Nov. 15 2018 10:21 AM

New concerto freshens up Lansing Symphony concert



Composer David Biedenbender is out to restore awe and wonderment to a jangled world, with a little help from his kids.

“Their Eyes are Fireflies,” a new concerto written for the Lansing Symphony’s ferocious principal trombonist, Ava Ordman, will get its first orchestral performance Thursday.

Biedenbender, a professor of composition at Michigan State University, is a little unnerved at the prospect of his music being sandwiched between Beethoven’s “Egmont” overture and one of the noblest orchestral works of all, Brahms’s Third Symphony.

“It’s intimidating,” he said. “I feel a deep connection to Brahms’ Third. It’s my favorite of his.”

But Biedenbender is cutting his own swath through American concert halls with spiraling epics like “The Cyclotron,” an orchestral and percussive eruption inspired by MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

At a recent Detroit concert, Ordman was floored by a duet with a booming bass trombone rolling on steel rails of piano chords — Biedenbender’s “Liquid Architecture.”

That did it. She had to do a Biedenbender. “It was in Detroit and it sounded industrial,” Ordman said. “It just drew me in. It’s a really new voice in the music world.”

But Ordman didn’t want a flashy virtuoso piece. One of the Lansing Symphony’s strongest voices proved her technical abilities long ago.

“I wanted it to be a piece he would write from his heart, and that’s what he did,” Ordman said.

This time, the composer found inspiration not from subatomic particles, but two sources of energy closer to home — his young sons, Declan and Izaak.

Entire worlds form, melt and reform in the concerto’s last movement, “Control Panels,” inspired by Izaak’s love of making elaborate control panels for everything, from airplanes to milk shakes, and setting them up all over the house.

“This piece is about taking a second to learn and to listen from kids,” Biedenbender Ava Ordman said. “It’s so refreshing to me, in an environment of politics and school shootings, all kinds of adult things — it’s nice to go home and see the world with this innocence and joy that’s really special in kids.”

The last pages are marked “ecstatic” in the score.

“The orchestra is going wild and the trombone is riding on top of that and adding to it,” Ordman said.

The aching slow movement is disarmingly titled “This song makes my heart not break” — a remark Izaak made while listening to music at age 4.

Ordman called it “drop-dead-gorgeous lyrical.”

Here, the synergy between composer and soloist is at its strongest. Biedenbender wanted to pull the music as far as he could from the extroverted, blatty side of the trombone.

“Ava is so warm. She loves people. She’s a good friend and she likes to socialize,” Biedenbender said. “I wanted to give her a chance to sing through the instrument, treat it like a voice.”

These days, it’s almost impossible for one person or institution to pay a composer for a major new work. To bring the concerto into being, Ordman formed a consortium of 15 top trombone players, including Tim Higgins, the principal trombonist of the San Francisco Symphony, and Kenneth Thompkins, principal trombonist of the Detroit Symphony.

She also got support from MSU band director Kevin Sedatole and Lansing Symphony maestro Tim Muffitt.

All the members of the consortium get exclusive rights to play the work for the next three years, in wind symphony or orchestral versions.

But Biedenbender made it clear that he wrote the concerto with Ordman in mind.

“I don’t like to write abstract sounds for the trombone,” Biedenbender said. “I like to write for a person. Her quirky personality, the way she approaches the trombone and the kinds of things she can do — I started from there.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra Ava Ordman, Trombone $20-55

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing

(517) 487-5001 www.lansingsymphony.org