How small can you make it?
That question has confronted arts organizations ever since the pandemic started. If you're used to creating art in groups — like a theater troupe or an orchestra — how can you do it with as few people as possible?
At a brainstorming session last June, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's artistic leadership was discussing the stigma assigned to wind players who some feared might spread COVID through their instruments. George Floyd's murder also had musicians discussing how to be more inclusive in programming.
It led concertmaster Steven Copes to ask: "Why don't we commission solo pieces for our wind players from composers of color?"
So the orchestra has done just that. Four small-scale works will premiere in the next month, as the final three concerts of the SPCO season are livestreamed from St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall at thespco.org. On Saturday, oboist Cassie Pilgrim will debut a piece by Viet Cuong, "Circling Back," with cellist Sarah Lewis.
Wisconsin-based Indigenous composer Brent Michael Davids will have a work for solo flute, "Taptonahana," premiered by the SPCO's principal flutist, Julia Bogorad-Kogan, on May 22.
The season's final program June 12 doubles up on small-scale music as the orchestra premieres new pieces by Clarice Assad (for clarinet and bass) and Michi Wiancko (for solo clarinet). SPCO principal clarinetist Sang Yoon Kim will be part of both of those premieres, joined by bassist Zachary Cohen for Assad's piece.
Cuong is the youngest of the four composers having works premiered by SPCO musicians over the next five weeks. A doctoral student at Princeton University, he also teaches at Georgia's Kennesaw State University.
"When you write for a large ensemble, it's almost like you're addressing a large crowd with a megaphone," Cuong said in a February SPCO-sponsored confab with two of the other composers. "Which can be interesting and fun and exciting. But when you're writing a solo or a duo, it's more like you're whispering to just a couple of people. So it feels like you've got to make every word count. It feels more personal."
While Cuong had a hard time getting his creativity flowing in the early months of the pandemic, he grew inspired by the growing trend of online concerts: "If an orchestra can figure out a way to keep making music, then I can, too."
Davids is the most experienced composer of the group. He's been incorporating elements of traditional Native American music into his creations for decades, developing a style that's been employed frequently in films. He grew up in the Chicago area, but has recently moved to the Wisconsin reservation where much of his family lives.
"I think writing a solo work is harder for me than writing for multiple instruments," Davids said. "It's so exposed. Every little gesture or phrase means more because it's so isolated. … Some of the oldest forms in the Native communities are those songs with drums and flute music. We have such a strong tie to the land, where we come from. And I want that to come through emotionally in the song, too. I'm not one to go through algebraic equations to come up with tone rows and things. I just write what I hear in my head."
Michi Wiancko came to solo music as a violinist. So why did she choose to write for clarinet?
"The short answer is that I secretly wished that I could play the clarinet," Wiancko said. "I think the biggest perk of being a solo performer is that you have complete autonomy over what you play and how you play it. And you can play it completely differently every time.
"The best-case scenario is when the performer becomes so intimate and familiar with the piece that it feels like an extension of themselves as a person. That's when you see some real magic onstage. The piece breathes, the instrument shines, and the performer is completely inhabiting a kind of intimate musical world. At that point, the limitations of the instrument can fade away. I feel like the best compliment I can give a fellow composer is, when I perform one of their solo works, I can say, 'I feel like I wrote it myself.' "
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
May 8: Music by J.S. Bach, Viet Cuong, Gabriela Lena Frank and Mozart, 8 p.m. (repeats 7 p.m. May 13).
May 22: Music by George Walker, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Brent Michael Davids and Joseph Haydn, 8 p.m. (repeats 7 p.m. May 27).
June 12: Music by Caroline Shaw, Clarice Assad, Beethoven, Michi Wiancko and Felix Mendelssohn, 8 p.m. (repeats 7 p.m. June 17).
Where: Streaming for free at thespco.org.