New Voices: Bonnie L. Cochran

This post was written in preparation for our May 2016 spring program.

There’s an undeniable pleasure and pride that comes with reviving classic works written by the masters, but to select a piece of music which has little or no performance history and bring it to life presents a unique opportunity for the musician and the audience. Our May 1, 2016, concert entitled New Voices will be a program full of new music — all written within the past 20 years by living composers.

Compiling and researching the music for this concert has been a rich and rewarding experience for me and the members of Manitou Winds. Since the composers who created the music we’re performing are alive and well, we’re able to correspond with them, learn firsthand about their unique approaches to composition, and ask probing questions about their work. This more personal connection unlocks a new dimension of the musical experience.

Many composers have the uncomfortable (or some would say blissfully ignorant) task of writing music for instruments they do not themselves play. In terms of music written for full orchestra or wind ensemble, it’s especially understandable considering the number of instruments represented. The most successful of chamber music composers, however, often write music featuring at least one of the instruments they know intimately. Bonnie L. CochranSuch is the case with Bonnie L. Cochran (b. 1975) whose catalog of compositions explores the many voices of the flute.

Bonnie grew up in Georgia and began composing music around the age of 12, but did not formally study composition until attending college and university where she eventually studied with John Heiss, John Clement Adams, Larry Bell, and Ronald Byrnside. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Music and Religious Studies from Agnes Scott College (Decatur, GA) and a Master of Music in Flute Performance from Boston Conservatory.

Perhaps the biggest impetus for her composing in recent years has been the formation of the Amaryllis Chamber Ensemble; an ensemble which she founded. The ensemble (a mix of violin, viola, cello, harp, and Bonnie’s flute) performs workshops and outreach programs as well as special events and concert appearances in and around the greater Boston area.

While searching for music for our New Voices program, finding Bonnie’s music was a happy surprise. The flute is capable of so many modern special effects and extended techniques (too many to list here!) that a large swath of modern flute music tends to explore these extra-musical sounds and effects rather than drawing the listener in with an intriguing melody. Bonnie’s music manages to be undeniably modern and yet unquestionably musical and so I knew her Suite for Flute & Piano (2003) would be an excellent fit for our concert.

The suite contains three movements and Bonnie says the melodies and especially the forms within the work evolved into their present form over the course of 6-8 years.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

— William Blake (1757-1827)

Movement one (A Dying Rose) was inspired by Blake’s “The Sick Rose” — a text which Bonnie says both fascinated and haunted her from the moment she was first introduced to it. She says she originally intended the theme to be a piece for vocalist and piano however she gave into the urge to play it on her own instrument and so she can’t hear it any other way.

Movement two (Meditation) is “reflective in nature, a little sad, yet hopeful,” says Bonnie. Like many aspects of programmatic music, the colors and inflections of the harmony — though interpreted as exactingly as the composer penned them — can sometimes strike the performer or an audience member in different ways.

Sam ClarkSam Clark, Manitou Winds’ flutist, said that the title of “Meditation” originally seemed odd to her since the chromatic melodic lines drawn by flute seemed to suggest anxiety or distraction. Once she was in rehearsal with Susan Snyder, our guest pianist for New Voices, she realized the movement does reach a state of meditative peace in the last few measures with the aid of colors added by the piano.

In contrast to the more enigmatic and somewhat somber themes in the first two movements, the final movement of the suite (Little Dance) is “a light-hearted romp” according to Bonnie. While the first two movements of the suite explore the dark and breathy bottom register of the flute, the third movement travels higher and higher as the dance progresses. Sam and I agree that the third movement is both graceful and spontaneous — not unlike the dancing of an exuberant, young ballerina in training. Oh — and there is a surprise ending: one last flourish as the flutist graces up to a high A (the very highest note in the entire suite).

Three contrasting scenes combined into one fascinating little suite… we look forward to sharing Bonnie’s remarkable piece with our audience.

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