Composer Robert Baker and members of the SONAR Ensemble are trying to synchronize their musical clocks. The ensemble commissioned Baker to write ". . . and wondrous strange snow," a response to the "Winter" concerto of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Five days before its January premiere, he and the musicians gather in a Peabody Institute rehearsal studio to work out some of its more difficult segues, where the rhythm stays the same while the tempo changes or where the time notation changes between sections. Or those parts where time isn't conventionally notated in the score at all. Three violinists, two violists, two cellists, a pianist, and a percussionist fill the room, and after Baker leads them through a segment, one of the violinists asks, "Am I coming in too late?"
Violinist Colin Sorgi, Peabody '09, '13 (GPD), and SONAR's artistic director and CEO, co-founded the ensemble in 2007 to perform contemporary music. What's happening tonight is a big part of its mission: to put young musicians in the same room with living composers to work out the music of tomorrow. SONAR went on a brief hiatus while Sorgi went to graduate school, but when he returned to Baltimore and in 2012 relaunched the ensemble, the group also began commissioning works and inaugurated its RADARlab program, which partners with four to six Peabody student composers for an academic year.
"We want to push [composers] to be experimental and give them an opportunity to try things that they wouldn't normally get to do," Sorgi says. In rehearsal, that push is part of a musical dialogue. Baker directs the players to parts in the score—"turn to section Q" or "start from measure 148"—and they run through a short segment. In between, the composer and players discuss how it sounds and how to fine-tune it. Sometimes they ask for clarity on the score; sometimes he makes requests: louder here, maybe a bit more robust there. After discussion, the musicians add notes to their sheet music in pencil.
Baker, a Canadian composer and assistant professor of theory and composition at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., started conducting SONAR performances a few years back after working with Lauren Rausch, one of the ensemble's violinists. He was already thinking about writing a piece specifically for Sorgi when SONAR approached him last summer with this Vivaldi idea.
Other than the starting point, SONAR didn't dictate stylistic terms, and Baker, for one, appreciates the commission's creative freedom. "I was excited and a little bit daunted," he says, given how well-known the Vivaldi is. "I was cautious at first, thinking I didn't want to make it a collage piece with direct quotations and other material. That's certainly one way to go. I opted to try to take a little more of a personal approach where I would have some of the essence of the Vivaldi but maybe not quite in as recognizable a form—not so much a direct quotation but more in the spirit of."
His piece is a gorgeous gust of gentle intensity that updates the instrumental palette of Vivaldi's "Winter" to evoke a more contemporary feeling of the season's arctic chill: Strings shudder behind Sorgi's solo violin line like a sharp gust of wind that cuts to the bones. Even in rehearsal, the piece sounds and feels fresh, and Sorgi, who spends his days as the concertmaster of the National Philharmonic at the Strathmore concert hall in Bethesda, Maryland, believes musicians crave the challenges of new music as much as audiences.
That sense of discovery is present in the rehearsal. After playing a section, one musician remarks that the score says the tempo is 3/4 but it feels more like 3/8, and Baker and the group talk about how to move from one place to another. Baker asks the violins and violas to swoop up at a certain point, clarifies the bowing technique he wants for a certain section of quarter-notes, and as they play and talk, play and talk, eventually heads start nodding in agreement.
"So," Baker says, looking around, "can we start from the beginning?"