Bringing New Music into Life: Collaboration with the Composer Peter Lieuwen

Peter Lieuwen's Bright River (2014) written for me and Grace will receive its world premiere on July 21st at Lyceum Chamber Music Series in Alexandria, VA. The work will also be performed at ICA's ClarinetFest in Madrid, Spain later in July. 

I first met Peter in 2009 while working on his piece, Gulfstream, as a member of enhake, during our emerging years as graduate students at Florida State University. We were invited to perform Peter’s work at the opening recital of FSU’s biennial New Music Festival, and this very difficult piece prompted us to put an untold amount of time and effort on learning it intimately. In the end, we became personally attached to the work and gave a very satisfying performance. Peter, who were present at the recital, became a good friend of ours. Since then, enhake has given about 15 additional performances of Gulfstream at various places, including Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall and Texas A&M University (College Station, where everything from rental car to hotel room seemed to be extra large), where Peter is a faculty member and composer-in-residence. We also recorded the work for our 2011 Naxos album, which was later entitled “Gulfstream”! The CD received number of rave reviews and was selected as recording of the month by major journals such as BBC Music Magazine and MusicWeb International. Now thinking back, it is truly amazing how a serendipitous first meeting can lead to such exciting venture! I always advise my students to cherish every opportunity they get to meet with new colleagues as you never know where it will lead them. 

enhake with Peter Lieuwen during their residency at Texas A&M - College Station, TX in 2009

Few years after I started working at TTU and joined its faculty ensemble, Cumberland Quintet, Peter asked me if we would be interested in looking at his recent woodwind quintet entitled Windjammer. Fortunately, my quintet colleagues are always after exploring new works and agreed to commit to learn and record the piece. The unrelenting pacing of Windjammer demanded utmost stamina from all members of the quintet and posed a myriad of challenges, but the piece really grew on us in the end. Our quintet recorded the piece on August 2013 with the help of Peter and his recording engineer Brad Sayles who works for the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and the CD was recently released on MSR Record

Burgess Fall in Cookeville, TN

During Peter and Brad’s visit to Cookeville, I had a chance to take them to nearby Burgess Fall. It is a quite impressive site without being too overwhelming. Peter’s music is often “inspired by nature and legend,” and I particularly enjoyed his reference to water. I asked him if he would be willing to write a clarinet-piano duo for me and my wife, and Peter graciously agreed to move the project forward. 

Peter and Brad enjoying a pool game at my house during their visit to Cookeville

Peter already wrote several works for the clarinet, including a concerto for clarinet and orchestra, “River of Crystal Light,” written for the renowned British clarinetist David Campbell. Below is the YouTube link to Campbell’s recording of "River of Crystal Light":

"River of Crystal Light" (1999) for Clarinet, Harp, Piano and Strings David Campbell, clarinet/Texas Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Franz Anton Krager from Albany TROY928 http://www.albanyrecords.com An attractive array of shimmering, shuddering sonorities. The music of the outstanding American composer Peter Lieuwen has been described by The New York Times as "an attractive array of shimmering, shuddering sonorities."

I was thrilled to receive the final draft of our piece Bright River from Peter last September. This was the most exciting commission for our husband-wife duo to date, and we have been preparing hard since the start of this summer for our upcoming premiere and performances. After several years of ongoing collaboration, I became so familiar with Peter’s musical language and sound world. It helped me greatly in conceptualizing the musical ideas, and I knew exactly how I wanted to bring the score into the performance. As a result, past few weeks of my work has been mainly dealing with various issues on technical execution and acoustic realization.

An example of ever-ascending phrases which require a great deal of tonal and dynamic control

Some passages require extra attention to the acoustics of our instrument: how we want the music to sound versus how it actually sounds

Peter's use of extreme range of the clarinet in some of the most delicate and melodic passages poses many challenges. By taking greater liberty  on dynamic and articulation, I sometimes had to come up with creative ways to produce the desired sound and effect. The piano part also turned out to be quite hard with non-repeating patterns which involve very difficult fingerings. All of these problems are worth overcoming as the piece is completely filled with shimmering beauty, rapturous joy, and scintillating colors. As our ensemble has made a significant progress over the past few weeks, I feel such raw enthusiasm I have not experienced from playing new music in a while. Both I and Grace are truly looking forward to introducing Bright River to our audiences in our upcoming concerts. If you are attending this year's ClarinetFest, please plan on coming to my recital on the 22nd!

Here is the composer's program note:

The inspiration for Bright River (2014) is found in the visual and auditory intricacies of rivers as they evolve from rivulets and continually fluctuate between waterfalls, violent rapids and tranquil pools as the terrain changes.  In Bright River the piano presents a constant flowing motion that is placid and lyrical in some passages while spirited and syncopated in others.  The clarinet presents a bold awakening introductory gesture and weaves in and out of the musical fabric as the piece moves forward.  Drama and tension are enhanced with pandiatonic sections juxtaposed with those employing the diminished (half-step/whole-step) scale.  The melody is often presented  “in harmony” at the interval of the 7th or 9th creating a translucent musical aura.

Bright River was written for and is dedicated to Wonkak Kim and Grace Choi.

 On our recent Facetime "rehearsal" with Peter Lieuwen

On our recent Facetime "rehearsal" with Peter Lieuwen