Composer Eric Nathan: His Journey from Tanglewood to Symphony Hall

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday September 19, 2019

When Eric Nathan was a kid, he discovered the Boston Symphony. He can thank his parents who took him and his family to Tanglewood for BSO concerts from their home in Larchmont, New York. It was there that the young Nathan discovered the wonder of classical music as heard by a world-class orchestra.

Some 25 years later Nathan finds himself at Symphony Hall for the premiere of his "Concerto for Orchestra," a work that is part of the Boston Symphony's opening weekend program. It marks the second time the Orchestra has commissioned Nathan for a piece. The first "was the space of a door," which premiered by the BSO under the orchestra's Music Director Andris Nelsons in November 2016.

No doubt the name of his latest work triggers a response, especially to those who know the BSO's history. In 1944 the orchestra's musical director Serge Koussevitzky premiered "Concerto for Orchestra," a work he commissioned from Béla Bartók, which has gone onto become one of the 20th Century's iconic works and a frequent showpiece for the BSO.

"I am very excited. It is a real joy to be on the first concert of the season," Nathan told EDGE recently from Symphony Hall. "It influenced how I thought about the piece too in the sense of thinking of the community here in Boston reconvening after a summer away and restarting the dialogue and conversation of music making and communicating. That took a big part in how I thought about it."

Fell in love with the BSO

EDGE: Is it true that you wanted to work with the BSO since you were four years old?

Eric Nathan: Laughs. I don't know that when I was four years old I had the good sense to want to play with them, but when I was about four, I wanted to hear the Empire Brass Quintet, so my parents took me Tanglewood to hear them. Later, around fourth grade, we started to come to Tanglewood and that's when I started hearing the BSO and really fell in love with orchestral music. It was just inspiring to come here in the summer and be surrounded by so much music. I think these experiences helped ingrain their sound in my air. There is a special place in my heart for the orchestra. Now getting to write for them is an incredible joy and honor. When I was very young, I didn't know I was going to be a composer; so it is wonderful how it has turned out.

EDGE: You initially took up the trumpet as a kid and had planned on being a musician. How did you transition to being a composer?

Eric Nathan: I had always been creating music ever since I started playing piano. We got a piano and I started creating my own set of tunes any time I sat down at it. I started writing pieces for the piano, but always thought I was going to be a performer. Then when I took up trumpet, I became very serious about playing. But when I got to college, I realized that I love the act of music-making, but didn't like practicing, and I realized that I could only get to a certain level without doing so. But I was always thinking about music and I could compose music all day long without getting tired. And it was just using my mind instead of the physical part of my body made me think that this is where I could spend all the hours needed to take control of my craft in that sense.

A conversation with the orchestra

EDGE: How has being a player influenced you as a composer?

Eric Nathan: I guess in a number of ways. When I compose, I do play instruments. Like when I wrote a trombone piece, I bought one on eBay and learned how to play it. Recently I wrote a double concerto for violin and clarinet, and I just happened to have a violin and clarinet in my studio. I would hold them and pretend to play them, and in the act of pretending to play them, I would get new ideas of how to write for them. I think the physicality of performance influences the notes that come out. Thinking about the piece for the BSO, I feel it is a conversation between me and the orchestra that has been part of my life every time I go hear them play, Over the years I feel that I am learning from them. Now my part of the dialogue takes place with this piece. I feel that I am giving back my understanding of what they have given to me in performance, so when I compose, I am thinking of them as performers.

EDGE: How would you describe the piece?

Eric Nathan: It is about 18-minutes in length in one continuous movement that is divided into three sections. It begins in a moderately slow mode, then the middle section is quite fast, then it returns to a slowness and becomes very still near the end. It celebrates the orchestra as an instrument and the collective individuality of each of the orchestral family. It is not really about highlighting solo instruments for virtuosic feat. It is more about how these instrumental families grow and sing as a community of individuals in a sense... I hope to show how powerful the group is because it is a collective of intensely focused and talented individuals.

Comparisons to Bartók?

EDGE: Were you intimidated at all by the choice of the title and its famous history with the orchestra?

Eric Nathan: I think that if you think too much about the history, it can be a challenge. But it came from a place of wanting to honor what Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and the BSO meant for me. I first heard it performed by the BSO at Tanglewood when I was a teenager. It was one of the first scores I ever had, and one of the first scores I ever lost myself in studying. So it was very influential to me as a piece of music. So to open the season, I wanted to write something that celebrates this orchestra, and what the orchestra means to me today, and what the BSO has meant to me in my life. So I thought a piece that concentrated on the orchestra itself and what that means felt like a natural place to start. I am trying to approach it from my personal perspective of what do I think the orchestra means to me today and not how do I it into the lineage of its title.

EDGE: I read where you attach photos to your workplace when composing for some kind of inspiration. What did you use for this piece?

Eric Nathan: I do it for nearly every piece. I have pictures of the Boston Symphony at many different angles. What it helps me do is to see the orchestration more visually. When if I look at these photos of the orchestra, I imagine what the woodwinds are doing vs .what the brasses and strings are playing, and feel more like an audience member in the hall. I can imagine both the choreography of where the sound is traveling around on the stage, and I feel more connected to the humanity of the players and how they inhabit the music. It just helps me think of the music. I guess I think by seeing a lot of time. In a sense, it can help unlock in me other ideas that I may not have had. It may give me an improvisational idea that I can work in the piece. I still improvise. Composing in a sense is improvisation, and my composing is improvisation slowed down and looked at over and over again, but I think there's an improvisational basis for it.

An incredible sound

EDGE: What is like to hear it being performed?

Eric Nathan: Well, we haven't started rehearsing this time; but last time, the BSO has such an incredible sound. I remembered joked afterward that next time I could write one note for the cellos, and it would be amazing because their tone is so fantastic. I was just amazed at how attentive they are to visual gestures and signals from Maestro Nelsons. He doesn't really need to speak. He conveys all the comments I had given him backstage just by hand gestures and they do exactly what he says, then do it every single time afterward. It is really incredibly efficient. The rehearsals are at a level of performance already. It is fun to be working with them.

EDGE: Are you impressed with Nelsons' rapport with the orchestra?

Eric Nathan: It seems to me that the orchestra loves him. He elicits such energized and emotional performances from them. I feel that when he conducted my piece with the same intensity and serious and dedication he gave to the Brahms at the concert. It was really thrilling to see the piece come to life in such an impassioned way with his conducting.

EDGE: You also teach at Brown, and gave an elective course on pop music called "From Blues to Beyonce." Can you describe it?

Eric Nathan: It is a history of popular music in the last century. It is for non-concentrators. I had a lot of fun teaching that. I think the reason why I wanted to teach that class is that I really enjoy engaging students who don't have a musical background and show them that music can have just as much depth and meaning and layers of association as a poem or a novel can. And the music they listen to on a daily basis - the music on the radio - is more than the lyrics. It is how all the different elements in the music are speaking across decades in their influences. You can listen to a song by Beyonce and hear references from the blues, country music, reggae, all different genres of music, even heavy metal -- and how that can add meaning in interpreting it.

EDGE: Which pop music stars do you like

Eric Nathan: I have to say, I really like Beyonce.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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