Located in Prairie Village, Kansas, the Midwest Chamber Ensemblehas been performing classically-based chamber music since 2012. For this special edition of Listen Local we are privileged to feature conductor Steve Lewis and Composer-in-Residence Joseph Kern from Prairie Village's Midwest Chamber Ensemble as they discuss their craft and the nature of their creative collaboration.
Please introduce yourselves. What are your backgrounds? How did you come to work together?
Steve: Hi my name is Steve Lewis, I am the Music Director of theMidwest Chamber Ensemble in Prairie Village Kansas. Founded in 2012, the Midwest Chamber Ensemble is an organization dedicated to the performance of chamber orchestra and chamber ensemble music of the classical tradition. Selected by audition, ensemble members are primarily young professional musicians and exceptional music students. The Midwest Chamber Ensemble prepares its members for future career opportunities by creating a professional environment and providing audiences with quality performances. I play French horn in chamber music concerts and conduct orchestra concerts.
I have had the pleasure of conducting the Missouri Symphony, the Wilson Symphony (NC), and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra. I made my opera conducting debut in 2011 with the KC Metro Opera's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers and continued work with the company conducting their 2011 production of Lehar's The Merry Widow.
Before moving to Kansas City in 2010, I completed my BM in music theory and composition at East Carolina University. Then I completed my MM in conducting at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory in 2012 and did advanced studies at UMKC during the 2012-2013 academic year as a conducting student of Robert Olson and a French horn student of Martin Hackleman.
I’m interested in the creative collaboration between the Music Director and the Composer-in-Residence. How exactly do you two work together?
Steve: From my initial idea of form the Midwest Chamber Ensemble I knew we need to include local composers. The greater Kansas City area is home to many talented composers. I appointed our first composer-in-residence, Kerwin Young, for a two-year term and we premièred four of his works. At the end of Kerwin's term we assembled a committee to find our next composer-in-residence. I had worked with Joseph Kern before at UMKC so I invited him to apply. After a series of applications and interviews we selected Joseph as our composer. We have premièred three of his works and have plans to première two more and to record his new chamber symphony in May.
Joseph and I plan very far in advance, usually about a year out. We meet to discuss his goals and the ensemble's needs. We also have to consider how his new compositions fit in to the overall scheme of our season. Once the relative performance dates, durations and instrumentations are set it is up to Joey to get to work! Over the course of his composing he ask specific questions and ask for guidance and feed back. Six weeks before we begin rehearsals Joseph delivers parts and a score and it is up to me and the other musicians to learn the score and prepare for performance.
Joseph: I don't have much else to add to what Steve mentioned on this point as he basically spelled out exactly how things are done. The key for us is just always being in contact about the works and timelines and making sure both of us are willing to be flexible when and if needed. It's worked out very well this year and I'm looking forward to it again for the coming year.
Joseph, describe a typical day for you. Where and how do you compose your work? How closely do you work with either Steve or members of the Ensemble on your pieces?
My days usually start around 6:00am. I use these hours before having to go out for the day to do emails and any other sort of "paper work" tasks that need to be completed that day. Then I spend most of my days either at work or running errands so that by the time I'm home around 5:00pm all that is left is to make dinner and then sit down and compose during the early evening. I compose in my office and my set up is currently a 27" iMac with another 24" monitor that is laid out in a portrait style so I can see entire pages of larger scores. I use the program Finale (currently the 2014 version) and have a 66 key midi keyboard connected to the computer. I make it a point to play every single note that goes into a score of mine. That way, I'm working both at the computer and at the piano at the same time. If I ever have even the slightest question about if something is playable, how it fits on an instrument, or how it will sound I immediately go to either someone like Steve or a performer I know well and show them the part to get their opinion and (in the case of the performers) have them play it to show me. My goal is to write the best music I can and to make it challenging but worthwhile and the key to that is making sure it's absolutely playable.
What do you struggle with the most creatively and how do you push through those struggles?
Joseph: My biggest struggle has always be perfection. I want each piece I'm writing the be the best possible piece I can write at that given moment. So, it's very common for me to get about halfway through a piece and decide something isn't work with it and start from scratch. While this may seem scary to some and be frustrating for me at times, I've actually found it to be a major help for my process. When I start over I'll find out very quickly if an idea I had was good because I won't be able to not use it somehow. If I can recreate what I had before without looking at it then it was worth the time I spent. However, if I can't then there was obviously something wrong and it was not worth continuing. I often feel like I haven't really begun a piece until I'm about halfway into writing it for that reason.
Letters to A Young Poet By Rainer Maria Rilke.
This is a wonderful little book on what it is to be an artist and how important beauty is to art.
Julius Caesar By William Shakespeare
My favorite work by Shakespeare!
George Szell A Life of Music By Michael Charry
This is a great book on one of the most interesting conductors of all time.
These two well written books take the reader through the history of 20th Century music in the context of world history. A delightful read with wonderful information.
My four big musical inspirations are J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, and Ives and there is definitely a heavy influence of all of their works in my own. Outside of music I find a lot of inspiration out of early 20th and late 19th century America. My favorite art form in the Art Deco movement which flourished in the height of the 20's and 30's. My favorite poetry and literature also often comes from around the same time; i.e. Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, H.P. Lovecraft. I'm also deeply inspired by the Sacred Harp music of early America. These old hymn tunes can often find their way into my music either by simply inspiring a melody I've written, being directly quoted, or being distorted someway within the fabric of the piece.
The Mahler Symphonies - Mahler and his symphonies have been a huge influence on my most recent writing and outlook on what I want my music to be and become.
Mahler, Symphony 2 - Easily my favorite of all the Mahler symphonies
Charles Ives: A Life with Music - Charles Ives is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of what the American composer can and should be.
Ives, Symphonies 1 & 4 - Ives' Fourth Symphony is my favorite work of his and this recording with Chicago Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas is the best I've heard.
The Rest is Noise - Like Steve mentioned, this is one of the best books for taking someone through 20th century music which can often been difficult for the average listener.
Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman is a great American poet and a as a humanist had a great sense of what it is to both value and criticize yourself in equal parts. His poem "O Me! O Life!" is the text I use in the final movement of my "Chamber Symphony."