Rice's Pierre Jalbert takes us inside modern classical music & his EmersonString Quartet piece
As part of Houston Friends of Chamber Music's 50th anniversary, Rice University's Shepherd School of Music composition faculty member Pierre Jalbert was commissioned to craft a piece especially for the Emerson String Quartet, arguably one of the most established ensembles today.
After serving one year as his graduate teaching assistant back in the day, I came to appreciate Jalbert's meticulousness and professionalism as he helped students find a path in a constant changing arts world. But it wasn't until I played one of his pieces, Visual Abstract for flute, clarinet, violin, cello piano and percussion, that I began to understand his love for experimenting with compositional approach and instrumental color.
His style suited the instruments well and though challenging, requiring a lot of focus, was satisfying both for performers and listeners.
Jalbert's String Quartet No. 5, commissioned by Houston Friends of Chamber Music and the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, will be performed 8 p.m. Thursday at Shepherd's Stude Concert Hall ($20 - $85).
CultureMap caught up with Jalbert and got the scoop on the piece, the String Quartet and classical music's challenges.
CultureMap: The Emerson Quartet is one of the most famous, most recorded, most heard and most recognized classical chamber ensembles of our time. I grew up listening to their sound, mesmerized by their interpretation. You also grew up with them and know the players personally. How does your compositional approach change when writing a piece for an ensemble with whom you have a personal connection?
Pierre Jalbert: Knowing the players and their sound has always helped me to envision the piece. Rather than starting with a blank slate, I feel I have a conception of what the players can do and that helps to generate material for the piece. With the Emerson, I've known their playing for years and I also recently worked with David Finckel on a Cello Sonata, so that fed into the writing of the work.
CM: I have often heard composers describe the process of creating a new work like a journey, like the theme of your piece, experiencing unexpected turns, trials, tribulations and changes. Can you explain what goes into the compositional process? When you get a commission, where does a composer start?
PJ: Beginning a new piece is always the most difficult. It's those first few ideas that you decide to use that will ultimately shape the piece and that usually takes me a while to get those initial ideas. But I like to think of it as building a house, creating the architecture for the piece and the initial materials, creating a blueprint and seeing how everything fits and trying to keep the idea of the whole piece in mind throughout the process and not just the individual moments.
CM: I am curious about the French influence in the piece. You grew up in Vermont and your family hails from Quebec. Is the folk tune, "Les Pèlerins," something you heard growing up?
PJ: My family has been in the States for a long while now, though I do still have relatives in Quebec. But I'm American through and through. I didn't grow up with this tune, but I've recently become interested in incorporating folk song into my music, and this tune acts as a theme in the third movement for a set of variations that become more and more animated.
CM: Contemporary classical music sometimes is met with a little apprehension. What tips, advice or suggestions do you have for someone who loves Beethoven, Bach and Brahms and wants to explore music of the 20th century?
Listening to a new piece can have its challenges as we all tend to enjoy familiar works in a familiar style. I would suggest going into the concert hall with open ears that are open to hearing sounds from our own time. Try to follow the progression of the music in general terms from beginning to end — does it end where it began?
Or does it take you to a far distant place? We're giving a pre-concert talk before the concert (at 7:15 p.m.) with the quartet demonstrating some excerpts from the piece. This always helps to show some of the ideas in a piece.
CM: We are living in a time where classical music institutions are in trouble. How should the classical music industry respond?
PJ: This may be true but I see small new music ensembles popping up all over the place. I think this bodes very well for the future of music. Even institutions like the LA and NY Philharmonic have started their own new music series, so I think it's a matter of orchestras branching out to respond to the community and do different kinds of repertoire in addition to the great classics.