CINCINNATI – Amid the loss and upheaval of World War II, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra commissioned a group of 18 fanfares in support of Allied troops. One of them, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which the orchestra premiered in 1943, has gone on to become an iconic work often performed in moments of patriotic fervor or painful tragedy.
To offer a similar kind of musical uplift and reflection during the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastating and too-often deadly challenge of our time, the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops have drawn on this poignant history. The two ensembles have launched the Fanfare Project, in which they have commissioned 13 diverse composers to write new fanfares, with more to be possibly announced later.
“We are not in World War II,” said Louis Langrée, the Cincinnati Symphony’s music director, “but we are in tragic times. We don’t know how long it will take. We don’t know how long we will have to wait before being able to perform again. But we know this will come. We’ll have to be patient.”
With some symphony orchestras, tradition and innovation can be opposed. “What I love about the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is that the tradition is to be innovative,” Langrée said. “From the very beginning of the orchestra, you had composers coming and conducting or performing their own pieces.” He cited a long list of such figures, including Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Ottorino Respighi, Camille Saint-Saëns, Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. And that commitment to contemporary music has continued to this day. “I think I have conducted more new pieces in seven years [as music director] than in my whole career, and I love that,” Langrée said.
According to Langrée, the Fanfare Project was the brainchild of Nate Bachhuber, the orchestra’s director of artistic planning and administration, but many other people inside and outside the organization have joined in to make it a reality. “Each of us has put in a stone to build this wonderful monument,” Langrée said.
In keeping with COVID-19 restrictions, the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops have canceled all concerts through July 3. Because the musicians cannot perform together, these new fanfares are being written for solo members of the orchestra — a reflection of the solitude that has been a fact of life during this pandemic. “They are like a call for sunshine again,” Langrée said. “Let’s be patient. Let’s wait. It’s a wonderful message sent. I’m proud of that.”
Fanfares are typically associated with groups of brass instruments and drums, and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, one of the commissioned composers, acknowledged that it was hard to write such a work for one instrument, in his case, the trumpet. “I don’t look at my piece as a fanfare in the traditional sense,” he said, “but I do see it as more of something that’s fanfare-like, that has an explosive quality to it. I wanted to achieve that aspect of what fanfares are. I didn’t want it to be some kind of big, extravagant-sounding thing, but I wanted to respond to a couple tenets of what goes into what a fanfare sounds like.”
Some of the participating composers have previous ties with the two ensembles, including Matthias Pintscher, the Cincinnati Symphony’s new creative partner; Caroline Shaw, who has received two previous commissions; and Bryce Dessner, a Cincinnati native who co-founded the rock band The National in 1999. Newcomers to the orchestra include four-time Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman; pianist and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane; and Missy Mazzoli, composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestral musicians (and one 2020-21 visiting soloist) asked to participate in the Fanfare Project needed little coaxing. “They are starving [for music],” Langrée said. “You take it for granted that you can do music and you can communicate through music. This is normal life. This is our natural life. And suddenly to be silenced is something quite hard.”
Principal oboist Dwight Parry was excited when he heard about the initiative and immediately wanted to be included. His thoughts quickly turned to Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo instrumental works and Georg Philipp Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for Solo Flute, which are often played on the oboe. To Parry, these Baroque pieces somewhat resemble fanfares, so he envisioned something similar — a kind of neo-Baroque work for the oboe. But the piece that was written for him could hardly have been further from that style.
Bachhuber called the oboist and told him he had been paired with Pintscher, who had never written for solo oboe and wanted to give it a try. Parry was surprised and thrilled. “I think Matthias is awesome,” he said. “We’ve worked with him a couple of times in the orchestra. I like him personally. His music is really incredibly complex, and I thought, I could use a challenge. I’ve got time on my hands. Bring it on.”
Literally one day after that notification, the oboist received the score. Parry recalls Pintscher saying, “I was so inspired, I wrote it in one day. Here you go.”
The composer had one question: Could the oboist produce a particular kind of multiphonic — a group of notes played together on a monophonic instrument. Parry was able to devise a fingering that would accomplish what Pintscher wanted, but he acknowledged that he was intimidated by the daunting work when he first looked at it.
After playing through it several times, he sent the composer a rough recording, and that started a dialogue. Pintscher realized that some of his musical ideas were not especially idiomatic to the oboe. “He came back to me with a second draft,” Parry said, “that made some alterations and was more exploratory, more colorful, and frankly just better — just a more interesting piece.”
The resulting two-minute work, vitres (fragment . . . ), was inspired by the celebrated stained-glass windows in the Chartres Cathedral in France. The oboist described it as incredibly complex, with intelligent, dense writing. “There is a lot of math involved in understanding the rhythms and how they fit together,” Parry said. “And huge amounts of notes and big leaps. So, it’s technically demanding like almost nothing else I’ve played, to be honest.”
Parry’s performance of the work was the first of the 13 posted on the Fanfare Project webpage. Since then, four more have been added, including Sorey’s For Peter Evans (Apologies for the Brevity), which runs about 30 seconds. It is performed by principal trumpeter Robert Sullivan.
The composer, who is a 2017 winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” chose the trumpet because of his admiration for Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Dixon, and Peter Evans, noted exponents of the instrument in the realms of avant-garde jazz and new music. “I didn’t want to necessarily make a piece that sounded like any of my influences,” Sorey said, “but something that is in dialogue with those influences, namely Peter Evans, whose language this is mostly derived from.”
Du Yun, Chinese-born winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her opera Angel’s Bone, admits that she wasn’t sure that she wanted to be part of the Fanfare Project at first. “I’ve never been someone who jumps onto something too fast,” she said. But she is glad that she signed on. Because she typically thought of a fanfare as a “loud, celebratory collective social experience,” she struggled early on with how to write such a work for one instrument. But the inspiration for her fanfare, The Rest Is Our World, came one evening during the 7 p.m. cheers in New York for front-line workers amid the COVID-19 quarantine. The noise went a little longer than usual and then from a balcony came a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.”
“It was very loud and all of a sudden, it was very quiet,” Du Yun said. “Everyone quieted down and everyone just stood in silence and listened to that song to the end. And it was so powerful, especially in a place like New York, where you never really see any of your neighbors. This was kind of like a solidarity movement.”
The experience led her toward a reflective fanfare that would draw on the sense of “inwardness” that humanity is experiencing right now. To that end, she chose the harp as her instrument, and she envisioned Cincinnati Symphony principal harpist Gillian Sella performing it outdoors with birds chirping around her.
Du Yun envisioned using a quieter instrument like the harp as a way of asking people to listen more proactively, something that she sees as appropriate for this unusual time. “We are each on our own,” she said, “but we are celebrating something that we are all sharing, which is very much this pandemic we are going through right now.”
Once the final performance of the commissioned works is posted, the Fanfare Project will be technically concluded, but Langrée believes its effects will endure in multiple ways. The pieces could be included in some fashion on a future orchestra-sponsored program. At the same time, the score for each fanfare is posted on the Cincinnati Symphony website, so other musicians can perform the works as they wish. Finally, some of the composers could incorporate or adapt their fanfares into larger works just as Copland did with his famous ode to the common man, developing it into the fourth movement of his Symphony No. 3. “I think the possibilities are infini — infinite,” Langrée said.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.