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About the Work

Sean Shepherd
Quick Look Composer: Sean Shepherd
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Oliver Knussen, conductor / Peter Serkin, piano, plays Messiaen & Benjamin Nov. 3 - 5, 2011
© Thomas May

Only in his early 30s, Sean Shepherd (born in 1979) has been steadily adding to a catalogue of orchestral and chamber music works with high-profile commissions over the past few years. Wanderlust was originally written for the Cleveland Orchestra, where Shepherd is just beginning a residency this season as a Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow. He also maintains an ongoing residency with his former hometown orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic. This season additionally brings the premiere in Europe of a new work for the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Oliver Knussen, a leading champion of Shepherd's music, conducted the world premiere of Wanderlust in 2009. (The score is dedicated to Knussen and his daughter, the singer Sonya Knussen, as well as to composer Sydney Hodkinson.) That same year he led a chamber ensemble comprised of National Symphony players in a program that included Shepherd's Metamorphoses as part of the CrossCurrents, a Kennedy Center series devoted to contemporary music. The present program offers NSO audiences a chance to experience the vivid orchestral imagination that has been winning Shepherd attention in the new-music scene.

A native of Reno, Shepherd, who is now based in New York, grew up in a family of Nevada ranchers but began composing at a young age. He studied bassoon and composition at Indiana University and pursued graduate studies in composition at Juilliard and Cornell. As his artistic credo, Shepherd points out that writing music entails "two very different jobs": that of a "craftsman" who develops his material into "something as beautiful as I possibly can" but also that of a "novelist" who has "a story to tell that is my own." To compose means "to make those two things work together in the best way that I can."

 A highly articulate spokesman for his own music, Shepherd provides the following commentary on the three-movement Wanderlust:

"The kinds of journeys Wanderlust (a wonderful concept-word generally known as "love of travel") concerns itself with occur not just geographically, but through time. Each movement reflects a broad span. Prevailing Winds evokes my thoughts on a more distant past: the cool expansive windy desert of Northern Nevada (my home until age 18) drenched in sun and sagebrush, my ever-so-rooted family, my innocence in the wide world. Distant memories and impressions are fragmented and piled up upon themselves and continue to swirl around the orchestra in various guises, and often reappear.  In essence, I sought to relay many thoughts, memories, visions and emotions (all distant, many vague) into a single abstract object, and what resulted is a kind of musical kaleidoscope: ever changing and circling, but only around itself.

In contrast, Seagulls on High reflects my thoughts on a specific time and place, one much closer to the present. The first version of this music had a quick incubation in Aldeburgh, the coastal town in Suffolk, England where Benjamin Britten made his home. The title refers most directly to the enormous resident birds that kept me company with a truly glorious cacophony in the early morning hours of the summer sunrise outside my cottage on Aldeburgh High Street. The music, however, makes it roots known elsewhere. In the cold beaches and dark, roiling waves; the reeds and lowlands and coastal plains under grey, unsettled skies I came to understand Britten's special, conflicted penchant for melancholy, and many the saddest tunes from Peter Grimes and the Serenade rolled through my head as I wrote in a small room in the Snape Maltings, the concert hall he built. Seagulls on High was never intended as direct homage or a kind of compositional tourism, but in the end, a nod to a hero while staying in his place of choice was inevitable.

Bilbao is somehow the simplest and most obtuse movement, both referentially and musically. The word alone conjures for so many Frank Gehry's spectacular, terribly intricate, and downright funky designs for the Guggenhiem Museum he built in the 1990s, and the urban renewal brought about by its auspicious opening in this downtrodden port city in Northern Spain. Since I have never been to Bilbao, this music is somehow about the future, of seeing this building that has captured my imagination since I was 15 years old, of visiting a place that was saved by art. But, in concerning the prospect of a return to the home of my Basque ancestry, this music is also somehow about the notion of a past so deep, it may be lost already. That both the future and the distant, ancestral past have an existence based only in reflection, I knew the piece would end with a question mark. Perhaps appropriately, the path the music took in getting there is still a genuine mystery to me."