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Florida Orchestra To Premiere USF Professor's Original Piece

Feb 14, 2019

A University of South Florida music composition professor's latest work is getting a high-profile debut this week at the hands of the Florida Orchestra

Baljinder Sekhon’s “Stars” will open a trio of Masterworks Series concerts that also feature Holst’s “The Planets” and Debussy’s “Nocturnes.”

Sekhon said he didn’t intentionally compose his piece to accompany “The Planets,” but he thinks it should serve as a complement to Holst’s work, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

“This was a great opportunity to do ‘Stars.’ We have ‘Planets,’ we have ‘Nocturnes,’ dealing a lot with the sky, clouds, and so ‘Stars’ seemed like a way to complete that picture,” said Sekhon. “My approach to composing this piece is a bit different than Holst’s. It’s really focused on the scientific structure of what I’m representing, rather than the mood of what I’m representing.”

Sekhon was asked by the Florida Orchestra last year to write a piece for them with a few conditions: it had to be for a large ensemble, it should be 15 minutes long and he had to have it ready by this month.

“Writing for a large orchestra for a piece that’s this duration, it’s a big project to take on, it’s really a composer’s dream to be able to do these projects, so when you get a project like this, you really put what you have into it, tackle it,” he said.

Sekhon shies away from the word inspiration, saying he found the direction he was looking for in astronomy and cosmology.

“One thing that I’m really interested in in my music is finding not just metaphorical correlations between the music and whatever the extra-musical idea is, but also structural correlations,” he said.

“So in my piece, not only do you get the various moods that we have when we interact with stars in different ways, whether it be gazing or from a scientific perspective and studying fusion and so forth, but the actual physical activities that are taking place within stars and between stars is something that I’m translating to music through structural properties such as pitch and rhythm and time.”

And, Sekhon said, ‘Stars’ takes the audience on a journey as well.

“What happens in this piece, the way I envision it, is that the listener starts in the center of the creation of a star and gradually moves out of the star to Earth as the piece goes on,” he said.

The piece is part of Florida Orchestra Music Director Michael Francis’ outreach to local composers like Sekhon.

“At the Florida Orchestra, we really believe in supporting and promoting talent from within Florida, and Baljinder is a supremely gifted composer,” said Francis. “He’s looked at the concept of stars and he’s giving it the sense of space that he needs.

“Rather than create a piece that is overly busy, he’s allowed us that moment of reflection. So as we listen to it, we feel like we are observing that slow-moving, static quality that stargazing allows us to do.”

Sekhon said he appreciates the opportunity the orchestra has provided him.

“That kind of backing from an orchestra in a city like Tampa is crucial. We appreciate what the Florida Orchestra has done over the past several years with our students and with my colleagues,” said Sekhon. “What’s especially great about this though is that (Francis) and his wife, Cindy, have stepped up to also be a part of that support, and that means the world to us – that’s what we need as composers,” he said.

According to Sekhon, being both an active composer and a teacher has its advantages.

“Balancing teaching and composing is not that difficult of a task, at least mentally, because they’re very similar to each other,” he said.

But teaching also provides him an opportunity to learn at the same time.

“Students bring me their works and we get to discuss the historical context of what they’re doing, we get to talk about more objective things, like notation and instrumentation,” he said. “With every new student who brings me a new work, it’s an idea presented to me that I’ve never seen before, we study this together.”

And while Sekhon has had his pieces performed more than 500 times, he’s looking forward to the moment the Florida Orchestra plays ‘Stars” in front of a full house this weekend.

“It’s a great feeling, one thing I try to do as a composer, when a piece is done – this is difficult – but I try to step outside of myself and put on some new ears and listen to my piece as if it’s the first time I’ve ever heard it before,” said Sekhon. “When I do that and I’m trying to hear the piece from the perspective of an audience member who’s never the work and knows nothing about it, I notice new things about it myself.”

“Stars,” along with “The Planets” and “Nocturnes,” will be performed by the Florida Orchestra Friday at 8 p.m. at the Straz Center in Tampa, Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.