In mid-2020, Walla Walla Symphony CEO Leah Wilson-Velasco conceived the idea of a composition course for young people.
She hired composer and pianist Kristin Vining to mentor a group of high school students. The spark! program was free and there was no prerequisite for entry.
At any level, the students explored their musical ideas with Kristin and with each other. Due to the pandemic, the courses were online, with the symphony providing the appropriate software for everyone. In the summer, live performances were held at appropriate social distances by symphonic musicians in the bandstand at Pioneer Park.
Walla Walla High School Junior Lily Franklin is an honorary student interested in math and hard science (all AP courses) preparing for a career in science.
But, she said, “My favorite things to do are all music related.” She played jazz and classical trumpet for five years. “Most of my hobbies are music-related: the school orchestra and jazz ensemble, as well as a musical theater class. Music is the best way for me to express myself. It’s a great combination of being creative and also very technical. I like this.”
She said “The spark! program gave me a new way of approaching music. It introduced me to some music theory regarding rhythms, time signatures, harmonies and chords, and also helped me identify what characterizes different styles of music.
“Throughout the program, I was able to work both collaboratively and independently on compositions. I learned methods of musical experimentation, how to navigate songwriting technology, and eventually found that songwriting is something I really enjoy. I am fortunate to have heard about the program and to have had such a supportive and knowledgeable mentor.
Vining said: “For me, musical composition plays with sound … When you compose, you ask yourself a series of questions and you answer them in the score.”
Lily may be one of the more advanced students, but the program caters for all levels.
Vining is moving to New York this fall to pursue his music career, but will continue to teach the course online. And, as far as I know, Walla Walla is the only place in the country where this is happening.
Parents, take note: Spark! registration begins on October 3 and there are only 20 places. To free.
A few notes on upcoming concerts: ID and proof of vaccination are required for all symphony and Whitman concerts. Be aware of this when making your plans. For my part, I am grateful to both for this decision: I want to feel safe in an audience.
For safety reasons, the opening symphonic concert is mostly stringed, so that all musicians can be masked and distanced. Exciting food: a piece by the wonderful Gabriela Frank, as well as a marimba concerto by Brazilian Ney Rosauro, and a miniature by Dane Carl Nielsen.
Frank is internationally renowned, currently Composer in Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Of Peruvian descent, she enjoys incorporating South American musical styles into her compositions.
On October 30, the Symphony will perform at the Power House Theater, presenting the world premiere of a work by John David Earnest, written for (our) flute-clarinet duo Leonard Garrison and Shannon Scott (with orchestra). It’s alive and exciting. Having only heard the electronic version, I look forward to the real thing.
Also on this program is “Banner” by one of the hot new American songwriters, Jessie Montgomery: A Tribute to the Star Spangled Banner.
According to the New York Times, “She boldly transforms the anthem, folding it into a teeming score… to create a musical melting pot.”
His solo album “Strum” is a marvel, at least to my ears, and according to the Washington Post, it “sounded like a handful of American folk melodies blown in a strong wind, cascading and tumbling happily around each other.”
Put it on your Christmas list. I wish Jessie could join us at Walla Walla, but I see she’s busy jumping between Los Angeles, St. Louis, and New York. At least his music will be there.