Flashy electric guitarists Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Brian May made an impression on a young D. J. Sparr. Now at age 45, the guitarist and composer of contemporary classical music keeps his early admiration for these rock gods alive by bringing their instrument into the classical context – in chamber music amped up with a stream of electricity.
Sparr is the focus of the upcoming SOLI Chamber Ensemble program titled Electrified Air, to be recorded next week with no audience and broadcast virtually at 7 p.m. March 17. The program will include the world premiere of a SOLI-commissioned piece by Sparr, “A Bell Outside a Bell Inside a Bell,” along with two other Sparr pieces and the work of several contemporary composers.
This is the fourth scheduled date for the performance, Sparr said. The first was canceled last May because of the coronavirus pandemic, as was a second postponed date. The third date change was necessitated by the severe winter storm that disrupted San Antonio.
“The fourth time’s the charm,” Sparr said, laughing.
Sparr said that while he would prefer to play for a live audience, he will happily travel from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to perform with the four-member SOLI ensemble at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church downtown, safely masked and distanced in the church’s resonant sanctuary.
Though the performance itself has been in the works for nearly a year, SOLI clarinetist and artistic director Stephanie Key said she has thought about working with Sparr for a decade.
“I’ve been kind of watching his career and listening to his pieces for a long time,” she said, dating back to his tenure with the Great Noise Ensemble of Washington, D.C., and later as a 2018 Grammy award-winning soloist.
One of her greatest pleasures, Key said, is to reach out to a composer and ask if they would like to write a new piece for SOLI. Crucial to the mission of the ensemble is commissioning and premiering new work, she said. The Electrified Air program will also include world premieres of a 2016 duet for electric guitar and piano by Anthony Joseph Lanman, and a 2013 solo guitar piece by Olivia Kieffer.
All composers on the program are still living, with the oldest, Marc Mellits, born in 1966. Key said she included the composers’ birth years – ranging from 1966 to 1988 – in the program to highlight the contemporary voice present in their music.
“I want to know, is this relevant to my time? Am I listening to someone who can tell me something?” she said, noting that these questions are crucial for orchestras in search of new, younger audiences.
“We never stop learning, we never stop growing. So, to me, it’s a natural order of things for forces like this to seep in,” she said of including electronics and other nontraditional instruments in classical music.
Sparr pointed out that composers such as Verdi and Mahler have included guitar and mandolin in their work, which would have been considered unusual, if not revolutionary, in their time – essentially the 19th century equivalent of the electric guitar, he said.
Of electrified music and acoustical classical music, Sparr said, “I don’t think of it as two different worlds.”
When the storm knocked out electricity for most of Texas, Sparr considered the possibility of staging the performance in candlelight, adding a layer of irony and intimacy to the “Electrified” program. His music is written to be performed for live audiences, he said, in part because of the attention it demands. In today’s world, where kids grow up watching video, he said holding attention over digital formats can be a challenge, suggesting that viewers of the March 17 performance practice the mindfulness they might otherwise bring to a live performance.
The digital platform will allow different forms of intimacy, including short introductions to the pieces on the program, Sparr said. Key added that using multiple cameras will allow the audience to get closer – virtually speaking – to the musicians than would be possible at a traditional live concert.
“You could never walk up and get as close to David’s cello,” Key said of SOLI ensemble partner and husband David Mollenauer, “or see the angle on Carolyn [True]’s hands on the piano.”
SOLI performed Sunday night at the San Antonio Botanical Garden for its fourth annual Open Mic concert featuring 13 guest performers. While the pandemic disrupted the normal November date, the rescheduled Open Mic concert will be one of two in 2021, with a second to be held in its fall slot.
The concert was closed to the public, but a grant of $2,000 from the Department of Arts and Culture, given to all eligible arts organizations to encourage adaptation to digital formats during the pandemic, allowed SOLI to purchase equipment necessary for livestreaming.