Undaunted-and With Good Reason

Jon Burlingame is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Young composers are always searching for ways to get their music heard. The occasional concert performance, "vanity" CDs and cassettes, brief sound bites on their Web sites--it's tough sledding for most.

Upland composer Peter Boyer, on the other hand, has achieved what most composers his age--31--only dream about. On Tuesday, KOCH International Classics will release a compact disc consisting solely of his concert music. Boyer conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in six original works totaling nearly 70 minutes.

Grammy-winning producer Michael Fine, the former Deutsche Grammophon executive who has produced discs for Anne-Sophie Mutter, Cecilia Bartoli and Andrea Bocelli, calls the situation quite rare. He can recall only a handful of cases in which a major label released a disc devoted entirely to the music of a new American composer in which he or she conducted a world-class orchestra.

But Boyer, who serves as assistant professor of music at Claremont Graduate University, is unusually tenacious. For example, when his grandmother died, Boyer, then 17, decided to write a Requiem Mass in her memory. He had no formal training and had been taking piano lessons for just two years, but he began studying scores and sketching musical ideas. Three years later, while studying music at Rhode Island College, he premiered the 40-minute work with 300 performers in his native Providence, R.I. "That's when I decided this was what I was going to do with my life," he says.

Boyer spent four years in graduate music studies at the Hartt School of Connecticut's University of Hartford, earning a master's degree and a doctorate in composition; studied privately with composer John Corigliano; and then spent a year in USC's Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program. Beating director James Cameron to the punch, he wrote a 13-minute tone poem about the sinking of the Titanic that was premiered several months before the movie debuted in late 1997.

Since then, Boyer has received a series of commissions from small orchestras across the country, including L.A.'s American Jazz Philharmonic, the Oregon Mozart Players, the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Symphony, the New York Youth Symphony and the Conductors Institute at Bard College outside of New York City. He has also scored several short films, was among the orchestrators on this year's Oscars show, and has conducted music for TV's "Boston Public."

Boyer freely cites film composers and classical composers as strong influences on his work. Names like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith pop up with the same frequency as Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten, and Boyer admits he would like his career to progress in both directions.

And why not, asks Corigliano, who has straddled both worlds in recent years. "[Peter] is one of these wonderful people, like Elliot Goldenthal, who have the craft and imagination to enter the concert world and the film world, embrace both of them and show that it can be done. It's a very healthy thing," says Corigliano, who won last year's Oscar for "The Red Violin" score and this year's Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2.

As a Gen-Xer, Boyer was listening to film scores long before he became acquainted with concert repertory, and by his own admission, it shows. "I tend to go for the big gesture, the dramatic gesture, the bold colors," he explains. "I think that we're all a product of our influences, and I don't attempt to disguise them. So if the influences come from Korngold through Williams, and from Stravinsky through Goldsmith, that's OK, as long as one doesn't just rip off another composer. If you assimilate elements of their styles into your own, ultimately your own style becomes a synthesis of all these others that you've heard."

Boyer prides himself on writing music that connects with audiences, citing a lesson learned from studies with Corigliano: "the idea of communicating ... without sacrificing craftsmanship or integrity or invention as a composer."

"The Music of Peter Boyer" disc contains two distinctly different kinds of music, he points out: Celebratory pieces, which represent "me at my most accessible, most melodic, most audience-friendly"; and pieces like "Titanic" and the six-movement, "Iliad"-inspired "Ghosts of Troy," which demand "a darker, more dissonant, more angst-ridden musical language." When he realized that he had accumulated enough material to fill a compact disc, he began looking for funding and a producer. The Smith-Hobson Family Foundation, which funds the chair he holds at Claremont, provided the lion's share of the money. Fine signed on and obtained the services of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Fine, who founded the KOCH label, then left to become artistic director at Deutsche Grammophon and now freelances, oversaw the recording sessions over two days in January at London's Abbey Road studios. He agreed to produce the disc because, he says, "I was struck with the sheer visceral power of the music, his extraordinary ability to write a melody. What I always look for in any composer is a distinctive voice. I certainly heard that."

Boyer was recently in New York doing research on the project that will occupy him for the next 10 months: "Ellis Island: The Dream of America," a 30-minute work for actor, actress and orchestra with projected images. It will debut in April 2002 at Hartford's new $30-million Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. For the narration, he plans to draw on the oral histories of immigrants who passed through the New York landmark.

Boyer says his aims, like his influences, are dual: to score films and, on the classical side, to jump from second-tier orchestra commissions to the big leagues. "It remains a huge goal of mine," he says, "that someday the Los Angeles Philharmonic will play one of my pieces at Disney Hall. That would be wonderful."

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