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CLASSICAL: RPO - "Copland, Bernstein — and Tyzik" 

The conductor as composer

You may have seen him wandering recently through the Memorial Art Gallery. Tallish. Glasses. Downstate accent. Both relaxed and hip at the same time. But you may not have realized that he was looking at art and hearing his own music.

"I thought it was an interesting concept: that I would select certain pieces of art from the collection at the Memorial Art Gallery and write a musical depiction of them," says Jeff Tyzik, composer and principal Pops conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the same breath, Tyzik acknowledges, "It's not the first time it's ever been done in history — perhaps you've heard of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition'?"

Indeed, "Pictures at an Exhibition," written in 1874 by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, is not the only composition that comes to mind. Examples of art-inspired classical music range from Franz Liszt's 1858 composition "Sposalizio," from his piano works titled "Deuxième Année de Pèlerinage, Italie," inspired by Raphael's painting "The Marriage of the Virgin"; to Erik Satie's 1923 composition of 20 short pieces for the piano titled "Sports et Divertissements," with illustrations by Charles Martin.

But, there is a stroke of originality in a composition inspired from works in the collection at Rochester's own art museum. It's exactly what we'll hear this weekend when Tyzik conducts the RPO for his 40-minute work, "Images: Musical Impressions of an Art Museum."

Tyzik was commissioned by Bob and Joanne Gianniny to write the piece to commemorate the MAG's 100th anniversary. Fifteen years ago, the Gianninys commissioned Tyzik to write a piece to celebrate the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford. The RPO patrons did not put any conditions on the art that Tyzik could select as the inspirations for this composition.

Wanting "to do something significant," Tyzik wandered over to the Memorial Art Gallery and settled on seven works that became the seven sections of his composition. "I wandered the gallery with a totally open mind to see what interested me and what I thought might stimulate me musically," says Tyzik.

Tyzik's selections surprised even himself. He says, "There are phenomenal pieces of art in the collection, but not every one of them spoke to me in a way that I thought I could depict my feelings in sound. It was very spontaneous. Certain pieces just spoke to me."

First to inspire Tyzik was a sculpture of gates by Albert Paley, "Convergence" (1987), which Tyzik described as "very celebratory, inviting, and brassy." Another floor sculpture, this one a clock by Wendell Castle, inspired Tyzik when he learned it was based upon Castle's impressions of the 1920 silent horror film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

"Each piece touched me in some way," says Tyzik. "They inspired me to create a musical impression of these pieces."

Tyzik often works out of town to fulfill engagements as principal Pops conductor of the Seattle Symphony, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and the Florida Orchestra, and just last week he added the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to the list. That's all in addition to various spots as a guest conductor from Boston to Dallas to Los Angeles and points in between. While he occasionally went back to the Memorial Art Gallery or referred to a photograph during the composing process, Tyzik says he really didn't spend as much time in the gallery as he expected, because the impressions made upon him by the art were so striking.

Looking at the list of the seven selected works, it begged the question on how Tyzik's composition could work as a cohesive whole. It would be difficult to imagine these seven works of art, alone, by themselves, in a single room of the gallery, and not be standing with one's head tipped to one side, mystified to see the connection.

Tyzik's response was simple and true. "How does a symphony hang together? How does an opera hang together? It hangs together because it has my name on it," says Tyzik. "All composers have their sound, their technique, their how they look at music — this creates some of the cohesion."

Even so, Tyzik admits that his new work, "Images," is "a very eclectic piece."

Tyzik is grateful for the opportunity to conduct the premiere of his own composition, pointing out that as the composer he has a special insight into the piece. Tyzik says that former RPO conductor and music director Christopher Seaman was at the podium for the 2010 premier of Tyzik's "Timpani Concerto" and says, "He did a wonderful job, but he didn't have the insight into the piece like I have."

Tyzik says that when he has a chance to conduct his own compositions, it comes closer to what he intended. "I may get into rehearsal and make some changes, rebalance... I always like to have at least the first opportunity to do my pieces and then I can make any necessary adjustments," says Tyzik.

Indeed, Tyzik is fortunate as a composer to also be a conductor and a musician (he plays the cornet). And, as Tyzik sees it, "It's very good for this orchestra to have me in a capacity other than just in the capacity as a guy who stands up in a Pops concert and waves his arms."

Over his lengthy and distinguished career, Tyzik has written more than 200 works for orchestra. He earned his undergraduate and masters degrees from Eastman School of Music, and has lived in the greater Rochester area for 43 years. But his travels as a conductor, guest conductor, composer, and jazz musician give him what he calls "a different perspective than a lot of people in the orchestra."

Tyzik says, "Rochester is not this one little bubble I live in. I look at it in a global sense of what kind of issues we are facing in the arts world and what experience I can bring back from other places when I see how others are dealing with their struggles."

Tyzik's viewpoint inspires him to contribute to the RPO beyond the podium. "I've worked behind the scenes to contribute to the health of the orchestra financially and to contribute to its healthy relationship with the public," says Tyzik. "I've put my heart and soul into this orchestra, doing everything I could think of to do to keep it financially sound and keep consensus between management, musicians, and the board, so we are rolling in the same direction as we face the difficulties we have faced."


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