Rob Paterson is nearing the end of his three-year position as the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association’s “Music Alive” composer-in-residence. The award, funded by the League of American Orchestras and Meet the Composer, usually matches composers with professional orchestras around the U.S.; the VYOA is among just a handful of youth orchestras to have won it.
A year ago, Paterson sat down with “the two Jeffs,” as they’re known — VYOA’s music director-conductor Jeffrey Domoto and choral director Jeffrey Buettner — to discuss possible themes for a major commission marking the end of his residency. Paterson had just read Eaarth, environmental activist Bill McKibben’s 2010 book, about how global warming has already wrought a new planet, requiring new ways of living.
“For me, it was eye-opening, a little shocking,” declares the New York City-based composer. “I do believe our actions are causing irrevocable damage to the environment, and I want to do what I can to help.” So he proposed writing “something about the environment.”
The result is “A New Eaarth,” Paterson’s ambitious, half-hour work for the unusual combination of orchestra, chorus and narrator. The VYO will premiere the piece at its spring concert this Friday and Sunday, in Stowe and Burlington.
The narrator will be McKibben himself. “Bill is basically one of the strongest spokespeople for this stuff anywhere, not just in Vermont,” Paterson notes of the Ripton resident and 350.org founder. The composer, who says he “loves working with the kids,” wanted to give them a chance to collaborate with the luminary in their own back yard.
McKibben will read a plain-spoken text Paterson wrote that begins with dire warnings (“This is really happening. Yet as nations, we do nothing.”) and ends on a note of hope (“We can change who we are.”).
McKibben says he hasn’t yet heard the music — he and the VYO will perform together for the first time at Friday’s rehearsal — and he has never performed an orchestra-backed narration before. But he’s not worried. “I do a lot of public speaking,” he says with understatement.
The narrator’s passages alternate with the chorus singing excerpts from poems by James Joyce, William Wordsworth and others.
Domoto says the orchestral music is through-composed — that is, not separated into movements — and he deems the orchestration “quite good.”
Less reserved, VYO violist Gawain Usher, 15, of Shoreham, calls the music “emotionally incredible.” “The notes are not hugely complex, but the hardest part is the emotional content,” he says.
Usher, a homeschooled 10th grader, sees the trajectory of hope in “A New Eaarth” as an echo of Vermont’s recent path from devastation in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene toward “community togetherness.”
Does he feel hopeful about the planet and global warming? “I really do,” Usher says. “It is a problem, but it’s fixable, and it will be fixed now. I would say, based on my knowledge of the people here in Vermont, it’s a hopeful future.”
Vermont Youth Orchestra and VYO Chorus Spring Concert, premiering Rob Paterson’s “A New Eaarth,” conducted by Jeffrey Domoto and narrated by Bill McKibben, May 4, 8 p.m., Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center, Stowe; May 6, 3 p.m., Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, Burlington. $10 adults/seniors, $5 students. flynntix.org