Sept 22, 2021–The best works of art are ones that change the observer. Composer Ethan Wickman hopes that happens for each member of the audience when they hear Kerrville’s Symphony of the Hills present the World Premiere of his original work River of Stars at their October 7 concert.
“If the audience leaves feeling like there’s been a moment in the work where it made their hair stand up, or created a moment of excitement when they really felt that visceral connection with the sound, then that would be wonderful,” said Wickman, Professor of Music Composition at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Did the experience of this piece cause you to look at something in your life in a different way? I think that’s what all the best art aspires to–how can it alter our perspective on things that we just think are predictable and constant.”
That aspirational goal grew from a performance in 2014, when Symphony Conductor and UTSA colleague Dr. Eugene Dowdy conducted a piece Wickman had composed for choir and orchestra.
In the fall of 2018 Dowdy approached his UTSA colleague with the commission of an original composition for the 75-piece Kerrville-based orchestra. He saw it as a fitting celebration of marking 20 years as a professional symphony orchestra in the Texas Hill Country.
“I was thinking why not bring a new work into the world as part of the celebration of our 20th anniversary?” Dowdy said. “We’re still here. We’re still doing this. We have a great community and a great symphony, patrons, and board. That is a big deal.”
Any creator knows no matter how many times they’ve done it, starting a new work from scratch is daunting. While Dowdy provided him background on the venues and players, Wickman only “locked it down” in the spring of last year, while he was hiking with his family.
“It was my birthday weekend. They were opening up the state and national parks, and my wife and I and our two college age kids wanted someplace to just kind of be away from people. So we went up to Lost Maples and we were along the Guadalupe River for a lot of that time. It came to me that the river seems to be the heart of the town. The whole concept of the piece was born.”
While impossible to capture a musical composition with words, Wickman provided context for his musical choices.
[Listen to preview of River of Stars https://youtu.be/I6KZEbONhms]
“You’re approaching this river, the body of water. So there are textures at the beginning which are very flowing. You have this kind of shimmering in the woodwinds, and a bit of glittery percussion, to create this idea of flow and seamlessness. It’s a contemplative melody.”
He developed his musical theme to complete the 10-minute composition.
“There’s a sense of what was foreboding about the flowing at the beginning, is the same flow at the end, but it is more promising. There’s something that’s been resolved,” he explained. “In some sense, it is very romantic. One finds healing in nature and then, one emerges in a very optimistic tone.”
The piece will be the keystone in the Symphony’s first concert of the 2021-2022 season. It’s a moment that was delayed by the past season’s challenges for all live performances, according to Dowdy, and one very welcome.
“He began working on this when the pandemic hit,” Dowdy said. “He realized he was writing a piece about the world upside down. He had a line: ‘I took inspiration from looking into the water–and by looking down, I could also look up and see the possibility of a future more limitless and promising.’ That is ‘the river of stars.’ It just gives me chills thinking about it.”
Both composer and conductor hope the piece will hold even more meaning for audiences deprived of enjoying live music for more than a year.
“It is great to be a part of something that can bring the community together,” Wickman said. “You hope you have something that the musicians are proud of playing, and that members of the community can identify with. Increasingly in my work, it is those kinds of connections that are important.”
SOH will perform the world premiere of River of Stars, by Ethan Wickman, at the season opening concert on Thursday, October 7, 7:30 pm at the Cailloux Theater in Kerrville.