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Blue Blazes

About the Work

Sean Shepherd
Quick Look Composer: Sean Shepherd
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Beethoven May 31 - Jun. 2, 2012
© Thomas May

The National Symphony Orchestra has joined other leading ensembles-including the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic-to become an important champion of the remarkably talented young composer Sean Shepherd. A native of Reno and now based in Brooklyn, Shepherd 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.  

Through several high-profile commissions over the past few years, Shepherd has been steadily adding to a catalogue of orchestral and chamber music works noted for their engagingly poetic approach to textures and rigorous craftsmanship alike. The New York Philharmonic invited Shepherd to write These Particular Circumstances (2010) for its inaugural new-music series under music director Alan Gilbert, and he began a residency this season with the Cleveland Orchestra as a Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow. Shepherd is also just completing a two-year residency with his former hometown orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic. In Europe, the Ensemble InterContemporain premiered his newly commissioned Blur at the beginning of the year in Paris. Later in the summer they will bring this chamber orchestra piece, which the composer describes as "ruminations on landscapes offering a high-speed view of the Old World," on tour to the prestigious Lucerne Festival.

Blue Blazes marks the first NSO commission for Shepherd, which was made possible through a grant from the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works. The composer dedicates the piece "to Maestro Eschenbach and the dedicated musicians and staff of the NSO with gratitude." Paving the way have been several previous Kennedy Center performances of his music, including the chamber piece Metamorphoses as part of the 2009 CrossCurrents series devoted to contemporary music and the Quartet for Oboe and Strings, which featured NSO oboist Nicholas Stovall in a Prelude chamber music program on the Millennium Stage last fall. For his program as guest conductor last November, Oliver Knussen-one of Shepherd's leading mentors-led the local premiere of Wanderlust (2009), a work originally written for the Cleveland Orchestra.

In a sort of artistic credo, Shepherd defines his métier as involving "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." In the case of Blue Blazes, a brief concert opener the composer teasingly characterizes as a "party popper," the initial impulse was actually verbal rather than musical: unusually for him, Shepherd began with the title. The colloquial expression "blue blazes" opened the way to a host of free associations suggesting possible musical puns on the idiom, as well as on each of its words in isolation. These in turn led Shepherd to uncover new shades and thus to make his own contribution to the legacy of coloristic orchestral miniatures that has also been carried forward by such contemporary composers as Knussen and John Adams.

 A highly articulate spokesman for his own music, Shepherd provides the following commentary on Blue Blazes:


I believe the Shakespeare truism goes that brevity is the soul of wit.  I'm not completely sure that it isn't the other way around.  There is something deeply satisfying about hearing a piece that doesn't beat around the bush; it's one of the reasons why it's easy to love a good concert overture.  Whether it's Beethoven's Egmont or Dvorák's Carnival, or delightfully clipped ruminations on fireworks by Stravinsky (and later Knussen), or the modern marvels of transport in works like Honegger's Pacific 231 and John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, I love sitting down for a concert and being promptly and efficiently dazzled.  These classic works take their task, the ­fêtes en miniature, deadly seriously, and don't mince their notes while charming us, yes, to bits. 

Imagine my surprise: it's a tough job, saying a lot by saying a little.  With no time to explain oneself, the musical distillation process is best kept to the sketches.  I went about it by looking at the words I'd chosen for the title (yes, those Netherworldly blue blazes, and part of one of my favorite examples of that very important linguistic sub-category: the ever-useful exasperation idiom) and re-interpreting them as I liked, with hellish abandon.  The piece's eight minutes unfold variously as orchestra intrada, with different sections introduced in sequence, starting with the low strings, percussion and clarinets (after marking, point by point, a new trail by peeling back bark on a tree, revealing the torchlike blaze), noble fanfare (after the German blasen, to blow), and wild, distracted, self-satisfied romp (what the ..., indeed.). 

Pondering blue, my thoughts tended toward the subtle, and the sensual.  Perhaps a cool breeze or a visual cue - the gentle bobbing of boats of different sizes, all tethered to the same dock somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea  - might make itself apparent.  While considering the musical blue, I gravitated, among many other places, toward Jazz: toward blue notes, toward luscious complex harmonies.  Unlike many concert composers of the 20th and 21st centuries and several close friends, I'm not a Jazz aficionado in any deep sense.  But my admiration grows for the musical ethos of someone like pianist Bill Evans, of doing something for the hedonistic pleasure of hearing it, of lingering (or even wallowing) in great washes of cool blue sounds.  I'd be surprised to hear someone point out a jazzy moment in this piece; any presence of homage is intended as a spiritual, not a literal, one.