia Đình and Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti both call on their family experiences. Joachim began work on Fanm d’Ayiti shortly after her grandmother passed away. Singing songs together “was our way of telling stories,” says Joachim, “and her way of passing on a centuries-long practice of oral history.” Huỳnh explores intergenerational trauma, inviting listeners to dialogue with their own experiences. “I hope it resonates for people…I hope they find it healing,” says Huỳnh.
Each composer was very clear that the end goal is to share something compelling with others. “The moment of sharing music with others is something I like very much,” says Puts. “During the premiere,” he continues, “I’m really focused on how the music is communicating with the audience.”
The SLSO performed Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti) Suite in September 2022. In 2023, the orchestra will perform Kevin Puts’ Concerto for Orchestra (January 21–22), James Lee III’s Visions of Cahokia (January 28–29), and Oswald Huỳnh’s Gia Đình (Family) (March 3–4).
Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.