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Santa Rosa Symphony gives world premiere of Matt Browne work in February

by Diane Peterson The Press Democrat, January 29, 2020

Composer Matt Browne grew up in a Monument, Colo., with all kinds of music swirling about his ears. He performed sax in his school band, his dad played in a rock band and his mom was a Bob Dylan fanatic.

But it was Browne’s two older brothers — one a fan of ’90s hip-hop and R&B, the other deeply devoted punk rock and metal — who pushed him toward the world of classical music.

“They fought each other and were always trying to vie for my musical allegiance,” he said. “Because I wanted to be the angry contrarian, I went the exact opposite direction. But I still love Boyz II Men and Bad Religion.”

The 31-year-old composer, who now lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, already has a list of nearly 60 classical works to his name. He will premiere his first symphony with the Santa Rosa Symphony under Francesco Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong in early February at the Green Music Center. The five-movement, 40-minute work will get a second premiere in March with the Eugene Symphony, also under the baton of Lecce-Chong, its music director.

The two premieres will mark the launch of Lecce-Chong’s ambitious First Symphony project, a four-year co-commissioning enterprise between the two symphonies and four young American composers, all chosen by the conductor. In addition to a full symphony apiece, each composer will also have a short work performed by each symphony, enabling them to connect with the communities through multiple residencies. (Browne’s short work, “How the Solar System Was Won,” was performed by the Santa Rosa Symphony in October.)

As a rising young composer, Browne knows only too well that the First Symphony Project presents a rare opportunity. He normally gets commissioned to write works of 10 minutes or less.

“I know that this project is a massive undertaking for both orchestras,” Browne said. “It takes someone like Francesco to really convince people that it’s worthwhile. ... I also know I’m setting the tone with the orchestra, the donors and Francesco. I am the first example of whether or not this was a good idea, so I do feel the responsibility.”

Browne, who majored in music compositions at the University of Colorado and got his master’s and PhD from the University of Michigan, based his Symphony No. 1, “The Course of Empire,” on a series of five paintings by 18th-century painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. The paintings depict a fictional landscape at different points of its natural and human development.

Replicas of the five paintings will be on display in the lobby before the performances, and Browne will be there too, to chat with concert attendees.

Earlier this month, Browne spoke by phone with the Press Democrat (this interview has been edited for length).
Q: What inspired you about those five paintings by Thomas Cole?
A: The scope of it made me think of Mahler. What I always loved about his music was his maximalism. He was really trying to take the orchestra and use it to its full potential. There will be 100 musicians on stage, and sometimes they will all play, and then there will be a 3-minute flute solo. ... There are small stories going on amidst these big stories, and it’s the same with these paintings.

Q: Some of these paintings depict elaborate buildings and bridges. Do you see a link between architecture and music?
A: I use a metaphor when talking about composers, conductors and performers. Composers are the architects. They have the crazy ideas and then they hand them off to the conductor and performers, who are like the foreman and the engineers who build the things.

Music and architecture are very similar because they are built by particular building blocks. There are certain styles of music and architecture, but there are still basic things — in architecture there are doors, arches and scaffolding, and in music, melody harmony and rhythm.

Q: Could you describe the dramatic arc of the five movements?
A: The general arc is the arc of humanity as we know it, with warnings about what the future could look like. There’s a big, upward trajectory through the first three movements, with everyone working hard and building and taking over. Then in the third movement, we have arrived and at the end, it’s like the end of a Tchaikovsky symphony. It could almost end there. But as an ironic statement, I go into the devastating fourth movement and from there, it deteriorates into madness and the fourth movement just peters the idea out. It ends just like it began.

Q: Does it feel different to be writing a long-form work, such as a symphony?
A: Yes, it feels different. I’ve been squeamish about using the word symphony, just because it has so many connotations for me and anyone listening. You think of Beethoven and Mozart. I eventually got past that. I’m 31 now, so I’ve been out of school for a few years, and I cultivated what I consider a ‘voice’ and a ‘style,” and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. ... Now I’m going to try some other stuff. But this big, massive orchestra piece is putting an exclamation point on what I’ve done so far.

Q: What may surprise the audience about this work?
A Just the fact that a living composer is having a 40-minute piece performed on an orchestra program is pretty unusual. I’ve written a lot of orchestra music, but they’re all 5 to 10 minutes long ... so you don’t have a lot of time. You have to front-load your ideas.

I think what people might be surprised by is how much time I take to unfold some of these ideas. In the first two or three minutes of the symphony, there is no harmony or melody. It’s just a building of a texture.

Q: The composing process is often mysterious. Can you talk about what it looks like for you?
A That’s tough because it is different every time. But how I get my inspiration is being away from anything musical and doing my own thing, reading books, looking at historical sites. Almost all of my music is based on something that piques my interest.
Then I think about how I could turn it into a piece. I sort of do it backwards. I think of the overall structure and form of the piece first ... and then I focus in on the key and the melody. Finally, I have enough information to sit down and write the piece.

Q: Is there a big difference between writing chamber and symphonic music?
A: I think of all of my music in some way as being theatrical. So if I’m writing for two cellos, I like to think of it as two actors on stage talking to each other. When I write for an orchestra, the drama comes from the breadth of the sound.

Q: This piece has a lot of percussion in it. Why are you drawn to that section of the orchestra?
A: Percussionists are some of my favorite people to work with because they are very adventurous in what they will try to do with you. I write a lot for saxophone, and percussion has the same issue — Beethoven never wrote for them. So their repertoire is being written right now. I just wrote a percussion quartet with four friends of mine, because I have all these strange ideas, and they will give it a try. There’s an insane amount of possibility, especially for orchestra.

Q: You incorporate a Welsh hymn into the symphony. Why did you choose that work?
A: The text of the hymn very much goes along with the message of the piece, which is anti-ambition. Look for happiness in what you have. But what I really loved about the hymn is that it is almost the national anthem of Wales, and they have one of the best rugby teams in the world. Every time they have a big, national game, the entire stadium will sing the hymn, in harmony. It’s an unbelievable community-building thing that I absolutely love.

Q: How much revision do you think you’re going to do?
A: I love revising, up until a point. During rehearsals, I can guarantee we are going to be making changes. After the performances in Santa Rosa, I’m going to be making changes for Eugene, and after that, I’ll make a few more changes. And then I’ll think, this piece is locked. In the meantime, I want to make the piece as good as possible.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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