When we think of orchestra music we probably think of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
But some Fairfax County orchestra students are just days away from a world premiere of music that is anything but classical.
The Mt. Vernon High School orchestra will be the first to to play a composition written just for them.
Earlier this year, director Alberto Rodriguez set out to find new music from a composer his students could relate to.
“It all started with this desire to have my students play music that was a little bit different than what they normally played … ideally trying to get the students performing music by someone who looks closer to them, as a person of color, as maybe they are used to seeing,” said Rodriguez.
A social media query in a music educators’ Facebook group led him to Selena Ryan, a 24-year-old composer and teacher in Phoenix, Arizona.
Rodriguez made his pitch. Ryan said yes, excited by the opportunity.
“His only request was that all the students be able to play it, not only the advanced, which was something very close to my heart,” Ryan said in a video interview.
Her composition is called called FreeFall. Lively and spirited, it taps into elements of rock, pop and electronic dance music.
“I don’t think we’ve had a piece that was, like, this happy… was inspired by so many musical stylings, like EDM rock and pop. It’s really cool,” sophomore viola player Godwin Mensah said.
Ryan had two objectives in her work. She wanted to compose a piece that would give all instruments an interesting part. She also sees her work as a chance to address equity issues in her field. Ryan says she began playing at age 5 but was 21 before she performed a piece written by a female composer.
“I will be not the first, hopefully, to shine a light that there is such an inequity in music right now and the majority of the performed people are all the men of the past,” Ryan said.
Senior violin player Christine Johnson is thrilled at the chance to play music from a composer who is a young woman.
“I don’t get to play a lot of music from female composers. We usually get stuff from Richard Meyer education music or Bach and Mozart, but getting something from a female composer is amazing,” Johnson said.
Mensah said even the composer’s age added some motivation to mastering the piece.
“It is a special experince because for one, she is super young, fresh out of college. For someone to have that much talent, it kind of inspires me to go further with music,” he said.
The students also recognize they are getting a rare chance to be the first to play a new composition.
“I think it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that won’t come, probably won’t come, ever again,” said Eddy Suh, a junior cello player.
The students have embraced the sound, pointing to a part of the piece where they pluck their strings.
“The first time I heard it I ran to my parents and said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this, you’ve got to listen to this,’” recalled Suh.
But Rodriquez says this unique experience is about more than the music. It’s about what’s possible.
“I have students in my orchestra who now might have a chance to say, ‘Wait, there’s a place for me at the table. There’s a place for me to compose music, to write music,’”
said Rodriquez. “This project is so cool for our students and I think it just promotes equity in so many ways. Commissions are expensive and I’m so grateful to Selena for working with us and allowing us to bring our dream to life.”
And one of the biggest thrills is yet to come. Thanks to an anonymous donor, composer Selena Ryan will be able to fly to Fairfax County to see the students perform her music.
The Mt. Vernon orchestra will perform FreeFall at their spring concert on May 25 at 7 p.m.