New Voices: Jenni Brandon

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.

Because she is a genuine and warmly personable musical personality, we’ve already highlighted composer Jenni Brandon more than once in our musical explorations. First, we whipped up a heartwarming coffee cocktail with Jenni Jenni-Brandonwhile discussing the surprising connection many composers have to coffee. Later, we talked about the challenges of being a modern-day composer while Jenni shared one of her favorite vegetarian breakfasts.

Now that we’re finally able to program one of Jenni’s works, I’ve recently been chatting with her about her work as a composer, looking for special insights into her unique style. “I come from a background of singing.” she says. “I love singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos who were a big influence as I grew up doing a lot of my own coffee shop performances.” In the realm of Classical music, Jenni says she takes particular inspiration from Samuel Barber, Johnannes Brahms, Randall Thompson, and Morten Lauridsen.

Though Jenni composes music for many different combinations of instruments and voices, she says there’s a special place in her heart for choral music. Like many composers hoping to get their works performed, she often writes for special commissions — choirs or ensembles who present her with a specific request. Though these specific assignments can sometimes stretch a composer’s abilities to work under artistic constraints, she says she takes it all in stride, “I take on each commission with a fresh perspective and enjoy the story I can tell with each new Jenni Brandonproject.” When asked if she has a least favorite instrument or ensemble to write for, she insists she enjoys them all. “I’ll add a ‘most unusual’ to this,” she said, “I recently premiered a work for Flute Orchestra (piccolos all the way down to contrabass flute!) with SATB choir. It was a fun piece to write as I’d never written for so many flutes at once to play!”

At the moment, among other projects, Jenni’s working on an exciting oboe/bassoon duet (another special commission) which will be premiered this summer at the International Double Reed Society Conference. The duet will be a musical depiction of Glacier National Park. Jenni certainly has many irons in the fire — there’s even talk of a new opera!

Naturally, I’m excited to finally perform one of Jenni’s double reed works, On Holt Avenue (2006) for Oboe & Piano, at our upcoming concert. A four-movement sonata, each movement presents a small vignette from Jenni’s memories of daily life in her apartment in a particular Los Angeles neighborhood. Though in our program we only have time for three of the four beautiful movements, I tried to select the most contrasting scenes.

On Holt Avenue

Jenni says she’s recently switched to decaf, but the opening movement (Morning Coffee) is a stimulating, caffeinated experience — the melody shedding beats, growing jittery, and rising higher and higher before hitting that inevitable crash that always follows a caffeine buzz. The third movement (That Mockingbird) is a nod to Jenni’s feathered friend who kept her company ad nauseum just outside the window. The Jason McKinneyoboe’s lines shift, alternating between tender and song-like to harsh and grating — like a mockingbird imitating the songs of fellow birds and then the man-made sounds of the cityscape! The fourth movement (Daisies) paints a calming, beautiful still life of a vase of daisies sitting in a sunny backdrop.

I’m honored to present this evocative oboe sonata and even more thrilled to be working with our special guest, Susan Snyder, collaborative pianist at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Susan’s interpretation of Jenni’s piano score makes the colors of these vignettes truly sparkle. I hope you can join us for a stroll on Holt Avenue.

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