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A Sunday chat with Stella Sung

February 8, 2015, Dayton Daily News

“Everyone hears music in a different way and there is so much to hear.” — Composer-in-residence, Stella Sung

When The League of American Orchestras and New Music USA reviewed applications for composer residencies for the 2013-14 season, Dayton’s obviously stood out.

Composer Stella Sung and The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance were chosen to receive one of five Music Alive grants that provide funding and resources for three-year orchestra-composer collaborations.

DPAA president and CEO Paul A. Helfrich said his organization selected Sung not only because her music is interesting and appealing, but because of her experience working with ballet, opera and concert music. She’s written music for film and video games as well.

“The role of music and musical performances in our society is changing,” says Helfrich. “The distinction between high art and entertainment has become increasingly blurred, and the same can be said of the line between visual and purely auditory experiences.”

Sung’s work, he said, shows recognition of these changes and the ability to speak to new generations and new audiences.

Locally plans call for Sung to create a one-act opera, a new piece for animated film, and music for educational performances. She’ll be part of an educational program reaching over 50,000 students annually and will create works that integrate dance, vocal, and instrumental music.

Sung says the Music Alive opportunity with the DPAA is a composer’s dream come true.

“Most composers would be happy to have a chance to write music for one of these organizations — ballet, symphony, opera — but to have all three to write for is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. “Perhaps one would have to go back to the days of Mozart where a composer could have all the richness of these art forms at their disposal!”

First up: A new ballet

Area audiences will see the initial results of the special collaboration next weekend when the Dayton Ballet presents “Creative Convergence,” the third ballet of the 2014-15 season. A highlight of the program will be “Fate of Place,” a new ballet choreographed by artistic director Karen Russo Burke with “romantic and lyrical” music composed by Sung.

Burke said the new ballet is about “where you are in your life, not knowing where you will be in the future and looking back at the defining moments that brought you to this place.” The full company will be performing the new piece.

Also on the weekend program is “Five Flights Up,” a vaudeville-style dance set to swing music; “You Are Here,” a Dayton premiere choreographed by Gina Patterson, and “Speak,” a premiere choreographed by DeShona Pepper Robertson, a former dancer with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) and current Dance Director of Stivers School for the Arts.

“What has been exciting about being able to have music composed for you is the unique process of collaboration,” says Burke, who was amazed at how many times Sung wanted to witness the ballet company in performance so that she could get a sense of what they were like and how they dance as a group.

“Does it start with an idea first or a melody and you see what it makes you feel/think?” Burke asks, adding that Sung was open to both approaches throughout the entire process.

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Neal Gittleman said the collaborative process has been “strange and wonderful.”

“Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘This is just the coolest thing!’” Gittleman said. “Stella showed me early drafts and sketches of the music as she was writing it and that put me in an odd but very interesting position. When she asked for comments and reactions, I’ve given them. But I try to stand off to the side a bit, not wanting to say anything that will affect the composing process.”

This won’t be the first time Dayton audiences have met Sung. Her work was first presented in 1993 when her composition, “Fanfare” was heralded in a performance by the DPO. And in 2011, her orchestral suite “Rockwell Reflections” was showcased in conjunction with the Dayton Art Institute’s Norman Rockwell exhibit. The piece was accompanied by video projections — Rockwell paintings slowly materialized on the screen as if they were being painted.

Sung’s piece, “Into Light” was part of the 2013 Season Opening Spectacular, and the DPO just performed her work “Loco-Motion” as part of the recent “Welcome Dayton” concerts. Next year, her work “Dona Nobis Pacem” is slated to be performed as part of the November classical concerts entitled “A Hero’s Journey.”

A Sunday Chat

Q. When did you decide to become a composer and why?

A. My career as a composer started later than many composers. But so often, a pivotal point in our lives directs us on to a different path than what we expect, and we should realize and understand the signs that point us in that direction.

One such moment for me was when I became a fellow at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, during a sabbatical leave year from the University of Central Florida where I am currently faculty and administrator. At the MacDowell, I was able to spend one month doing nothing but writing music, and it was there that I came to the full realization that being a composer rather than a pianist was what I needed to — and wanted to — spend my life in doing. I came to realize that writing music was what gave me the greatest satisfaction in life, and that my “calling” was in this realm of creating music.

