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In Conversation: David Conte on his New Works

March 30, 2018 by Shase Hernandez

SFCM Composition Chair David Conte seems to always have his next step in mind. Whether it’s an international teaching engagement or a performance close to home, he can be seen collaborating with some of the most accomplished musicians performing today. He is currently composing a new cello concerto to be premiered by Emil Miland at the Bear Valley Music Festival this summer.

On April 2, Conte will unveil several premieres, world and regional, at his Faculty Artist Series concert. The concert and reception, which also serves as a CD release party for a new double album of vocal music (Everyone Sang), brings together SFCM alumni, faculty, and other friends to perform new and old works by Conte.

In this Q&A, the composer details his latest projects and looks at what’s next.

You're currently writing a cello concerto to be premiered at the Bear Valley Music Festival this July. How did the commission for this work come about?

My cellist friend Emil Miland (’75, Pre-College) is a favorite guest artist at Bear Valley and was invited to play a concerto in celebration of both their 50th anniversary and the 300th anniversary of his cello. It was his idea to commission a new concerto for this occasion. For this work, I used [Ernest] Bloch’s Schelomo as somewhat of a model. [Editor’s Note: Ernest Bloch was Artistic Director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1925 to 1930.] Like that work, my concerto is in one movement, about 22 minutes long, and emphasizes the lyrical, melodic character of the cello.

What is your relationship with Emil Miland and Michael Morgan?

Emil and I have been frequent collaborators over the past several years. I love composing for him because he plays like a singer! I wrote my Cello Sonata for him, and he recorded that and my Piano Trio in 2015. Michael Morgan, music director of the Bear Valley Music Festival and the Oakland Symphony, and I have worked together over many years, starting in 1994. I’ve composed three pieces for him and the Oakland Symphony. So my Cello Concerto is being premiered by two long-time friends and collaborators.

You're also releasing a new album of vocal music. What is unique about this release?

I have been compiling recordings of my vocal music for the past decade with an eventual two-CD set in mind. The CD set will be released by Arsis Audio and includes not just song cycles and sets of songs for voice and piano, but also works for voice and various orchestral and chamber music combinations. The first piece I recorded was my Sexton Songs in 2010, and I finished recording the last works this past fall. The singers on the CD are all SFCM alumni: Matt Boehler ’17, Marnie Breckenridge ’96, A.J. Glueckert ’10, Ann Moss ’05, Kindra Scharich ’03, and Brian Thorsett ’04. Except for conductor Marika Kuzma, formerly of UC Berkeley, and pianist John Churchwell of the San Francisco Opera, all the personnel are SFCM alumni or faculty, including conductors Eric Dudley and Nicole Paiement, pianist Kevin Korth, cellist Emil Miland, trumpeter Scott Macomber, English horn player Jay Moore, violinist Kay Stern, and harpist Doug Rioth. The ensembles include the Conservatory String Orchestra and the New Music Ensemble. It is truly an SFCM CD.

Your Faculty Artist Series concert at SFCM on April 2 will serve as the album's release party. Could you tell us a little bit about the program?

Several of the pieces on this program are featured on the CD, and also were originally scheduled for my recital last year, which was unfortunately cancelled due to a building power failure an hour before the concert, so I’m particularly excited to finally showcase these pieces and their marvelous performers. These works include my Sonata for Clarinet and Piano with Jose Granero, Principal Clarinet with the San Francisco Opera, and pianist Peter Grunberg from the San Francisco Symphony, and my aria from “East of Eden” and “Three Poems of Christina Rossetti” with Kindra Scharich, and the cycle Everyone Sang with Matt Boehler, both artists accompanied by Kevin Korth. Other pieces are my Elegy for Violin and Piano with our new violin faculty member Kay Stern, concertmaster of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I’m also delighted to include my “Charm Me Asleep,” a Chanticleer commission, with Mouthscape, our new composer’s chamber choir, which was just formed by composition graduate students last fall.

One of the works on the program, Madrigals for the Seasons, will see its world premiere at this concert. What was the inception behind this work?

I wrote these songs especially for soprano Ann Moss, who will perform them with Steven Bailey. I composed the first two, “Summer” and “Fall,” for Cappella SF, for whom I serve as Composer-in-Residence. I had a sense that their melodic through-line would work for solo voice and piano, so I adapted them, which involved quite a bit of re-composing. I then composed the other two songs, “Winter” and “Spring,” for voice and piano directly, and will adapt them for a cappella chorus, thus completing the set for both solo voice and chorus.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

At my age, I find myself thinking particularly about writing larger works. I’ve been planning for some time an organ concerto, and am continuing my search for exactly the right subject for a full-length opera.