When you hear the Missoula Symphony Orchestra premiere a new work, Triple Concerto for Violin, Percussion Duo and Orchestra, take note of the structure. It’s bookended by two busy, rhythmically dynamic sequences. In the middle, a calm interlude.
That structure was born of drastic life changes for Pascal Le Boeuf. During the pandemic, he and his wife, Molly Herron, moved to Nashville, where they both started new jobs as music professors at Vanderbilt University.
They had their first son, Baxter, amid all the changes. It was a lot — he thought about how they could navigate all of it while still making time for both of them to compose and be equal parents.
“That’s really important to me — this idea that men should be equally involved in the process of raising a child. And sometimes you have to fight for that, and in the way our society is structured, only one parent gets parental leave for example, things like this,” he said.
Le Boeuf, who also performs and writes jazz and electronic music, said this piece grew the way many projects do for him: a desire to work with a particular person, getting to know their interests and seeing where it can lead. In this case, it was Barbora Kolářová, a Czech violinist. It soon grew from a violin concerto to a “triple concerto” after they bonded with Garrett Arney of the percussion group Arx Duo.
Le Boeuf grew up in Santa Cruz and began playing jazz with his twin brother, Remy, a saxophonist.
Le Boeuf was interested in artists like Danilo Perez and Miguel Zenon, and a scene where bandleaders are expected to write complex original compositions. However, he became frustrated by the routine of jazz gigs, where a single rehearsal might precede a show. He wanted to dig more into writing, and one way to do that was electronic music. Another was classical — the city is filled with musicians aspiring to their first orchestra post, he said, and are eager to work and collaborate.
He realized he could write in novel combinations. His piece “Snapshots” was written for bass clarinet, cello, piano and drums, and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Original Composition. (His piece, “Alkaline,” recorded with his brother and JACK Quartet, was as well several years before.)
This path will also bring him through Missoula as the symphony’s first “composer in residence,” a program that has been a goal for Music Director Julia Tai since she took over in 2020. The MSO is one of three orchestras for a rolling premiere for this piece.
Travel has emerged as an issue though. While Arx Duo will be here, Kolářová was forced to cancel due to visa issues; Tim Fain, a virtuoso violinist who’s based out of Hamilton and has performed with Philip Glass and the MSO many times, stepped in to learn the piece on less than a week’s notice.
Le Boeuf said a previous collaboration with Kolářová was a pivot point in his career. He wrote “Obliquely Wrecked,” for piano, violin and cello.
“It was a big experiment in basically taking very syncopated, detailed, embodied rhythms coming from jazz and electronic music and translating them to the violin,” he said. "And that kind of opened the door to new ways of thinking about composing for notation-oriented musicians, classical musicians."
He, Arx Duo and Kolářová began talking about what became a triple concerto and he’d done a significant amount of writing before the pandemic struck.
Along with moving and starting a family, he “basically rewrote the piece because so much had changed, that I felt like I had to build something that represented who I was now, instead of at the onset of all of this.”
“There's one super theme that all of the themes in the piece are based on," he said. "That theme represents Baxter, my child. And so everything is kind of — that's like the priority. And then everything else kind of is a spin on that, incorporates it in some way or another.
"And, you know, the composition itself was a way of doing so, finding a way of reflecting that part of my life and in the music, it was the only way I could figure out a way to be creative and still be present in … the challenges and activities to fatherhood."
The calm eye of the storm at the center of the piece is based on the baby’s nap schedule. Le Boeuf had amassed a lot of ideas and was thinking about how to piece them together, and glanced at the nap schedule board for feeding, napping and taking turns so they both had time to write.
Listeners will still hear some touches of jazz, particularly in the marimba, and electronic, in other percussive touches.
He thought he could take advantage of the stage arrangement of the soloists, with one percussionist on each side and the violinist in the middle, so ideas are being volleyed back and forth.
“These are exciting virtuosic musicians that I want to have a good time and I wanted to write something that represented that but also allowed me to kind of do my version of that which can sometimes be kind of nerdy and usually very rhythmic,” he said.
While it might be more subtle, Le Boeuf was also thinking about Vivaldi. His wife had played him recordings by a group called Il Giardino Armonico that were fast, gestural and daring and spotlighted aspects of his writing that have been smoothed over.
Jennifer Higdon, Fanfare Ritmico
Since the centerpiece is so percussive, Tai selected other works that can match the energy.
This piece by Higdon, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music for her Violin Concerto, packs a lot of speed and rhythm into seven minutes, with a bonus that it can give an orchestra’s five percussionists a spotlight.
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 1 (“Titan”)
Tai felt this is a strong introductory piece for those who aren’t familiar with Mahler, citing its tuneful writing and the citation of “Frère Jacques,” in the third movement. The horn section is scaled up to deliver a “massive storm” as needed, and “each movement is a symphony in itself,” she said.
She also noted that Mahler covers the gamut of moods.
“You get to experience all the kinds of emotion that you could possibly have in life,” she said.
Overall, she feels this is likely the highlight of the symphony’s season, and will make for a “massive, beautiful, epic” concert.