A Reflection: Jenni Brandon, Going to the Sun: Snapshots from Glacier National Park

Prior to my position at BYU-Idaho, I was given the incredible opportunity to enter academia as the adjunct bassoon professor for the University of Montana School of Music.  This opportunity was spearheaded by Dr. Jennifer Gookin Cavanaugh, oboe professor and woodwind area chair.  Once a week I traversed the Rocky Mountains to teach the bassoonists at UM - approximately 5 hours round-trip just in travel time.  It was a long day but it was such a pleasure to work with college students on a weekly basis in addition to rehearsing and performing with the UM School of Music faculty members.

I will forever be grateful to Dr. Cavanaugh for inviting me to join the faculty and for all the music faculty who warmly welcomed me.  I was only there for two semesters - cut short by accepting my position in Idaho - but I learned a lot.  Dr. Cavanaugh was a fantastic mentor and watching her navigate the many roles she has in the school of music was an education for me.  One project in particular was her commissioning a new work for oboe and bassoon by California based composer, Jenni Brandon.

Originally funded by a grant from the University of Montana and then with additional funding from the Great Falls Symphony/Chinook Winds Quintet and other co-commisioners (Laura Medisky, Nermis Mieses, Bowling Green State University, Susan Nelson, Bowling Green State University, Bassoon Chamber Music Composition Competition Chair), Jenni Brandon composed an evocative piece, an hommage to the jewel of Montana: Glacier National Park.  

I have participated in commission projects before as a performer.  It's always...interesting.  You're never quite sure what you will end up playing - which is both risky and very exciting.  You receive music and typically program notes/compositional ideas from the composer.  You are then given the great task of taking an idea and making it a reality, breathing life into something which has not yet been heard, creating the sound which will often set the precedent for how the piece is played in perpetuity.

Being a part of this creative process within a larger ensemble means that, mostly, your job is to show up, play the right notes, find the musical lines and help determine if/when they are errors in the parts.  Several editions of the parts may go back and forth between the composer and the performers.  Recordings of rehearsals can sometimes aid in this process depending on how "finished" the composer feels the work is.

My first involvement in a commission was in 1997.  Frank Tichelli's wondrous piece for wind ensemble, Blue Shades.  It has become standard rep for all the best wind ensembles but, for me, it will remain in my heart as a piece newly created and realized by several ensemble around the country.  Including the Interlochen Arts Academy Wind Ensemble, where I was playing my senior year of high school.  

After that, commission projects seem to come more quickly especially during my time as an undergrad at Manhattan School of Music.  MSM, a proponent of new music in general, seemed to always have new works premiering within the many different ensembles.  Two in particular stick out in my memory: Scott Eyerly's opera, The House of Seven Gables, which we recorded with Albany Records.  The second was a piece by Lucia Dlugoszewski who passed away soon after we premiered her piece for two chamber orchestras in different meters.  Sadly, the name of the composition escapes me and very little about her work can be found on the Great InterWeb.

Both of the experiences stick out in my mind because they were so wildly different from each other.  Eyerly's opera was tonal, dark, accessible, with a story line well known by listeners.  We spent many hours in rehearsal with the composer who actively made changes.  The performances were well publicized and the recording project an obvious priority for the composer and the school.  I was playing the second bassoon/contra part which required many fast changes between the instruments.  In one rehearsal with the composer, my haste to grab the contra resulted in my bassoon falling out of the stand, sliding across the rehearsal room floor and separating into its many joints.  There were some unpleasant words that issued forth from my mouth, a panicked retrieval of all the splayed parts, a few tears, and then a strong and awkward exchange with the composer about adequate rests for instrument changes.

In stark contrast, Dlugoszewki's peice was tackled by the New Music Ensemble under the unrelenting precision of Claire Heldrich - percussionist and master of all mind-boggling contemporary rhythms.  I recall the great challenge we faced and, honestly, never conquered in preparing and performing the piece.  Lucia joined us for one rehearsal wherein I would describe her response to us as...disappointed.  I don't remember the performance going particularly well and likely skulked off stage myself feeling completed incapable of managing the task at hand.

Both experiences had an element of unpleasantness attached to them.  When Dr. Cavanaugh told me of her desire to commission a new work, I was apprehensive.

Fortunately, Jenni Brandon is an absolutely lovely human being, a beautiful musician, as well as a gifted and collaborative composer.  We presented the piece for premier at the 2016 International Double Reed Society Conference in Columbus, GA along with Brandon's The Sequoia Trio for oboe, clarinet, bassoon.  I think we (all musicians) put quite a bit of pressure on ourselves when premiering new pieces (especially at our respective conferences) in front of respected colleagues and composers.  Unfortunately, I think the pressure of the premier clouded my personal interaction with the piece - more worried about the product and its reception by our peers than Jenni's musical intention.

At the end of this semester my oboe colleague at BYU-I, Kristen Bull and I decided to have a double reed studio recital.  To round out the recital I asked if we could perform Going to the Sun... for our students.  We rehearsed the piece four times and I was amazed at how easily it came together.  How all the sections made sense and, with Kristen's wonderful musical intuition, I felt like we were able to execute the segues organically.   Totally void of concern for the performance in front of our students, I found myself joyfully practicing  my part, listening to our rehearsal recordings, humming the themes and thinking of my four years in Montana.

Suddenly, the piece became an entirely new, beautiful, celebration and reminiscence of a magical time and place in my life.  

I created a video of all my favorite pictures from our family trips to Glacier National Park to play along with our performance.  As I chose pictures and continued listening to our rehearsal recordings, I was overwhelmed with the beauty masterfully depicted by Jenni.  I fondly remembered my weekly drives over the majesty of the mountains, my time at the university and all the many lessons I learned and memories I now cherish.

After Kristen and I performed it, I knew I had to put together my images with the live recording from our double reed studio recital - not perfect, of course - to truly capture what I believe was Jenni Brandon's true intention for the work.  The end result is below and I am unabashedly in love with it!  I have watched this video numerous times and with each viewing, I'm amazed at the truly incredible creation of music I was permitted to take part in.

I'm so grateful to Dr. Cavanaugh and Jenni Brandon for being visionaries, using their formidable talents and resources to push projects just like these forward.  I'm especially grateful to have made a new and positive memory with a commissioned work and truly look forward to taking part in these projects more in the future.  


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