Composer/conductor Mark Laycock writes new work for Musicopia String Orchestra
by Talia Yellin Fisher
March 2018…Musicopia is honored and thrilled to have its Musicopia String Orchestra (MSO) premiere a new work written for them entitled “Musicopia” Suite for String Orchestra, a.k.a. Musicopia: Sweet! For String Orchestra by composer and conductor Mark Laycock. The Suite, which the MSO will perform on Saturday, May 12, 2018, will be narrated by celebrated master storyteller, Charlotte Blake Alston. Maestro Laycock, an internationally renowned conductor, has conducted more than 2,000 works with a wide array of orchestras and opera companies in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, and Asia. As a published composer, his works have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, and the Berliner Symphoniker, among others.
Maestro Laycock, though having grown up in the St. Louis area and currently living in Berlin, Germany, still considers Philadelphia very much a home. “I moved to Philadelphia on my own when I was 17 to study viola with Max Aronoff of the Curtis String Quartet,” said Maestro Laycock. “Philadelphia was where I went to school, and I lived in Philadelphia a long time. It’s a tremendously important part of my history and of my musical foundation.” It is therefore incredibly meaningful to him that the premiere of this new work for young string players will take place in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was certainly the springboard for Maestro Laycock’s long musical career. Originally trained as a violist who played in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra when Leonard Slatkin was its young conductor, Maestro Laycock became fascinated with conducting as a teenager. “When I was 15 and 16, I would play the recordings of Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra over and over. I loved the sound of that orchestra!” said Maestro Laycock. “The very first thing I did when I arrived in Philadelphia was to go to the box office and get a ticket to hear ‘The Fabulous Philadelphians.’ When Ormandy walked on stage, my heart was racing, just racing! It was thrilling.” When Maestro Laycock was in the end of his third year of conservatory, Leopold Stokowski, long-time conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, died. The Philadelphia Orchestra had a one-time memorial competition in Stokowski’s name. Maestro Laycock won that competition and had his conducting début at the age of 21 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He went on to freelance as a violist for many years, while at the same time building his career as a conductor, and appearing with The Philadelphia Orchestra on many occasions. Maestro Laycock ultimately served as the Music Director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years before moving to Europe.
The MSO established a relationship with Maestro Laycock in 2015 when he conducted the English Chamber Orchestra (ECO) at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, a concert for which the MSO was the charitable beneficiary. MSO students participated in a side-by-side rehearsal with Maestro Laycock and the ECO and then joined the ECO for a performance of a movement of Britten’s Simple Symphony at the Union League of Philadelphia.
A highlight for Maestro Laycock when he worked with the MSO students in 2015 was the “human connection” that Musicopia creates. “Although it certainly exists, you don’t get that nurturing spirit a lot in the professional world, and that’s a tremendously sad reality,” said Maestro Laycock. “But as a music director I feel a responsibility and want to help develop the core spiritual, emotional, and intellectual qualities of my musicians. It was serendipitous, then, that Musicopia came to my attention, because I’ve always enjoyed working with students; I have such fond memories of my own time as a viola student and orchestral musician.” Maestro Laycock and the ECO players truly embraced working with the MSO students by giving them the opportunity for the side-by-side rehearsal and performance. “I never had that experience as a young player,” Maestro Laycock said. “But I can imagine if I had, it would have been a potentially life-changing experience, because you’re sitting next to such accomplished, fine musicians.” That experience absolutely did have a positive effect on the MSO students. One student wrote to Maestro Laycock, “Thank you for hosting one of the best playing experiences I will remember!” and another wrote, “Thank you for helping me accomplish my musical goals.” Maestro Laycock has remained a friend to Musicopia since then and even stepped in for a cameo guest appearance conducting a movement for the orchestra’s winter concert in 2016. Those interactions with Musicopia and the MSO students impressed him so much that the idea then came to him to write a piece for them. And so, “Musicopia” Suite was born.
Maestro Laycock’s evolution as a composer has been quite organic. He had in interest in composing from the age of 16, but there were two events in particular that had a profound impact on him and really launched him into writing for orchestra. The first was 9/11, and the second was his long-time friendship with flutist Jasmine Choi. Maestro Laycock was the Music Director of the Princeton Symphony on that tragic day in September, 2001. “On my street in Princeton, three of the dads came home that day with dust on their shoes from the fallout. But they came home. Many people didn’t,” Maestro Laycock said. There were so many funerals, that Maestro Laycock’s orchestra musicians were playing 3 or 4 funerals a day. “They were so physically and emotionally drained from this experience of playing funeral after funeral after funeral, that I really felt the need to write something uplifting.” That ‘something’ resulted in “American Fanfare,” a work for large orchestra that continues to be performed by orchestras throughout the U.S.
A few years before that, Maestro Laycock met the then-15 year-old flutist Jasmine Choi, when he was conducting at a summer orchestra festival, for which Jasmine was the principal flutist. “Even as a young girl, there was something so special about her sound. Whenever she played, I felt that she turned the air into liquid gold. It was just amazing,” said Maestro Laycock. She and Maestro Laycock remained friends and stayed in touch over the years. Following her graduation from the Curtis Institute and when Choi was a graduate student at Juilliard, Maestro Laycock told her that within 10 years he would write her a concerto. Choi occasionally reminded Maestro Laycock over the years of his promise, and with two years left to go, Maestro Laycock thought, “it’s been 8 years – I now have the tools to do it.” The result was “Songbird’s Journey,” which was premiered by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to a three-minute standing ovation in July 2014, and subsequently received a similar reception in its European début with the Berliner Symphoniker at the Philharmonie. “My interest in composition was really not in any way to be self-aggrandizing. There’s nothing of myself I want to put out,” said Maestro Laycock. “But I think I understand what people really enjoy hearing, and then when an opportunity has come, these pieces have just flowed on their own.” One of those pieces is his recent Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, titled, “The Orchestra Goes Out With a Musical Bad-Boy” which has received equally enthusiastic ovations in Europe.
