Oberlin Sinfonietta’s October 28 program will feature a homecoming for an accomplished alumnus and an evocative tribute to a somewhat unlikely subject.
Highlighting the performance is the world premiere of Willow Run by Grammy Award-winning Professor of Composition Stephen Hartke. It will feature saxophonist Noah Getz, a 1997 conservatory graduate.
The 10-minute piece will be bookended by the 2016 composition Lightenings, by Oberlin Assistant Professor of Composition Elizabeth Ogonek, and the 1990 work …As Others See Us, by Scottish composer James MacMillan. Oberlin Sinfonietta is led by Professor of Conducting Timothy Weiss.
The free program begins at 8 p.m. Friday, October 28, in Warner Concert Hall. It will be repeated at 4 p.m. Saturday, November 5, in Gartner Auditorium at the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Visit the CMA website for details.)
Willow Run was the name of a gargantuan factory constructed in 1941 near Detroit—the largest single building in the world at the time. Designed by famed industrial architect Albert Kahn, it was used during wartime for the manufacture and assembly of B-24 Liberator aircraft, then in subsequent decades played a major role in the region’s auto industry.
By 2013, Willow Run was scheduled for demolition when photographer Ernestine Ruben—the granddaughter of architect Kahn—chronicled the derelict facility through an extensive series of photographs. Struck by the ghostly emptiness of the once-bustling factory, she set out to transform those images into a circle-of-life narrative that would culminate in Willow Run’s eventual rebirth. (A detail of one such image can be seen above.) She approached Hartke in hopes of marrying the images with a work for chamber ensemble that would bring those images to life. Hartke’s score will eventually serve as the soundtrack to a video by Ruben and filmmaker Seth Bernstein. (The video will premiere, in conjunction with Ruben's photography, in a February 2017 exhibit at the University of Michigan.)
Prior to the October 28 performance, Hartke will briefly speak about Willow Run and share 21 images by Ruben that informed his work.
“My piece seeks at its outset to evoke the vastness of the structure itself,” Hartke writes in his notes on Willow Run. Moments throughout the piece tell the story of the place through the years, among them Hartke’s use of a Morse code rhythm that spells out the words “Willow Run” and percussive moments that call to mind the unending churn of the assembly line.
"One of the things I like about the project is that I wrote the music as a reaction to art, and that music in turn will influence another form of art—the video. That doesn’t happen too often," says Hartke, who won a Grammy Award in 2013 for his piece Meanwhile… He joined the Oberlin faculty in 2015 after a long career at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. Since arriving, he has been effusive in his praise of the student musicianship all around him—a key reason he felt confident in creating a work scored for the unusual instrumentation of English horn, clarinet, flugelhorn, three percussionists, harp, and two double basses, in addition to saxophone.
"Here, I can put together an ensemble as bizarre as this because I've got all the players," he says with a smile.
Based in Washington, D.C., saxophonist Getz excels in both classical and jazz settings and is a fervent chamber musician. He is a member of the National Gallery New Music Ensemble and performs with numerous other groups. He is artist in residence at American University.