Q. How would you describe a composer’s work day and approach to the work?

A. Each composer and artist has as different kind of work regimen; some need to write every day, some can only work on one piece at a time, some have different hours of the day that they prefer. Since I have a full-time job at the university, I can never really fully predict what my day will look like or what amount of time I will have to work on composition projects. So I usually work whenever I can, day or night, and oftentimes, through the night.

The single most important thing for me is that I generally have a high level of concentration and can focus in on the composition — or compositions, as I am sometimes working on two or more projects at the same time — once I start. I also tend to work quickly and without too much continual labor over a work. That’s not to say that it doesn’t require work and much thought and sometimes revisions. But more often than not, I can usually write with a good “flow” once I have found the right starting point, expression or feeling that I am trying to find.

Q. What type of person becomes a successful composer?

A. I think that being a composer requires a personality that doesn’t mind working in solitude and laboriously and with no guarantee of success. You have to have a strong sense of discipline and dedication to the work, and you have to know that you cannot compromise your work. One has to enjoy the work for the sake of the work process itself; you must feel compelled to completely and totally surrender yourself to the process, doing everything you can in order to produce the work to the best of your creative ability. There is a sense of purposefulness, determination, and drive that you have to have if you want to complete a project, large or small. It is really a perfectionist mentality in many ways.

I remember writing my master’s thesis composition for large orchestra titled “Lamentations.” This was before we had computer music software to do the notation, so every note had to be written by hand, in ink, with rulers, and Exact-o knife for cutting out mistakes, on vellum paper. It was an extremely tedious and laborious task which was only justified by the sense of completion when I was finished and saw all the pages lying around on the dining room and living room floors. But when it was done, I felt a great sense of completion and satisfaction.

Then comes getting the composition to be played and performed … and in this regard, you have to have nerves of steel. So often, what you write will not be interpreted correctly, performed just as you wish, in perfect halls or by perfect performers. And yet, we composers still want our music to be heard!

Q. Can you talk about the collaborative process and how it relates to this new ballet?

A. I think that the real reason I enjoy my work as a composer is that it has allowed me to meet so many people; young and old, amateur musicians and professional musicians, dancers and choreographers, writers, stage directors, theater people, technicians and other artists, performers of all kinds.

Having been composer-in-residence for the Dance Alive National Ballet company in Gainesville, I have been privileged to have worked closely with dancers and choreographers, and have enjoyed writing several works for dance. For me, the thrill and interest comes in seeing how my music is transformed and turned into someone else’s artistic vision. The sheer physicality of dance provides an incredible excitement, and there is nothing like seeing your music turned into something tangible with movement and energy!

The main challenge of writing for dance is that the choreographer has to “see” movement in the music. If they cannot visualize the dancers translating the music into movement, then the music really has no meaning. So this makes for an unique challenge because the music is not just for listening; in fact, it is in many ways to be used to serve the dancers and choreographer.

Much in the same way that a good film score supports and underlies a film’s story, the music for ballet needs to also support the dance. In certain works such as the great Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky ballets, the orchestral music can be heard separately. But when seen on the stage as a dance with the music, my feeling is that the music takes on an entirely different dimension because these piece were written for dance, and were meant to have movement alongside within them.

I am so enjoying my work with Karen Russo Burke of the Dayton Ballet. Karen has an exceptional company!

In her series of SUNDAY CHATS, arts writer Meredith Moss talks with folks in our region who are making news in the arts. If you have someone you would like to suggest, please contact Meredith: MMoss@coxohio.com

Please leave a daytime phone number.


What: “Creative Convergence” Dayton Ballet

Where: Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13, and Saturday, Feb. 14, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 15. at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $21 to $72, available at Ticket Center Stage (937) 228-3630 or online at www.daytonperformingarts.org. Senior, teacher, student, and military discounts are available at the box office.

Pre-concert talk: Karen Burke will conduct a talk for ticketholders 45 minutes prior to curtain time in the Burnell Roberts Room at 126 North Main St., beside the Victoria Theatre. A Q&A with dancers will follow each performance in the theater. Pre- and post-performance talks are free of charge for all ticketholders.

The Thursday evening performance includes a Pizza Prelude from Uno’s Pizzeria to be served in the Victoria lobby beginning at 7 p.m.