Over the years, cellist Yo-Yo Ma has premiered the music of just about every important American composer, including Richard Danielpour, Chen Yi, John Williams, Matt Walker ... Matt who?
Yeah, we're talking about the same Matt Walker who's played cello for years with both the Nashville Symphony and Alias Chamber Ensemble. Last season, he composed a short cello duet for Ma and Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson titled (what else?) Yo-Yo Joe. A slightly expanded version of that work will have its Nashville premiere at Alias' concert Wednesday at the Blair School of Music.
"It's a very challenging, virtuosic piece, but of course you have to remember who I wrote it for," says Walker. "At the same time, I knew I'd one day perform it myself, so I made sure it was at least manageable enough for us mortals to play."
Most composers dream of writing something for Ma — such a commission all but guarantees a high-profile performance. Walker more or less stumbled into the opportunity. Last year, he mentioned to Johnson that he had written a jazzy number for the Nashville Ballet called Arabian Blues. Johnson was intrigued.
"Joe's pretty tight with Yo-Yo, so whenever Yo-Yo solos with the Toronto Symphony he usually pulls Joe aside at the end to play an encore," says Walker. "He wondered if I'd be interested in writing an encore for them. What composer wouldn't want to do that?"
When properly motivated, Walker usually composes with the ease and speed of someone making a chicken sandwich. He completed his duet in less than a week. Ma joined Johnson a month later to perform it Toronto.
Following that initial performance, Walker revised and expanded the piece. He'll play the updated version with cellist Sari DeLeon Reist at next week's Alias concert. Like much of Walker's music, Yo-Yo Joe is a comfortable fusion of Latin jazz and blues. Naturally, the music has an improvisatory feel.
Walker is without question Alias' most prolific in-house composer. In fact, the group has already premiered a half-dozen of his works. Next week, the ensemble's longtime violist Chris Farrell will be making his official debut as an Alias composer. The group will present the world premiere of Farrell's Three Portraits for String Quartet.
Farrell admits he came to composing late. "In college I wrote a few joke pieces, usually little fugues based on TV show themes," says Farrell. "Otherwise, the only other things I've written were arrangements of Christmas carols for chamber ensemble."
That seemingly unpromising start actually provided Farrell with the skills he needed to write a full-fledged string quartet. He found the inspiration to write it after a chance encounter with an acquaintance last summer.
"I was talking with a friend who didn't know anything about classical music," says Farrell. "She wanted to know how you understand the meaning of a piece of music if there are no words to tell you what it's about."
Farrell, who also serves as Alias' director of education outreach, spent several months pondering his friend's good question. In the end, he decided to answer it by writing a string quartet.
"We played a movement of the quartet in a series of outreach concerts this spring," says Farrell. "We explained how melodies in classical music are developed and changed over the course of a piece. It helped provide the audience with a road map for listening to the music."
Alias is devoting its entire concert next week to the music of contemporary composers. In addition to the two premieres, the group will play Sebastian Currier's Night Time for harp and violin (1998), Michael Daugherty's Diamond in the Rough for violin, viola and percussion (2006) and Peter Schickele's Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano (1982).
"We're playing the music of our time," says Farrell. "That's what we're all about."