Bunch premiere to highlight opening week of Grant Park Music Festival

Mon Jun 15, 2015 at 3:24 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Kenji Bunch's Symphony No. 3 "Dream Songs" will receive its world premiere Friday and Saturday at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Erica Lyn
Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3 “Dream Songs” will receive its world premiere Friday and Saturday at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Erica Lyn

The Grant Park Music Festival is getting right down to business the opening week of its 81st season.

The lakefront festival kicks off Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion with Carlos Kalmar leading the Grant Park Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Andrew Norman’s Drip and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Yevgeny Sudbin.

Yet most interest this opening week will be focused on the Friday and Saturday program, which brings this summer’s sole commission, Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3. Subtitled “Dream Songs,” the symphony is scored for orchestra and chorus, with texts taken from Native American oral poetry.

“I never imagined that I would be the composer of two choral symphonies,” said Bunch, a Portland-based composer and violist. “It’s not something I ever set out to do.  But when this opportunity came along—and knowing I would be working with this particular chorus—it made me want to really have the chorus be the star of the show.”

When festival programming was being planned in October, Bunch quickly came to mind, and was tapped by Kalmar, Grant Park’s artistic director and principal conductor, to write a new work for the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2015 season. The commission came about through Kalmar’s  relationship with Bunch as working musician as well as composer.

“He actually just finished a season with the Oregon Symphony in my viola section,” said Kalmar. “I like Kenji’s music . . .  and so I thought, ‘Well, for the Grant Park Music Festival, it would be fantastic to have a new piece.’”

The seeds for “Dream Songs” had been planted long before the commission. Bunch had intended to set Native American texts to music as early as 2008, the year he composed a song cycle by the same name for baritone and piano. However, some of the original texts had copyrighted translations, which forced him to scrap the project.

“I felt bad about that,” recalls the 41-year-old composer. “I really liked those songs, and I liked the project, and those texts.”

The Grant Park commission offered the perfect opportunity to give the project new life, and on a larger symphonic scale.

When Bunch searched for texts to use the second time around, he happened upon a treasure trove of oral poetry in the Smithsonian Archives. The texts had been collected by the Bureau of American Ethnology, a late-19th century project that sent field researchers into the plains to document Native American culture. One of the project’s most prominent participants—and the one to whom Bunch owes the greatest debt—was anthropologist Frances Densmore.

“[She] tirelessly and painstakingly worked on these texts, and has this huge collection of really amazing work that she translated,” Bunch said.

The composer selected Densmore’s translations of eight songs from six nations—Sioux, Ojibwa, Pawnee, Arapaho, Chippewa, and Navajo—and grouped them into three thematic movements to form an effective dramatic arc: “Songs of Anxiety and Unrest,” “Songs of War and Its Aftermath,” and “Prayer of Healing.”

The chorus plays a prominent role in the symphony, although their vocal music is closely interstiched with that of the orchestra.

“Sometimes it seems to be part of the texture in the orchestra, and at other times, they’re declaiming the text,” said Christopher Bell, director of the Grant Park Chorus. “Towards the end, there’s a very life-affirming prayer, which is in a very strong singing style very much in the late-century American tradition—a mix between classical and musical theater.”

Though the texts would seem to offer an opportunity to incorporate elements of Native American music into his symphony, Bunch consciously decided against doing so

“I liked the idea of this text being abstracted from its original context,” said the composer. “Although this work was created over a hundred years ago—probably before that, because it’s passed down orally . . . I want to show that it does actually get to the same universal truths.”

Kalmar believes Bunch’s selection of his texts could not have been more apt. “He was very, very thoughtful, not only in his music, but in his selection of the lyrics,” says Kalmar. “Now, seeing the piece, I understand why he went to these lyrics. This translated poetry is very to-the-point, somewhat austere. There is no Hollywood around them, they’re not big and romantic—none of that. They’re actually astoundingly simple.”

“There’s a lot to connect with here,” adds Bell.  “And it’s written in a basically tonal style that people [tend to] find most appealing.”

Bunch’s career as a composer is clearly on an upward trajectory, and his music has now been performed by over fifty orchestras. His Symphony No. 2 “Jubilee” was commissioned and performed by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra. And his First Symphony, “Lichtenstein Triptych” has enjoyed wide and popular advocacy, having just been performed by the Chicago Philharmonic earlier this month.

This weekend’s world premiere will share the program with Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6. The latter is particularly significant for Bunch, who says Shostakovich’s music made a huge impact on him as an impressionable teenager through a viewing of the film Testimony on PBS, with Ben Kingsley portraying Shostakovich.

“It was a really powerful movie, and there was something about his music that I connected with and was drawn to,” Bunch recalls. “The clarity of his expression was so powerful. That definitely got me interested in composing….And gosh, it’s an honor being on the same program as a Shostakovich symphony.”

After living in New York for twenty years, the composer moved back to Portland two years ago where he grew up (and played in the Portland Youth Philharmonic).

The community here I find to be thriving and incredibly supportive,” he says.  “My wife is a pianist, and we both just felt so welcomed out here. We’ve made friends and become part of the music community out here—and have found ourselves busier than we ever were in New York!

When engaged in composing, Bunch takes a page from Gustav Mahler and does his creative work in a little hut separated from his house.

“It’s an eight by twelve  room with a keyboard and computer setup, plus some instruments and books and stuff. Just a lot of trees outside the window.

“It’s great. I spend most of my days here with my dog and I’m footsteps away from my wife and kids. I couldn’t be happier.”

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra will perform the world premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3 “Dream Songs” 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The program also includes  Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6. gpmf.org.

Hannah Edgar is a violinist and student at the University of Chicago, where she is associate arts editor of the Chicago Maroon. She was recently named WFMT-FM’s first Andrew Patner Fellowship intern.

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