By Stephanie Powell
In her home studio in Brooklyn, New York, composer Anna Clyne is surrounded by her small, upright piano, cello, accordion, other various instruments, and her laptop. The 35-year-old Clyne has a residency with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which culminates on May 8 with a world premiere of a work for full orchestra.
“It’s still untitled,” she says over the phone from home, and laughs, “but I can tell you what it’s about.”
The piece is in honor of two Baltimore philanthropists—Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, both art enthusiasts. The work is inspired by a contemporary art collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “It’s become a collaboration with the [Baltimore Museum of Art], as well. They’ve been very helpful with showing us the pieces and offering more insights, and I can use that material for the music,” she says. “A lot of my work is collaborative and that’s what I love to do, and art is just another field. It’s very inspiring to have that dialogue and to bounce ideas off each other and be directly inspired by the art.”
Made up of five movements, each inspired by a different piece of art, the work runs 20 minutes long. The length is a rarity for the composer—she’s used to writing long-form pieces, and writing a work in honor of someone is a first, she adds. Regardless of the circumstances, composing for full orchestra is feat, she says with a laugh, “and every time it feels like starting from the beginning again.”
Clyne likens writing orchestral music akin to painting sounds like an artist. “It’s quite a visual approach,” she says. “Incorporating different colors of the instruments, moving to cello or driving the violins so one is playing the material and the other is playing the same material, but on the bridge so it gives it more of a glitter to the sound. There’s more of a layering of different colors.”
The world premiere on May 8 brings nerves with it, Clyne admits. “It’s quite exciting—you’re trying something new and not quite sure how something might work,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a guessing game but based on knowledge, as well. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking because you spend months in a solitary place constantly just imaging what it’s going to sound like. You go from this solitary place with your imagination to a place with suddenly 100 musicians.”
A self-described “rusty cellist,” Clyne says she often feels most comfortable writing for the string section because she has “a sense of the physicality of how it is to play.”
Clyne’s residency is comprised of three visits at the BSO—the first, in September 2015, included the East Coast premiere of her work Masquerade conducted by Marin Alsop, and her second focused on education outreach with Baltimore City students, which she names as a core component of the residency. She’s working with OrchKids, a year-round BSO program offered during and after school to “create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City neighborhoods,” its website reads.
“That’s been a huge part of the residency—education and change is really at the heart of the orchestra,” she says. “It’s been really interesting to see the commitment behind it, not just a drop in and leave, but to really see and work with the kids, and all of the different aspects like discipline and commitment that music can give you.”