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Walter W. Naumburg Prof. of Composition premieres fifth symphony

Published: October 31, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.


David Rakowski, the Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition at Brandeis, had his fifth symphony premiered by the New England Philharmonic Orchestra on Oct. 25. Inspired by dance, body movement and ballet, the symphony began as a multitude of short pieces and gradually became an entire four-movement symphony.

“I liked working with the dancers, and I liked seeing how they thought my music could be danced to,” he said in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot. “In the years following, a few choreographers made their own dances out of excerpts of [recordings of] the music for that piece.”

“Dance Episodes,” Rakowski’s symphony, will be performed at the Tsai Performance Center in the New England Philharmonic’s opening show for this year’s season. The performance will be the world premiere of “Dance Episodes.”

Rakowski grew up playing trombone in high school and participating in community bands in St. Albans, VT. He was even the keyboard player in a “mediocre rock band” called The Silver Finger, which, according to Rakowski, was represented by aluminum foil on their concert posters. “I discovered some great music playing in all-state and all-New England bands, and some far out stuff on Time-Life records that made me want to become a composer,” he said.

Rakowski holds a bachelor’s degree in composition from New England Conservatory and as well as a master’s and a doctorate from Princeton University, where he studied with Milton Babbitt, a “far-out” modernist Rakowski had idolized since high school. Before coming to Brandeis, Rakowski taught at Stanford University and Columbia University.

In 1997, Rakowski wrote a children’s ballet—a short, 20-minute piece on a story by a poet, with a small ensemble, and a cast of a few adults and maybe a dozen children. For a while, he had been thinking of writing a full-length ballet. “I have been thinking for some while that it would be nice to write a full-length ballet at some point. What inspired the symphony was thinking of music in terms of movement and how it could be danced to, and relatedly, how several dance movements could be related in one piece,” he said.

The process behind composing this symphony began with thinking about zephyrs, which are small bursts of wind that disturb a musical texture and wondering what that would mean for orchestral music. According to Rakowski, he settled on a trilled note in the middle and things bustling around it as the overarching metaphor, and expansions and contractions of musical figures around it through time. Eventually for other movements, he thought of characters: a movement of dancers wearing grotesque masks; a movement of sad dancers dancing alone, then in pairs, in trios and in quartet; and a movement built around a very simple rock and roll figure.

Rakowski has been the New England Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence for four years. “I try to make programming suggestions to the music director,” he disclosed. “I also write for the orchestra whatever I want, and when I do, I get a very modest payment.” He is also a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music and has had his compositions performed internationally.