PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — While Brown University and its neighbors celebrate the University’s first 250 years during the Opening Celebration Friday and Saturday, March 7-8, 2014, some new history will be made as well. On Friday night, the Brown University Wind Symphony will present the world premier of Brownian Motion, a piece commissioned for the semiquincentenary.
Written by the composer and saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli, the commission was funded by Edward Guiliano, a 1972 Brown graduate who was president of the Brown Band and founded the Brown Wind Ensemble during his time on College Hill.
Matthew McGarrell, director of bands at Brown, worked with Zimmerli and Guiliano throughout the commission process, which began last year with the selection of the composer. Going over a short list of candidates, McGarrell said that he and Guiliano were attracted to Zimmerli because he was a younger composer who has already written a substantial number of pieces for groups throughout the world.
“It basically came down to looking at everything we were talking about and seeing his name stand out,” McGarrell said.
Zimmerli admits to feeling excitement when approached with the commission. “I didn’t go to Brown but I have many connections to people who did, and I was really looking forward to the challenge of writing for an undergraduate wind ensemble, something I’d never done before.”
McGarrell and Zimmerli met last summer to talk about the commission for the first time. Aside from sending Zimmerli a few pieces to use as models, McGarrell gave the composer free reign over over everything from the feel to the length of the piece.
The resulting composition, which Zimmerli presented to McGarrell at the beginning of January, is dominated by jazz rhythms, with some nods to vernacular musics, including Caribbean and calypso, mixed in.
“The piece has several different moods but overall it is celebratory,” Zimmerli said. “After all it’s a birthday piece. It’s meant to be challenging but fun for the players.”
Listeners with a link to Brown may also find parts of the work familiar. Zimmerli subtly weaves an early melody known as “Araby’s Daughter” — Brown’s Alma Mater — throughout the piece, building on it until it’s played in its full glory by the French horns toward the end.
For inspiration, Zimmerli did extensive research on Brown’s early history and was intrigued to learn that Brown’s founding was initially opposed by a group of preachers who had a mistrust for those who had been formally educated. The result is a theme — "learning is evil," a nod to those early roots — that winds its way throughout the song.
“Brown is an amazing example of an institution that has been able to evolve and transform itself from within, and I thought that fact should be celebrated,” said Zimmerli.
Other parts of the song inspired the Brownian Motion name.
“There’s a jagged theme toward the beginning of the piece that is a bit cheeky, even subversive. The way it moves and darts around through the instruments unexpectedly is what eventually led me to the actual title of the piece,” Zimmerli said.
Other works to be performed include Fantasy for Wind Symphony by Eli Fieldsteel, a 2008 Brown graduate who will conduct the piece, and the premier performance of Fanfare for Brown’s 250th by Rhode Island composer and jazz trombone legend, George Masso. Alexei Doohovskoy, a 1998 graduate, will also perform Concertante for the Brothers Brown, Masso’s piece for solo trombone and band.
“We knew we wanted to make it special concert,” said McGarrell of the program selections. “We wanted to reach both the Brown community in history, through the alumni, through musical representation, and we wanted to reach out to the extended Brown community in Rhode Island and southeastern New England, through history and intercultural outreach.”
The Brown musicians have been hard at work since the end of January learning Brownian Motion. While technically challenging, McGarrell said the students have been appreciating the skill level required and that “morale has remained high within the group.” Zimmerli arrives on campus on Wednesday, March 5, to help put the finishing touches on the performance.
Rehearsals are closed, so when the first notes of the song ring out over the audience on March 7, it will be the first time anyone, aside from the musicians, has heard it. Zimmerli hopes listeners find themselves traveling with the song through time: “Reflecting the rich and varied history of Brown, the piece goes through twists and turns, but comes out with a lot of optimism and hope for the future.”
The Brown University 250th Anniversary Celebration Wind Symphony Concert will take place Friday, March 7, at 8 p.m. in the Salomon Center for Teaching on the College Green. Admission is free and open to the public.