Young Composers

composer Stephanie Simon

A common thing to see when walking into a high school band or choral rehearsal room is posters of great composers hanging on the walls. Inevitably, they show elderly men, often with beards and clothing clearly belonging to centuries past. So it’s easy to forget that much of their noteworthy work was written when they were young, long before they became famous.

The Winds’ upcoming concert at the Panza Gallery features a number of pieces written by young composers. Opening the program is Viaggio by Stephanie Simon. Ms. Simon completed her masters‘ degree in composition at Carnegie Mellon University in 2018; we recorded her piece for the school in 2017, and liked it so much we premiered it on our concert series later that spring. Even younger are the composers of two miniatures by Emily Larrimer and Katy Pietruskinski, who were respectively in sixth and eighth grade when they were students of mine in the MEET THE COMPOSER residency in the 2000s. Both pieces will be performed in wind quintet settings that I made for the Winds.

And Mladen Pozajic, subject of the previous post about this concert, was just a twenty-year-old student at the Zagreb Academy of Music when he penned his Tri Stavka.

R. James Whipple

Millvale’s Croatian Connection

The Winds’ upcoming concert at the Panza Gallery features a distinctive and colorful work by the Croatian composer, Mladen Pozajic. We discovered this work in the 1990s when we were doing a Music for Neighborhoods concert in Millvale’s St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church. The church’s interior is covered by 25 murals (approximately 4500 square feet!) by the immigrant artist Maxo Vanka (1889-1963), which depict Croatian life in the old country and the New World. In those murals, Vanka both pays tribute to his faith and expresses his passionate beliefs about social justice, injustice, and the horrors of war.

A violinist who was a refugee from the horrors of the 1990s Bosnian war assisted us in researching Croatian music for our concert in the church. One of the most striking of those pieces was the Tri Stavka [Three Movements], written by the twenty-year-old Mladen Pozajic in 1925. Unpublished at the time, we had to create our own parts from a manuscript score. Since then, it has been published by Editions Viento. Written for double-reed quartet (two oboes, English horn, and bassoon), the Winds will be presenting this music adapted for wind quartet of oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon.

R. James Whipple

Paul Valjean – one of those “one-work” wonders!

Pittsburgh’s NPR classical music station, WQED-FM 89.3, sometimes plays pieces by what they call “one-work wonders,” composers who are known only by a single work.  Usually such composers wrote more, but only one – justifiably or not – has captured the music community’s collective ear and made it into the repertoire. On rare occasions, such composers truly only wrote one piece – which made it!  Such a work is the 1955 Dance Suite of Paul Valjean, written when the composer was a 20-year-old student at the Eastman School of Music, studying bassoon with K. David Van Hoesen (father of Pittsburgh Symphony harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen). The suite was written for a show organized by Eastman School of Music bassoon students, “The Bassoonists’ Ballet.”

Paul Valjean went on to a career as a dancer and choreographer, and apparently composed no more.  His Dance Suite, however, developed a life of its own and became popular with wind groups, being distributed through multiple generations of photocopies before its ultimate publication in 2000. You can hear it yourself on the Winds’ Holiday Express concert, Saturday November 26th at 8pm!


Forty years ago…

Forty years ago this month, Eric Draper approached David Tessmer and Jim Whipple – all of whom were playing in the Carnegie Civic Symphony (now the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra) about starting a wind quintet. Adding Eric’s friend and classmate from Duquesne University Mike Jacob on clarinet and hornist Mark Thompson from Carnegie Mellon, the Renaissance City Woodwind Quintet was off and running, and gave their first performance in an elementary school in Chartiers-Houston School District that fall. Later that season, the group won the Pittsburgh Concert Society Auditions.  Shown here is the group with baritone Rob Ferrier performing one of their winning selections, the Pügesange by American composer Brian Holmes, on the Concert Society Series the following season.  By this time Jeffrey Ellrod had taken the place of Mark Thompson on horn, who had moved away to attend graduate school.  Just look at all that dark hair!


Clockwise, from the lower-left corner:
. . .
David Tessmer, flute
 . . . Eric Draper, oboe
 . . . Jeffrey Ellrod, horn
 . . . R. James Whipple, bassoon
 . . . Michael Jacob, clarinet
with Robert Ferrier, baritone














































































What’s an “aguinaldo?”

