Interview: Composer Sean Shepherd on the Claremont Trio

by Brian Howe on January 27, 2012

Sean Shepherd

After the cancellation of Trio Jean Paul’s Duke Performances shows, the celebrated Claremont Trio steps in to fill the breach this weekend.  Two performances in the intimate Nelson Music Room feature piano trios by the likes of Mozart, Brahms, and Mendelssohn—a Claremont specialty. But one line of the program particularly caught our eye: Friday night includes a quite new trio by the accomplished young composer Sean Shepherd. Since so little information about this new piece is publicly available, we got in touch with Shepherd to learn more about it.

The Thread: Tell us about the new piano trio you’ve written for the Claremont Trio, which we’ll hear at Duke Performances tonight.

Sean Shepherd: I decided on a simple enough title for this piece early on: Trio. It’s meant to reflect both the number of players and the number of movements that make up the piece. The [titles of the] movements themselves—“Florid Hopscotch,” “Calderwood,” and “Slow waltz of the robots”—might leave one more curious than a quick glance at the title. Each movement does its best to stand alone, but in my mind the trio of short statements makes a complete musical sentence. It’s about 13 minutes in length.

Was it written expressly for the Claremont Trio, and has it been performed before?

This is a very fresh piece of produce! It was a commission from the Trio in celebration of Calderwood Hall, the brand new concert hall in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The Trio has a regular concert series at the museum, and I’m really thrilled to be part of the opening weekend festivities. The piece gets its world premiere on January 22, just before it comes to North Carolina.

Have you worked with the Claremont before this, and what is your relationship like?

This happens to be our first time working together, but we’ve been friends for years, going back to Juilliard, when we were students about 8 years ago. I’m also good friends with [Claremont cellist] Julia Bruskin’s husband, the pianist Aaron Wunsch, and had written a set of Preludes for him a few years ago. The timing worked well for this piece to happen, and when they approached me about their ideas for this project—which also includes new pieces this spring from composers who I admire a lot, like Gabriela Lena Frank and Helen Grime—I was excited and honored to be involved.

How present are you when an ensemble is working on one of your pieces—pretty hands-off, or right over their shoulders?

I was a performer for years myself, as a bassoonist, and worked with composers as a performer. So when I work with performers, I understand their needs and respect their expertise. In short, they’re my notes, but it’s their piece. As a conductor, I might give specific instructions about how it needs to go. As a composer, I refuse. The players are the interpreters; it’s their decision. Of course we discuss it, but I leave the final thoughts to them.

With chamber music, there’s a lot of flexibility in the rehearsal process. We can make changes, even significant ones, in rehearsal. In an orchestra, I take furious notes and leave most of the talking to others. In a chamber music setting, sometimes I feel like a coach, but mostly I’m a kid in a candy store. With the Trio, we know each other, so there’s a lot of, “What if we try…” We’ve had fun with this piece.

What qualities of the Claremont do you see as distinctive, and how do you accommodate those qualities when you write for them?

Claremont Trio (photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

They are sensuous players. Highly precise and accurate, of course—to be expected.  But there’s a feel for this very special repertoire of Mendelssohn and Ravel that they’ve cultivated for more than a decade. They’ve also done a huge amount of new music, and worked extensively with composers their age, composers like myself. As a composer, my goal was to give them something to savor and to provide musical challenge that they would feel nourished by.

You’ve been praised for your use of the orchestral palette—how do those large-canvas skills transfer to the smaller canvas of chamber music?

In my mind, they are different ways of thinking. And I’d probably say that writing chamber music is more difficult for me. That natural intimacy requires great focus; the responsibilities are higher for both the players and the writer to make something truly compelling.

Are there any certain composers, musicians, or teachers who have been especially important to you?

I’m very lucky to count lots of important guiding lights. I would likely say that I learned the most about music from Kim Walker, my bassoon teacher in college at Indiana University, and from my experiences playing chamber music and solo and orchestral repertoire. Composer and longtime Cornell professor Steven Stucky has, and continues to be, an important mentor to me, as do international figures like Magnus Lindberg and Oliver Knussen. Their brilliant successes have in no way limited their curiosity; something I truly admire.

Are you working on anything now that you would care to discuss?

I’m on the road this month, with concerts in Paris, Cologne, Cleveland, Trio‘s premiere in Boston, and Miami. Then I put my orchestra hat on for many months. I’m writing a piece for the National Symphony and Christoph Eschenbach, and a big piece for the Cleveland Orchestra as part of my residency with them next year. The new trio, which came just before, was a great “palate cleanser,” as they say.  Having differing projects back to back is a good way for me to stay refreshed.

Can you talk about the route that led you to being a composer, and which composers or musicians you regard as your peers?

I started young in my musical development, at age 11. So I think there are lot of things about the way that I work that I take for granted. Perhaps it impedes my flexibility in terms of routine. I have my “habits!” I must be recently caffeinated, in a quiet work space, with lots of free hours help me relax and focus. I play a little on the piano and try to get myself to a place of letting good ideas bear fruit that day. It’s a little like daily meditation, with a goal.

There are some fantastic musicians of my generation, and I treasure any chance I get to hear what they are up to. Pianists like Inon Barnatan and Benjamin Hochman. Violinists Jennifer Koh and Leila Josefowicz; cellist Joshua Roman. What we do, day-to-day, might be different, but I feel close with performers who take their jobs as communicators seriously. I admire their intelligence and stamina, and love their artistry. And I’m happy to consider them friends.

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