Maestro Laycock has kept the audiences’ enjoyment at the forefront in his composition of the “Musicopia” Suite, while also making it a piece that, he hopes, will be meaningful to the MSO students as they learn and rehearse it. “I made a list of all these ideas I had, including all these silly things that could be done, and tried to construct a piece that would have an ebb and flow to it – while also giving the kids a challenge and an opportunity to play in different styles,” said Maestro Laycock. The Suite consists of twelve short movements (mostly 1 to 2 minutes each), each of which can also be played as individual pieces. Each movement is also preceded by (an often humorous) narration. One movement, “The Dinner Guest,” is actually about a woman who can’t contain herself from sneezing at a fancy dinner party. That movement gives the principal MSO players the opportunity to play a Haydn- or Mozart-like string quartet while the rest of the orchestra depicts the woman’s attempts to stifle her sneeze. “The students always have to have versatility in what they’re doing. And there are other spots in the Suite that are very tricky, and so they have to be able to play quickly, or do different effects on their instruments.”
The “Musicopia” Suite is Maestro Laycock’s first composition for an entry-level orchestra, but he pulled inspiration from composers Holst and Elgar. “When I started to write this, I thought of Gustav Holst’s Brook Green Suite and of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The Brook Green Suite is a wonderful Suite that Holst wrote for students, with fairly short movements; movements that are very rewarding to play and also very beautiful,” said Maestro Laycock. “And the Enigma Variations are all portraits of Elgar’s friends. The ‘Musicopia’ Suite depicts several different ‘things,’ but also includes three people and their musical portraits.”
The movements dedicated to those three people -- Dan Holt, Philip Kates, and Daniela Pierson, Artistic Director of the MSO -- are some of the movements that Maestro Laycock is most looking forward to hearing performed. “Dan Holt was for me, who Daniela is for your students. He was my school orchestra director from the time I was 12 and in seventh grade. He became my best friend, he taught me so much about music, and he made sure that I had every opportunity to play in all of the orchestras available – not just the school group, but the district orchestras, and also encouraged me to audition for the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.” The movement dedicated to Daniela incorporates the musical notes D-A-E-A from her name to create a musical portrait. “We’re having a great time working on the piece!” said Daniela. “There’s so much variety of characters and sounds in the different movements, which gives the students a chance to really explore what they can do as an ensemble. I’m not sure they quite understand yet how incredible it is that the piece was written specifically for them. We’re excited for them to meet with Mark later in the spring.”
Maestro Laycock met Philip Kates, a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and member of the string quartet Liebesfreud, while they were both students. Longtime friends, Kates and Maestro Laycock played in and performed in string quartets together for many years. Kates also played in a chamber orchestra that Maestro Laycock formed and conducted at Tenth Presbyterian Church. “We would meet almost every Sunday morning, and prepare a prelude and a postlude for the Sunday morning service. He was practicing his craft of conducting in that way,” said Kates.
Though he hasn’t heard the work yet, Kates imagines that the new work that Maestro Laycock has written for the MSO students will be in a language that’s accessible to them. “I’m sure there will be moments when the style is familiar enough to them, but there will probably be some surprises in it as well,” said Kates. “I think when you start to learn a new work, your ears and mind are stimulated in a different way from when you sit down to play something that you have heard before. It will be a good listening experience for them, which is very important in music-making.” When asked what he imagines the movement dedicated to him might be like, Kates jokes, “Oh, I’m terrified!” But Kates also reflects on their long and wonderful friendship. “I am filled with expectation and I imagine that it will be amusing and kind of like a ‘roast’ or something. So I know I need to come with a good sense of humor. But I also know that Mark has loved me for many years, and I’m sure there will be something sincere in it as well.”
Kates is also a devoted humanitarian, and has played in schools, hospitals, and orphanages around the world everywhere the Philadelphia Orchestra has travelled since 1988 including Vietnam and China. “I imagine that Mark may also depict some dimension of that, tying in the social responsibility aspect of what I do,” said Kates. “Mark has become very skilled in his composition since he first tried his hand with it, becoming quite adept, so there may be many aspects of my friendship with him that could be represented in this.”
The MSO will devote the entirety of its spring semester to learning, rehearsing, and performing the “Musicopia” Suite for String Orchestra, in preparation for its premiere. Ultimately, Maestro Laycock’s greatest hope for the MSO students is that it enlarges their joy for music, and gives them memories that make them feel wonderful and make them laugh when they think back on their experience. “Anyone who goes on in music will meet a lot of serious people, so when you have something to look back on and can laugh about, that can have real value in bringing balance to your life,” said Maestro Laycock.
Maestro Laycock will attend the premiere and participate in a residency and dress rehearsal with our MSO students.
Musicopia String Orchestra Spring Concert
featuring the premiere of Maestro Laycock Laycock’s
“Musicopia” Suite for String Orchestra,
a.k.a. Musicopia: Sweet! for String Orchestra
Saturday, May 12, 2018
The Church of the Holy Trinity
1904 Walnut Street, Philadelphia
For questions or to RSVP, contact Juliette Hyson at Juliette@musicopia.net