Alumni Composers Concert Shows a Different Side of Howard Shore

Ed Symkus
October 16, 2015
Howard Shore '69
Cellist Kari Juusela, dean of the college’s Professional Writing and Music Technology Division
Howard Shore speaks with Alison Plante, assistant chair of the Film Scoring Department, during a panel discussion the day after the concert.
Helen Sherrah-Davies, violinist and assistant professor in the Harmony Department
Eric Stern, conductor and associate professor of composition
Flutist Ying-Ting Luo, a Berklee student
Krista River, mezzo-soprano and featured guest artist
Tom Hojnacki, conductor and assistant chair of the Harmony Department
Greg Hopkins, professor of jazz composition, leads the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra with Berklee student Luis Garcia on baritone saxophone in the foreground.
Hopkins (left) with alumnus Frank E. Warren, president of the Berklee Alumni Composer Consortium
Photo by Dave Green
Photo by Elizabeth Friar
Photo by Dave Green
Photo by Elizabeth Friar
Photo by Elizabeth Friar
Photo by Elizabeth Friar
Photo by Elizabeth Friar
Photo by Elizabeth Friar
Photo by Elizabeth Friar

The music emanating from the stage of the Berklee Performance Center didn’t quite fit under either the jazz or classical umbrella. Rather, it was a night of contemporary art music, or concert music. The Berklee Alumni Composer Consortium concert included compositions by Berklee alumni Frank E. Warren; violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies, assistant professor of Harmony; and cellist Kari Juusela, dean of the college’s Professional Writing and Music Technology Division. But the evening also served as a tribute to Berklee alumnus and Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore '69 (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) who has become the go-to composer for directors such as Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, and David Cronenberg. 

Three of Shore’s pieces were featured: “A Palace Upon the Ruins,” a song cycle for mezzo-soprano (featuring guest vocalist Krista River), piano, harp, cello, flute, and percussion, with text by Elizabeth Cotnoir; Movements No. 1, 4, and 6 from “Six Pieces,” a work for chamber orchestra; and “Orbit,” an improvisational piece for big band jazz ensemble that was performed by the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra.

For the Love of Writing Music

The event was an offshoot of regular presentations by the Berklee Alumni Composer Consortium, which was formed about a decade ago by Warren, the group’s current president, with the idea of letting audiences discover what composers are writing today for the concert stage.

Juusela, a primary force in putting this show together—who also performed his partially improvised duet “PBBP Blues” with Joseph Mulholland, pianist and Harmony professor—had been thinking about bringing the consortium concerts up another level by getting some big name alumni who write concert music.

“Howard, a Berkleeite, was interested,” said Juusela. “He’s had tremendous success as a film composer, but he’s also written an opera [The Fly] and has always been writing what I call music for music’s sake, for the love of writing music. So he agreed to join us.”

Composing with a "Different Brush"

Asked about the difference between what Shore has written for film and for the concert stage, Juusela said, “With film music, we remember the big themes at the beginning and the end, but the music is always supporting the dramatic action [of the film]. The music here is definitely a little more abstract.”

Shore—whose background includes serving as the first music director on Saturday Night Live and a member of the rock band Lighthouse, played in jazz bands starting at 14, and has been composing since he was 10, when he studied clarinet as well as harmony and counterpoint with Morris Weinzweig—was initially contacted about the event by Warren.

“Frank called and suggested it, and I’m happy to support projects at Berklee, and work with the alumni, so I said yes,” said Shore. “We started putting together some ideas and batting things back and forth until we came up with the program, and they’re all Boston premieres.

“I would say this music, in particular, is quite different from my film scores,” he added. “I don’t think you’ll find relationships to the music I wrote for film. These are pieces that are kind of using a different brush, if you will. They’re detailed in a way that makes them different than what I work on with film music.”

Diverse Inspirations

Yet, just like following a director’s vision in composing for a soundtrack, Shore also had influences for the Berklee show’s pieces.

“I love to work with words,” he said. “I love poetry, and Elizabeth [Cotnoir] wrote beautiful poems for ‘A Palace Upon the Ruins.’ She wrote those first, and it was very inspiring to work with her poems. So that’s always a beginning, a way into the piece. But the inspiration for these concert pieces varies. ‘Orbit’ was inspired by the Australian Art Orchestra [which commissioned it]. Having heard them, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a great orchestra to write for.’ Yet a lot of times it’s inspired by the players. I’ve written two concertos—one for the pianist Lang Lang and one for the cellist Sophie Shao. And those were definitely inspired by the performers, themselves.”