An aguinaldo is a genre of Venezuelan Christmas carol. Our concert of Latin American music features three of these. Luna Decembrina (“December Moon”) is an instrumental version of a choral setting by Gilberto Rebolledo, and is especially catchy with its hemiola rhythms (3/4 figures in a 6/8 meter).  Our long-time collaborating composer Efraín Amaya arranged two more for this program, Niño Lindo (“Pretty Child”) and Cantemos, Cantemos! (Sing, Sing!). In Venezuela, the musicians are typically rewarded with food and drink, but at our concert the audience gets treated to the reception as well, not to mention the tour of the toy train museum afterwards!




Venezuelan/American composer Efraín Amaya. The program also includes his Kaleidoscope, written for the Winds through the Pittsburgh New Residency.

The Power of Two

The latest addition to the Winds’ repertoire this month is Contrapunctus VI from The Art of Fugue by J.S. Bach, in a brand new transcription for wind quintet by composer/bassoonist R. James Whipple. In this amazing piece, Bach casts the theme (the “subject”) against itself moving twice as fast, and often upside-down (“inverted”)!  It’s pretty wild to hear one part enter after another but finish first! And this isn’t all; there’s a direction that the piece is to be performed in “French overture” style, so all the dotted rhythms become “doubly-dotted” which means that the short notes are twice as fast! You can hear this amazing creation on the Winds’ concerts on Saturday and Sunday, May 17-18. Here’s what the first page looks like (the dashed brackets show where the theme is inverted).


RCW reed trio opens Johnstown series

The Winds’ reed trio of oboe, clarinet, and bassoon opened the newly-renamed Johnstown Concert Series (formerly the “Chamber Music Series of Greater Johnstown”) on Saturday, September 28th.  The downtown Third Presbyterian Church was an absolute stunning space with at least a three-second reverb! The program included French and American works from the 19th and 20th centuries, transcriptions of two Bach fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier and a suite of Renaissance pieces, and an unaccompanied bassoon solo based on Innuit folk music by the late Canadian composer Milton Barnes, performed by bassoonist R. James Whipple.

the interior of First Presbyterian Church of Johnstown

the interior of First Presbyterian Church of Johnstown 


Jack and Renate warming up

Jack and Renate warming up

the incredible high open interior of the dome

the incredible high open interior of the dome


RCW awarded Heinz grant for Façade

The Renaissance City Winds has been awarded a grant from the Heinz Endowments’ Small Arts Initiative for a production of Façade, which will open the 2013-14 season on September 20 and 22.  This is a major chamber work of the early 20th century with music composed by William Walton and poetry by Edith Sitwell.  The narration will be by legendary choral conductor Robert Page and noted actress/singer Kate Young.

William Walton

William Walton

Edith Sitwell

Edith Sitwell

Where’s the Renaissance Music?

Q – Where’s the Renaissance music?

A – We’re the RENAISSANCE CITY Winds, named after Pittsburgh’s nickname.  In the immediate post-WWII years, downtown Pittsburgh was reborn with the demolition of warehouses and industrial facilities and the construction of Gateway Center, the modern skyscrapers where the Allegheny and the Monogahela merge to form the mighty Ohio River. That’s where the “Renaissance City” came from!

While we play a few transcriptions from the Renaissance (1500s), the first original music for oboes and bassoons came along in the early Baroque, and the clarinet at the very end of the Baroque. So most of our music is from 1630-2013!

In 1943, after the first round of smoke control

In 1943, after the first round of smoke control

Pittsburgh reborn - aka "The Renaissance City"

Pittsburgh reborn – aka “The Renaissance City”

Freeport Series Opens June 30

Winds at Freeport on June 30, 2013 at 6pm

Mark your calendars for the first concert of the Winds’ summer series at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Freeport, Pennsylvania (just up Route 28 from Pittsburgh). Barb O’Brien and John Marcinizyn have a great program of flute and guitar duos worked up for this.  Concert is at 6pm with a reception afterwards. Trinity Lutheran is at Fifth and Buffalo Streets in Freeport. Don’t miss it!

Future events in the same location on July 14 and July 28.  All are Sundays at 6pm.