December 20th, 2006
Art reflects the soul of a society and tells us something about ourselves. But what if its voice is never heard? Stuyvesant clubs and literary magazines publish the poetry, creative writing, drawings and cartoons of student artists. But unlike visual art and literature, which are complete in themselves, musical compositions require performers to bring them to life. Composers are often unable to find performers who will play their works, particularly those for larger ensembles such as chorus, orchestra or band.
Musical composition, however, is active at Stuyvesant, thanks in part to the longstanding commitment of its music department to providing private and, occasionally, public performances of the works of Stuyvesant composers.
Music Theory teacher and orchestra conductor Joe Tamosaitis and Assistant Principal Music, Fine Art and Technology and band conductor Dr. Ray Wheeler offer Stuyvesant composers the opportunity to rehearse, conduct and sometimes even record their works with Stuyvesant’s ensembles.
Tamosaitis, who has taught at Stuyvesant for five years, graduated from Juilliard in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in double bass and a master’s degree in composition. He believes that it is essential for the Stuyvesant orchestra to perform student compositions, both for the composers and orchestra players.
“From the orchestra players’ perspective, part of being a musician is being able to make compositions come to life,” said Tamosaitis. “For student composers, it’s really important to have a reading orchestra because they don’t have much opportunity to hear their own music and if you don’t hear your own music, there’s a limit to what you can learn.”
Wheeler strongly supports these orchestra readings and also encourages composers to write for the Stuyvesant bands. A woodwind player who has composed and arranged himself, Wheeler sympathizes with the difficulties composers face. “Those who work for radio and television and movies are very lucky because they know that their works will probably be performed. Less so are the people who write music for orchestras or bands because there aren’t that many orchestras and bands that are looking for new works,” he said.
In the past year, the Stuyvesant Symphony Orchestra has read pieces by two current Stuyvesant composers, seniors John Taylor and Alex Weiser. Taylor, a clarinetist in the Symphonic Band, has been composing for 10 years and studies at Juilliard Pre-College. Taylor has experienced his own frustrations in finding performers for his music. “It’s difficult to find players who actually like the music,” he said. The orchestra read the third movement of his String Quartet in D Major earlier this fall. Hearing his work played helped Taylor to continue developing his compositional style, which he wants to “be like Mozart’s and Beethoven’s,” but with his own added “verve.”
Weiser, a student of Paul Alan Levi who has been composing since his freshman year, has had three pieces read by the Stuyvesant Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra read his string quartet and overture for string orchestra last year and his piece for strings, percussion and piano this fall. Weiser also composed the music for the Winter Drama 2006, “Blood Wedding,” which premiered December 15.
Weiser believes that contemporary classical music has a lot to offer Stuyvesant students. “Art expresses the human condition, and contemporary classical music expresses the contemporary human condition. [We] students at Stuyvesant are at difficult crossroads in our lives where we are questioning the world around us and trying to understand our purpose here, and this is exactly what art is for. Art allows us to free ourselves from words and try to ask and answer the truly difficult questions of life the best we can,” said Weiser.
Weiser said, “The symphony orchestra reading my pieces has definitely been very helpful. Composing is much more meaningful when it is realized, and taking a piece through the whole process of writing it, copying it out, rehearsing it and finally conducting it in a concert makes the composition so much more real than it would be if I just wrote it, talked about it with my teacher and then left it on my shelf to collect dust.” In the future, Weiser plans to write for some of the other Stuyvesant ensembles.
Tamosaitis and Wheeler are open to featuring student compositions in their concerts. Wheeler said, “If we had one student who had a work about five-eight minutes long and it sounded pretty good, we’d put it on our spring concert program.” Tamosaitis would like to have an “afternoon of student compositions,” if enough student composers prepare works to form an entire program.
Perhaps in part because of the difficulty and uncertainty of obtaining performances of their work, composers get a rush when hearing their works performed for the first time. Wheeler said, “When I wrote a fanfare for the University of Maryland, the first time that they played it, it was one of the most thrilling things of my life. So I know how thrilling it is when students spend a lot of time and effort composing and you actually get to hear it played back. Even if it’s lousy, it’s exciting.”