Composer Margaret Brouwer
and the Blue Streak Ensemble
by Mike Telin
In his 2012 New Music Box feature on composer Margaret Brouwer, writer Frank J. Oteri appropriately titled his article Margaret Brouwer: Multiple Planes — for Brouwer, without a doubt has enjoyed a multi-faceted career. Starting out as a violinist in the Fort Worth Symphony and Fort Worth Opera Orchestra, she also toured with Johnny Mathis and played three weeks of shows with Tony Bennett. But it was her passion for composing that eventually led her to abandon her violin career in order to pursue a doctorate in composition. From 1996 until 2008 Margaret Brouwer served as head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she also directed the New Music Ensemble. In 2006 she received an Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was a Guggenheim Fellow for 2004, and was awarded an Ohio Council for the Arts Individual Fellowship for 2005.
In addition to her celebrated career as a composer and teacher, one of Brouwer’s more recent musical projects, the Blue Streak Ensemble, begins its second season of performing free concerts on or near the shores of Lake Erie at Music in the Circle at Sharon Center Gazebo on Thursday, July 26 at 7:00 PM. Performances continue though August 27 in Vermilion, Lakeside and Huron.
The idea of giving concerts along the Lake Erie shores has been at the back of Brouwer’s mind for some time; “My parents bought a cottage on Lake Erie back in the sixties in Huron, and being there in the summers I would think how perfect it would be to have a concert outside near the lake. For a while I was thinking about having a series in the yard,” says Brouwer. Finally a couple of things happened that told her the time was right to move forward with the idea; “A, I had a terrific assistant who could do some of the busy work for me and B, Henry and Mary Doll commissioned a piece from me and wanted to give a concert to premiere the work, “ Brouwer remembers. “The concert was to showcase the piece, and so I said that I would find the musicians to play it, and so I thought this was the perfect chance to get the people together, and maybe from there we can go and start doing other concerts.”
Finding talented personnel was not difficult for Brouwer, who called on her talented former members of the CIM New Music Ensemble. “Violinist Sharon Roffman does quite a bit of concertizing and plays in an orchestra in Germany, I’m just delighted that she is interested in being part of this group. Cellist Maaike Harding plays in the New World Symphony. They have a break in the summer so it is perfect for her to come up and play with the group. Shuai Bertalan-Wang, the pianist, is now teaching at CIM, but when she first came as a student, I snapped her up right away for the New Music ensemble. I remember when flutist Madeline Lucas came to CIM as a freshman; I always went to all of the auditions and I remember her playing and she sounded so great that I snapped her up as a freshman. Amitai Vardi, our clarinetist, is going to be teaching at Kent State University in the fall, and percussionist Nathan von Trotha has an orchestra job in California.”
In conversation it becomes clear that Margaret Brouwer is thrilled to be working with former students and holds them in the highest regard as professional musicians, but what did she first hear in their playing as students that caused her to sit up an take note? “That’s a good question, and I’m not sure that I was horribly intellectual about it,” she tells me, “ but I know I was always looking for someone who had wonderful musicianship who could bring music alive. The ones who really made the music exciting, and made it compelling in some way. I was also looking for musicians who had good chops and excellent technical ability because so much of the new music is really hard.”
Regarding the Blue Streak Ensemble's programs, Brouwer says she is trying something different. “Sometimes new music groups just play new music, and I don’t really understand that because I like concerts that have varied sounds. Of course I love new music but I’m hoping to start a trend to put in a few pieces that are not new music, just for the variety.” Examples of this include her arrangement of a Bach two-part invention that would normally be played on piano or harpsichord. “I arranged it for the entire group. It has a lot of colors and passes around little questions and answers between the various instruments. It’s Bach, but it has kind of a contemporary twist.”
Another piece Brouwer has arranged for the ensemble is Clair de Lune by Debussy. “Everybody loves that piece. After we played it at an outdoor concert last year a man came up to me and said that he had first heard it as a child at an outdoor concert, and he went on about how he was laying on the ground and looking at the stars, and it meant so much to him to hear it again.” And a recent arrangement of Brouwer’s is Take-Five by Paul Desmond. “Everybody thinks it's by Dave Brubeck, but it’s actually by Paul who was his saxophonist. I heard a jazz group play it last summer and I thought that I’ve got to arrange it for the ensemble.”
Of course Brouwer is a composer and audiences can expect to hear her own music as well. “Obviously I wouldn’t go to all of this work if I weren’t going to do some of my own music. I just say a few words, maybe one or two minutes' worth, something for people to listen for in the music or a story that goes with the music. Everybody seems to love the new music too. The pieces we do are exciting and flashy, and there’s a lot of fast stuff going on in the percussion, and everybody seems to enjoy it as much as the traditional music.”
Finding myself in a discussion with a composer as engaging as Margaret Brouwer, I took the opportunity to ask why she thinks the combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, commonly referred to as the Pierrot Ensemble, has proven to be so popular for contemporary music groups and composers? “I’m a composer who spends a lot of time thinking about the color of the instruments and making interesting and varied colors in the music, you know, instrumental timbres. [This collection of instruments] offers so much color variety. You can have something in the two strings and then a contrast in the flute or clarinet or you can have a violin playing high and the clarinetist playing bass clarinet very low, which is a wonderful sound. Or the flute can be playing piccolo. Then the percussion, and I use the mallet instruments a lot, vibraphone, glockenspiel. I like to use the Chinese opera gongs too. Then with the piano, sometimes I like to do things inside the instrument. When you have this varied instrumentation, you’ve got as much color possibility as you do writing for the orchestra. You’ve got all these different sounds and it’s like new things pop out at you all of the time.”
Since the Blue Streak Ensemble in some part takes its name from the iconic wooden roller coaster at Cedar Point, is Margaret Brouwer a roller coaster fan? “I’m not particularly a roller coaster fan but I spent a lot of time thinking about the name of the group and I wanted it to be something that was connected to Lake Erie. I went through millions of ideas for the name, but I like Blue Streak because A, it does have the connection to Lake Erie — people know Cedar Point — and B, it also has all of these other meanings. It can be like a Blue Streak through the water, through the sky, or the musicians playing like a Blue Streak. It has so many good ways of looking at it, and it is kind of a fun modern title name for a group.
As we wrap up our conversation Brouwer tells me that during a recent visit to Cedar Point she told someone that she thought that some of the rides are kind of scary, and he responded saying, no, they’re thrilling. “I like that because in a way that’s another thing about the name Blue Streak; going on a roller coaster is adventurous, it’s thrilling, and a musical group like this, it’s modern, it’s new and going to a concert like ours is adventurous and hopefully thrilling.”
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 24, 2012
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