Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Composer Profile: Nancy Galbraith in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On September 23, I will have the pleasure of conducting the symphonic work "Midnight Stirring" by composer Nancy Galbraith. This will be in Sacramento with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in a program that also includes Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto and Brahms' 2nd Symphony. Below is a Q&A with the composer:


Christian Baldini: Nancy, it is a pleasure to welcome you and to conduct your music in Sacramento. Tell us, what are some of your priorities and main interests as a composer?


Nancy Galbraith: I am naturally compelled to continuously expand and grow and explore new pathways of expression. Fortunately for me, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is home to a wealth of talented musicians who are always happy to perform outside of their classical music comfort zones. One prominent example is my colleague at Carnegie Mellon, Stephan Schultz, who is a world class Baroque flutist who truly enjoys all the electroacoustic challenges I send his way. He is one of many among the soloists, instrumental ensembles and conductors from this area, who are eager and delighted to perform music on the cutting edge.


I am also deeply immersed in the world of choral music. Much of that is sacred music, which is born out of my lifelong involvement as a church organist and music director. And again, the Pittsburgh area has an ample pool of talented conductors and ensembles who welcome the kind of new music I have to offer.


As you might surmise, I love writing for specific artists and ensembles, both instrumental and choral.


CB: You are also a renowned educator, as Professor and Chair of Composition at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University School of Music in Pittsburgh. What are some of the values and life-long lessons that you try to instill in your students during your lessons?


NG: First I should mention that I especially enjoy teaching undergrads, as they are mostly very open to learning and growing. They each arrive with their own special musical interests, and I let them know I’m happy to honor and nurture those throughout their time with me, but only if they trust me to help them explore a full array of other musical avenues. As first-year students, I provide them with an extensive listening list of mostly current composers from a wide range of genres, along with selected works from earlier composers. I encourage—insist, I should say—that they continuously listen to what is happening in the present, and thus my list is dynamic and ever changing. Most importantly, I steer them toward the goal of finding their own true artistic voices, no matter what they may be. Their senior year concludes in a public concert of their own symphonic works performed by the superb Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestra. The energy, artistry and eclecticism of those programs are prominent annual highlights of the music scene in Pittsburgh. My graduated students from the past four decades operate in an extremely wide spectrum of musical fields.


CB: Let’s talk about your own mentors. Who were some of the most influential and important ones to you, and why?


NG: Many of my chief mentors have been dead composers (lol), including J. S. Bach, Stravinsky, and Copland, to name a few. I have mostly learned from studying scores and performing their works; and I should mention that John Adams was a strong early influence as well. In my childhood, teen and college years, I studied piano and clarinet; and during those years, I was fortunate to perform a wide ranging repertoire of classical and contemporary music.


CB: How did you start composing “Midnight Stirring”? What came to you first? How was the process?


NG: This work was originally composed for flutes. In 2009, I was commissioned to write a work for flute choir for the 37th Annual National Flute Convention. This was one of the few musical genres I hadn’t yet visited, and all of a sudden, I was initiated into the flute world! The music director of the distinguished Columbia Flute Choir, the late Sharyn Byer, commissioned me to write “Midnight Stirring” for the 43rd annual convention. Then, at the request of a conductor friend, I adapted it as a light, easy-to-program work for chamber orchestras. It is scored senza percussion, which is a rarity for me.


CB: What is the relevance of music in today’s life? Why is it important?


NG: Music is no more relevant today than it has been in any time in human history. It is an esoteric and universal language that reaches one’s inner being in ways that words cannot.


CB: Lastly, what would be your advice for young composers, starting out in this profession?


NG: Without any cues from me, most of my students follow their own hearts and instincts, and they somehow find pathways to many and various careers in music. Some of them dwell in a state of uncertainty for a while, and I advise them to consider music education or arts management to carry them through that period of their lives. But many of them just hit the ground running. I’m always sceptical when, once in a while, one says to me, “I’m moving to New York!”—but quite a few of those have actually succeeded tremendously! I am shocked at how they make important connections so quickly, in ways that have always escaped me. So I’ve learned to simply encourage them to pursue their dreams.


CB: Thank you very much for your time, I look forward to conducting your beautiful music and sharing it with our audiences!


NG: Thank you, and best of luck with your performance.

Nancy Galbraith (b.1951) resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, where she is Chair of Composition at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Music, and holds the Vira I Heinz Professorship of Music endowed chair at the College of Fine Arts.

In a career that spans four decades, her music has earned praise for its rich harmonic texture, rhythmic vitality, emotional and spiritual depth, and wide range of expression. Her works have been directed by some of the world's finest conductors, including Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Mariss Jansons, Keith Lockhart, Donald Runnicles and Robert Page. Her compositions are featured on numerous recordings, including nine anthologies.

With major contributions to the repertoires of symphony orchestras, concert choirs, wind ensembles, chamber ensembles, electroacoustic ensembles, and soloists, Galbraith plays a leading role in defining the sound of contemporary classical music.

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