Tonight, in Charlottesville, the Youth Orchestras of Central Virginia will perform the premiere of composer John D'earth's Ephemera, a hauntingly beautiful suite for orchestra and voice. The piece revolves around three poems by D'earth's late brother, Paul Smyth. The poems, he says, "deal with exuberant living, loving, and surviving in a world of inevitable change and loss." They describe "the beauty inherent in life’s inevitable fragility, and celebrat[e] the impulse to live and thrive.....” (You can find ticket information, here.)
Veronica Swift O'Brien rehearsing John D'earth's Ephemera, 16 June 2011. (All photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2011.)
When the Youth Orchestras asked me to document a couple of the rehearsals, there was no doubt that I'd say "Yes." D'earth, who directs the University of Virginia's Jazz Ensemble, has been on a creative roll, lately. Last February, the Jazz Ensemble and the Free Bridge Quintet premiered his piece "Green Chemistry," an event that attracted national attention. (I wrote about it here and here.)
Conductor Charles West leads a rehearsal of Ephemera, 16 June 2011.
Ephemera will surprise people who are expecting something loud, fast, and "jazzy." This is contemplative music, quiet and moving. Although the underlying rhythms and harmonies certainly draw on the musical vocabulary of jazz -- especially Miles Davis in his more reflective moods -- the sound of the piece also owes a lot to classical and folk music. I'm guessing that many people in the audience, tonight, will hear echoes of Aaron Copland.
Veronica Swift O'Brien and the orchestra in rehearsal, 16 June 2011.
Ephemera isn't easy; it would challenge any adult orchestra. The Youth Orchestras of Central Virginia are lucky to have Charles West, on the podium, and Veronica Swift O'Brien, as the vocal soloist. West, a virtuoso clarinetist as well as a gifted conductor, is a professor of music at Virginia Commonwealth University. Despite her youth (she'll be a high school senior, next year), Veronica is already an experienced jazz singer, having performed at Blues Alley, in Washington, D.C., and at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, at Lincoln Center in New York. She's even released a couple of CDs..
John D'earth and Charles West consult the score to Ephemera, 16 June 2011.
The interplay between the words of Smyth's poems and D'earth's music is sublime. The effect is wonderfully tender.
John D'earth offers some comments to the orchestra, while rehearsing Ephemera, 16 June 2011.
It was easy to tell that the members of the orchestra was paying attention to what D'earth had to say. He pushed them, encouraged them, challenged them, and praised them. And they responded.
Violinists Frank Wu and Guillaume Bailey, rehearsing Ephemera, 16 June 2011.
Veronica's role is central to the piece -- after all, she sings the poems -- but she isn't the only soloist. Frank Wu and Guillaume Bailey play violin solos that owe more to folk or even bluegrass than to jazz. On the other hand, solos by Emily Kuhn, trumpet, Paige Rammelkamp, sax, Samantha Marshall, flute, and Andrew LaParade, trombone, are right in the jazz pocket.
PS You can hear D'earth talk about Ephemera and hear a bit of the music, here.