63. Interviews – Composer Kermit Poling on the Premiere of his “Shreveport Symphony”
This Saturday, January 23 the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra will premiere a new work by Kermit Poling—Associate Conductor of the Shreveport Symphony and General Manager of Red River Radio. This will be Mr. Poling’s Symphony No. 1 subtitled Shreveport Symphony, and its premiere will mark a major highlight in both Poling’s career and the SSO’s 2015-16 season. I had the chance to speak with Mr. Poling about his new piece, about his artistic inspirations for the symphony, as well as what the opportunity to write this piece has meant to him and to the community. The following are questions I posed to Mr. Poling as well as his enlightening responses.
How did this commission arise? I went to the studio of Neil Johnson—Arts Columnist with the Shreveport Times—for a photo shoot and we started talking about music. He asked if I had ever composed a full symphony for the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra and I commented that I had never been asked. I have, of course, written several ballets for the Shreveport Metropolitan Ballet and other pieces for the Shreveport Summer Music Festival and elsewhere in the country, but never really had an official "commission" for a serious work by the SSO. From that point on, Neil must have made it his mission to make sure it got accomplished. He contacted Mike McCarthy—a generous supporter of the arts in Shreveport—to join him in the commission and worked it out with Michael Butterman—SSO Music Director—and the Orchestra and, well, here we are.
Your symphony is dedicated to the memory of the late Virginia Shehee. What was your relationship with her, and how did she make Shreveport a better place for music and the arts? Anyone who spent any time working for the SSO was aware of Virginia and her love for both the Shreveport Symphony and the Shreveport community. The first time I really got to speak with her was in her limousine. It was after a parade and she stopped to pick up some of the musicians who were walking back to get to our cars. When she knew me mostly as a player she'd always say “hello,” and she'd often ask me to play songs I really didn't know… “Jambalaya on the Bayou,” “Tennessee Waltz” – that sort of stuff. I think it amused her to see me stall a bit. Years later, especially during the years I served as the SSO Interim Music Director, we worked much closer on everything from season planning to budgeting. She was an amazing person and did so much for this community and the SSO too. I feel fortunate to have known her.
This is your first symphony. Have you ever written a piece on this scale before? Scale is a bit hard to define. My ballets, all six of them, are certainly much longer works. My string suites and string quartets are probably more similar in length, but they also have shorter movements. As far as strictly orchestral concert pieces go, my Civil War work is probably the closest but that is for narrators with orchestra. Giving some consideration to the "form" of a symphony, this is certainly my first work like it.
What is the movement structure like? Is it in the traditional four movements or a more progressive layout? It's in four movements—intentionally—as most of my other works are not.
About how long is the symphony? What is its orchestration? The piece is about 28 minutes long, the length requested by Michael Butterman. Instrumentation is “full symphony” without breaking the bank.
What has it been like writing a symphony? Were there specific models which inspired you? The biggest challenge was getting started. I wasn't working from narratives or storylines, although I gave some consideration towards finding poems as an inspiration. Ultimately I just reflected on our city and chose four ideas that I thought would work well. I didn't consciously model my work after another composer, although I can hear a little Copland, David Diamond, Michael Torke, and Tchaikovsky in places. How’s that for a combination?
Are there particular melodies, motives, or themes we should be listening for? Does the subtitle "Shreveport" give any clues? The movement titles—the first is “Sunrise on Cross Lake and Drive into Town”—are pretty descriptive of what they represent. “Walk Through Oakland Cemetery,” “Azaleas,” and “Red River” are the other three. There are some musical kernels within several movements: bugle calls (taps) in the Oakland movement; “Tennessee Waltz” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” in the last (and elsewhere). Only in one place do I feel the referred-to tune is particularly obvious, but I guess we'll see.
How do you see this work in relation to other compositions you have written? Is there an artistic progression from ballets to string quartets, smaller orchestral works, etc.? I always hope my next piece is better than my last, but I have no idea how to define better. I love orchestral music of all sizes and shapes. I guess it’s like a painter who enjoys working in oils. You might do other works, but you have your favorite medium and the symphony orchestra is mine.
Have you been involved in the premiere as either conductor or concertmaster, or will Saturday be your first time hearing the work live? I have been fortunate to have conducted every single one of my premieres and Michael gave me the option of doing this one too. But I really, really wanted to sit back and hear the premiere this time. Michael does great work with new music, and I know he will do magnificently for this.
What other compositions are you working on now or will be in the near future? The next immediate piece is a guitar concerto for John De Chiaro—a classical guitarist based in Alexandria and a longtime friend—that premieres this June. My next ballet is supposed to be an adaptation of Camelot.
Would you be interested in writing another symphony if the opportunity arose? Absolutely!
Are there any other thoughts you would like to share? I am so grateful that I have friends in the community who care enough about my work to continue giving me opportunities to create these pieces. I can't tell you what it means to me to have the SSO and Michael perform this, and for Neil Johnson and Mike McCarthy to have commissioned it… I don't have the words.
Kermit Poling’s Shreveport Symphony will receive its world premiere at the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra’s Wideman Piano Competition 65th Anniversary Celebration concert on Saturday, January 23 as part of the Willis-Knighton Masterworks Series. Competition winners Stanislav Khristenko and Tomer Gewirtzman will join the SSO as they perform Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto and Grieg’s Piano Concerto, respectively. The concert begins at 7:30 PM at the RiverView Theater in Downtown Shreveport. Tickets start at $19.00 and are available for purchase here. Hope to see you at the concert!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. He is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ College—Louisiana’s designated honors college located on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. While there, Jackson completed an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” He has followed classical music around the world, attending the BachFest Leipzig in Germany, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and many concerts across Louisiana and Texas. Resident in Alexandria, Louisiana, Jackson works with the Arts Council of Central Louisiana as Series Director of the Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series. He also writes the program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, blogs at MusicCentral, and continues to study other aspects of music in his spare time. His four-movement Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 at Abendmusik Alexandria.
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