April kicks off with some musical highs for the Delaware Symphony Orchestra.
If you think the only classical repertoire worth listening to is by dead Europeans, the music of Christopher Theofanidis just might change your mind. To him, the classical idiom is a living, breathing organism whose future looks as bright as any “golden age” of its past.
Theofanidis is this year’s recipient of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra’s (DSO) A.I. duPont Composer’s Award. He will accept the honor in person at the orchestra’s Classics Series concerts on April 1 and 3 at the Laird Performing Art Center at the Tatnall School in Wilmington.
The program will include a performance of his tone poem “Dreamtime Ancestors,” which was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras sponsored by New Music for America. The goal is to have the piece performed by at least one orchestra in all 50 states.
“I’m really delighted we’ve been able to include this piece in the program,” says DSO Executive Director Alan Jordan who also sits on the consortium’s steering committee. “It’s been very well received and I think the Atlanta Symphony has expressed an interest in recording it. It certainly already has a life of its own but it’s going to grow and develop a much bigger life over time.”
DSO Music Director David Amado says that despite his relatively young age, Theofanidis has already made some significant contributions to contemporary American classical music and that he has done so in a most unique fashion.
“Chris writes music which is beautiful and appealing but he doesn’t start from the position of needing to be appealing,” he says. “He starts from a position of needing to express some bigger issue and he does it in a way that is inviting and energizing and inventive.”
Indeed, Theofanidis possesses that rare ability to create something new out of welter of stylistic influences. One hears in his music a mix of Romantic melody, bright colorful orchestration, post-minimalist eclecticism, heavy metal—even echoes of the music of the 12th century German Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen.
“It’s more of a recipe than it is an overall style,” he says.
Born in Texas in 1967, Theofanidis is a professor of composition at the Yale University School of Music. He received his bachelor’s in music from the University of Houston, a master’s from the Eastman School of Music and a doctorate from Yale.
Theofanidis is one of today’s most acclaimed and sought-after composers, with commissions and performances by some of the world’s leading orchestras as well as the American Ballet Theatre and the Houston and San Francisco opera companies.
Pulitzer prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, who won the duPont Award in 2012, selected his First Symphony for the NPR feature “5 American Symphonies You Should Know,” calling it “joy, agony, discovery and exclamation—a statement of life in the 21st century.”
Theofanidis is indeed a composer who trains his eye on the big picture, drawing inspiration from a diverse range of sources. “If something strikes me as interesting on a human level—and that can be the scientific, poetic or historical—those are the things that get me up into orbit,” he says. “And I often find a way to have the music connected in some way to those things.”
“Dreamtime Ancestors” grew out of Theofanidis’s oratorio “Creation/Creator (2015), a project that sparked his interest in creation stories—specifically Australian aboriginal stories– as part of our collective human psychology.
“I spent some time in Western Australia where some of the oldest caves that have representations (of these stories) are located,” he says. “I didn’t go to the caves because they’re located way in the Outback but I did a 1,500-mile trek and really fell in love with the landscape.”
The aboriginal creation myths tell of a “dreamtime,” where each of us is connected to each other through our “dreamtime ancestors” in the past, present and future. This is referred to as “all-at-once-time.”
Theofanidis will deliver a poem he’s written about the myth to orient the audience prior to the performance.
“A lot of the contemporary music is programmed first and people are just sitting down,” he explains. “What this will do is slow them down a bit and put them in a head space when they hear the piece.”
“Dreamtime Ancestors” unfolds in three movements. The first is called “Songlines.” These are the things our ancestors have left on Earth, such as rivers and mountain ranges.
“It has this kind of weaving melody that basically threads the whole movement, from which shapes and melodies emerge,” says Theofanidis.
The second movement is called “Rainbow Serpent.” The rainbow serpent is a mythical creature common to all aboriginal tribes in Australia. As it slithered around the Earth, it left beautiful clouds and rainbows in its wake.
“I tried to create a musical equivalent of that in the orchestra by focusing on the strings and percussion,” he says.
The last movement is called “Each Stone Speaks a Poem.” The idea here is that even the seemingly dead things on the Earth have poetry in them.
“Musically, it focuses on the woodwinds, percussion and some brass,” says Theofanidis. “It’s a much more dry, even arid sound. The strings stay quite for quite a while.”
“Dreamtime Ancestors” runs for 20 minutes and utilizes the entire palette of the symphony orchestra—two perks Theofanidis says he gets from classical music.
“Not everything happens in three to four minutes,” he says. “Playing to 90 people in an orchestra, I like the idea that everything is available to you or nothing or one thing. It’s a great set of possibilities.”
What: Delaware Symphony Orchestra Classics Series “Spring Nights”
Where: Laird Performing Arts Center at Tatnall, 1501 Barley Mill Road, Wilmington
When: Friday, April 1 @ 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 3 @ 2:00 p.m.
For complete program information and to purchase tickets, visit www.delawaresymphony.org