Eugene Symphony preview: Northwest dawn

Eugene composer Robert Kyr’s new Piano Concerto was inspired by Oregon landscapes


When Eugene composer Robert Kyr was a 16 year old cellist, his high school music director asked him to compose a piano concerto for the orchestra– and perform as the soloist. “After we premiered the work, the director decided to record it—on vinyl!—and the entire experience of composing, performing, and recording instilled in me a love for orchestral composition, which has only grown stronger over time,” Kyr remembered in an ArtsWatch interview.

University of Oregon Prof. Robert Kyr. Photo: John Strieder/OPB.

University of Oregon Prof. Robert Kyr. Photo: John Strieder/OPB.

Next Thursday, May 12, pianist Alexandre Dossin and the Eugene Symphony Orchestra premiere the first piano concerto Kyr has written since then, Dawning of the World, at the Hult Center for the performing arts. The third and last new work the ESO commissioned for its 50th anniversary season (along with Mason Bates’s Gramophone Depot and Roberto Sierra’s Loíza), it closes a circle began with that previous concerto, written a couple of years after the Eugene Symphony was founded.

Balance of Nature

Kyr, who chairs the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s composition area, is internationally known for his extensive catalog of work including 12 symphonies three chamber symphonies, 60 choral works, three violin concerti, and an extensive folio of chamber music. He was recently one of four composers to receive the prestigious Arts and Letters Award in music composition given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters honoring outstanding artistic achievement by a composer “who has arrived at his or her own voice.”

Half a century earlier, when he began that journey and wrote that teenage concerto, Kyr’s compositional voice had yet to develop. And so, as many composers do, he removed that early composition from his catalog, and therefore Dawning of the World will be listed as his first piano concerto.

That Kyr’s first piano concerto will actually be his second is only one paradox in this performance. The second: while Dawning of the World was inspired by the transforming natural environments of the Pacific Northwest, he actually began writing it far away, in the New Mexico desert, where much of his music is conceived. After a hectic academic year of university teaching and serving as the UO Senate President during a transitional time for the University, he sought the natural beauty and quiet of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert along northwest New Mexico’s Chama River, a place in harmony with nature and the human spirit where he can quietly reflect and compose.

“I find that I am most creative in places that are alive with the beauty of nature, the “sound” of silence, and the peace of deep solitude,” Kyr says. (He elaborates in a National Public Radio documentary recorded recently as he was composing four commissioned works for the Austin-based vocal ensemble Conspirare, directed by Craig Hella Johnson.)

Discovering A Composer In The Desert And Mercy At A Monastery from NPR on Vimeo.

Connecting with nature is important to Kyr, as evident in many works written on that theme such as his “environmental oratorio,” A Time For Life, premiered in 2009 by Portland vocal ensemble Cappella Romana, which celebrates our stewardship of the earth and living in harmony with nature, and in the journey he takes listeners on in his piano concerto.

Columbia River Gorge. Photo: Aaron Pegram.

Columbia River Gorge. Photo: Aaron Pregram.

The concerto’s title, Dawning of the World, has a double meaning, Kyr explains. “First, it refers to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, which connects to the form of the concerto… in which the soloist is a voyager who travels through a continually transforming series of musical landscapes and sonic environments in the way that a hiker might take a trip through the diverse ecosystems and terrains of Oregon,” including the temperate rain forest of the Willamette Valley, the Columbia Gorge, the Cascades, the coastal terrain and its seascapes, and Eastern Oregon’s high desert. “In this work, I imagine hiking at dawn, as the natural world gradually appears through ever-shifting colors and qualities of light, an experience of ‘the dawning of the world,’” he says.

Fusion Music

The concerto celebrates another dawning: the recent emergence of music influenced by the sounds of the whole world, not just Central Europe. “In the finale of the concerto, I have interwoven the Pelog 5 mode of the Balinese gamelan (C#-D-E-G#-A) with major and minor tonalities of the West to create an expansive, intercultural music,” Kyr wrote. “This fusion music of East and West is intended to demonstrate how music—as an essential element of the cultures of diverse peoples—celebrates the oneness and unity of the human family.

UO Pacific Rim Gamelan. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

UO Pacific Rim Gamelan. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Kyr has directed the Pacific Rim Gamelan at the University of Oregon since 1991. His interest in student exploration of cross-cultural fusion in composition was previewed in an earlier ArtsWatch article. “I love the fact that today we are in a period of synthesis, which is manifesting through ‘fusion musics’ that span a broad spectrum of diverse aesthetics, harmonic practices, and styles,” he says.

Harmonious encounters between cultures and peoples are also a major part of Kyr’s philosophy that influence his music. Compositions such as “Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light” performed by the Minnesota Chorale, or his more recent choral cantata “Song of the Beloved,” commissioned by the Washington Master Chorale, embrace themes of peace and reconciliation, compassion, love, and forgiveness.

Inspired by Friendship

Kyr has dedicated his concerto to the Eugene Symphony in celebration of its 50th anniversary and to his friend, colleague, and pianist Alexandre Dossin, a multi-award winning concert pianist and recording artist who has been a member of the University of Oregon music faculty since 2006. “I’m thrilled that my brilliant colleague, Alexandre Dossin, is the soloist for my concerto and I wrote the work specifically for him,” Kyr wrote. “For about four years, our offices were next to each other and I was fortunate to hear him playing throughout the day, which was a great joy! Since I know him well as an artist, his approach to the instrument, his artistry, and his glorious sound were truly an inspiration to me as I composed the concerto.”

Alexandre Dossin. Photo: Giovanna Pozzer/OSPA.

Alexandre Dossin. Photo: Giovanna Pozzer/OSPA.

For Dossin, “This concerto is one of those works that captivate the audience by its rich colors and atmosphere. In it, the piano is at the same time the main character and also a participant in some very special effects.”

Kyr suggests that listeners will find the “first and third movements of the concerto are filled with energetic music that is vibrant and joyful, which contrasts with the more gentle, lyrical music of the inner movement. I hope that the listener enjoys the journey in the way that one explores a terrain that is continually transforming, and full of surprises and adventures.”

Danail Rachev leads the Eugene Symphony in the world premiere of Robert Kyr’s Dawning of the World Piano Concerto No.1 with pianist Alexandre Dossin, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, “Choral”  with the Eugene Symphony Chorus directed by Sharon J. Paul, featuring Amanda Hall (soprano), Stacey Rishoi (mezzo-soprano), Scott Ramsay (tenor) and Lee Poulis (baritone). 8 pm May 12, Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene. Tickets online.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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