Young composer premieres first symphony with Santa Rosa Symphony
Gabriella Smith, a native of Berkeley who recently moved to Seattle, started piano lessons as a young child, then took up the violin at age 8.
“I wasn’t very good at either,” she said. “When I was 8, I started writing, and when I was 11, I started showing compositions to my piano teacher. After that ... I became better and better in writing music and worse and worse in piano.”
Now 30, Smith already is considered one of the brightest stars in the firmament of up-and-coming classical music composers. She has been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to write an organ concerto, scheduled to premiere on Feb. 22 at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
And this weekend, she’ll premiere her 30-minute symphony, “One,” with the Santa Rosa Symphony at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park.
“Gabriella’s buoyant and energetic music is like a gust of fresh air and carries with it a hint of what our future American music can be,” said composer John Adams, who has mentored Smith ever since she came to his Berkeley home with stacks of scores at age 15.
Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong will lead this weekend’s program showcasing “One,” which was co-commissioned by the Santa Rosa Symphony and the Eugene Symphony Orchestra for Lecce-Chong’s ambitious four-year First Symphony Project to commission and premiere the first symphonies of four American composers.
“One” is a reference to the project, Smith said, but also a reminder to humans that we are just one of millions of species on the planet and each plays an important role in a healthy ecosystem.
“We need to come together as one in order to fix the imbalance that humans have created,” she said. “These are the things I was thinking about when I was writing the piece. ... It’s really about getting excited about the solutions and how we can all be a part of this in a joyful way.”
First symphony project
Smith is the second of the four composers for the project, which began in Santa Rosa in February 2020 with composer Matt Browne’s impressive first symphony, “The Course of Empire.” A month later, the pandemic forced the symphony to cancel the rest of its season, then pivot to scaled-down virtual concerts in 2020-2021, which delayed the premiere of Smith’s work.
But the Santa Rosa Symphony audiences were able to hear Smith’s unique musical voice during the season-opening concerts in October with her short but mesmerizing work, “Rust.”
That piece exemplifies the disparate elements Smith attempts to synthesize in her works: a rhythmic drive bridging the classical works of Beethoven and the minimalism of Adams, an experimental bent that elicits new soundscapes from old instruments and a pared-down approach to harmony inspired by the baroque world and minimalism. (In contemporary music, “minimalism” refers to music that often features short phrases repeated many times.)
And if that isn’t enough, the composer often asks the musicians to improvise randomly, adding complexity to the overall sound.
“It is a very naturally unique voice,” Lecce-Chong said of Smith’s music. “She has carved out a unique feeling to her music because it has combined so many elements.”
The symphony will open this weekend’s program with Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of “Lohengrin,” a Romantic opera first performed in 1850. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” performed by Olga Kern, will close the program.
In programming pieces to accompany the new works for the First Symphony Project, Lecce-Chong tends to choose composers who are thinking in new ways for their time.
“I like to think about highlighting creativity,” he said. “I want to remind people that we’re constantly in this creative process.”
The conductor chose to open the concert with the Wagner work because its structure pushed people to think about music in new ways.
“It’s the most groundbreaking eight minutes of music,” he said. “(Wagner) has one continuous phrase that starts and ends, with one gorgeous climax in the middle. ... It changed the game for composers and audiences who heard it for the first time.”
Meanwhile, Beethoven broke every rule in the concerto book with the “Emperor” piano concerto, brashly writing a duet for piano and timpani and doing away with the traditional orchestral introduction.
“Soloists were not supposed to come in at the beginning of the concerto,” Lecce-Chong said. “Here, the pianist is flying up and down the keyboard from the first moment.”