An ensemble for the 21st century
Last April in Nickerson Studios, the student musicians of Seattle Pacific University’s Ensemble sat poised on stage, ready to begin the concert as soon as the conductor’s baton dropped. For the ensemble’s pianist, senior Tim Bartlett, music education major at SPU, this was the moment he had been working toward throughout the school year. The orchestra began playing Fantasy, an original composition he started writing the previous November.
Bartlett’s soaring eight-minute piece involved 16 instruments and drew inspiration from 19th-century, Romantic-era composers he studied in his Winter Quarter history course, particularly Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann. Open to the general public, the April concert premiered Fantasy, as well as pieces by three other student composers. “This piece is my biggest musical accomplishment this year,” Bartlett said.
Music department faculty volunteer their time to support Ensemble, but the group is primarily a student-run effort. Students volunteer their skills, compose the repertoire, schedule rehearsals, conduct, and perform.
“Many schools have orchestras performing student works, but Ensemble is designed as a contained and organized institutional version of the real world. It is a scaled version of the composer/producer/performer artistic process in the professional scene,” said Brian Chin, music department chair and Ensemble faculty coordinator, along with Assistant Professor of Music Danny Helseth and Director of Composition Stephen Newby. “This ensemble is designed to engage with our artistic culture in Seattle, be a tool for social venture and elevating social consciousness, and to encourage our students to take risks and create and perform original and challenging material.”
“I see this group as an elite group of performers and composers committed to creating new works and engaging in the conversation that is happening nationally in new music.” —Brian Chin
Music education major and Ensemble member Megan Seibert, a junior, played flute in Fantasy. “You never get to meet classical composers, so it gave a different perspective to see my friend work hard on this piece and be a part of it.” Seibert described rehearsals as collaborative, with musicians giving composers feedback as they played.
Next year, students and faculty hope to feature major works of the late 20th century, allowing students to learn modern performance techniques and practice conducting, with the annual spring concert showcasing student compositions. “I see this group as an elite group of performers and composers committed to creating new works and engaging in the conversation that is happening nationally in new music,” said Chin.
Seibert hopes to work as a band director after graduation and says the experience of composing an orchestral work and conducting rehearsals is already building necessary career skills. “Ensemble is opening my eyes to the process of composing a piece, while also showing how I can one day encourage my future students and run rehearsals efficiently.”
Bartlett, who plans to work as a music educator and orchestra director, agrees. “Knowing how to stand in front of a group of people with confidence and conduct them — that is my biggest takeaway,” he said. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter how awesome your piece sounds; people forget performances. But I’ll always remember what I learned from this experience.”