OK, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to write classical music. But apparently, it couldn't hurt.
This weekend, the Alias Chamber Ensemble will present the world premiere of composer John Marvin's Sonata for Oboe and Piano. Sure enough, Marvin used to work at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
"John would do complex computations for satellites during the day," says Roger Wiesmeyer, Alias' longtime oboist. "Then at night he'd head over to the Kennedy Center, where he was a freelance oboist for Washington Opera and Washington Ballet."
Finding scientists who dabble in music is hardly new. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras developed one of history's most important tuning systems; Galileo studied music with his father, who was one of the founders of Italian opera; and Albert Einstein, by all accounts, played a mean fiddle.
Born in Missouri in 1931, Marvin discovered both music and math at an early age. He began studying music at 4 and wrote his first major piece, an "Introduction and Allegro" for piano trio, when he was a junior in college. His passion for math and science equaled his interest in music, so in 1962 he earned a master's degree in pure mathematics from Johns Hopkins University.
He went to work at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and played oboe at night and on weekends for the opera in Washington, D.C. "It eventually became too much, so I decided to give up playing oboe," says Marvin, speaking by phone from his Northern California home. "But as soon as I gave up performing, I became obsessed with composing. I've been at it ever since."
Prior to becoming the Nashville Symphony's principal English horn player in 2001, Wiesmeyer had been a freelance oboist with the San Francisco Symphony. He met Marvin in the Bay Area, where some members of the San Francisco Symphony had taken up the cause of the composer's music.
Wiesmeyer and Marvin kept in touch, and in 2010 the oboist presented a concert at the Blair School of Music devoted entirely to the composer's music. "John told me after the concert that he wanted to write a sonata just for me," says Wiesmeyer. "I said something like, 'Oh, yeah!' "
Marvin proceeded to compose a substantial three-movement sonata for oboe and piano. The composer describes the first movement, an "Arioso," as "Brahmsian" because of its warm flowing lines. The second movement is an energetic "Scherzo," while the finale is called "Theme and Tangents."
"I modeled the finale after the variations in Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Opus 109," says Marvin. "I just loved the way Beethoven's variations flow so effortlessly from one to the other."
Wiesmeyer will perform the sonata with one of Middle Tennessee's finest chamber players, pianist Arunesh Nadgir, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
The rest of Alias' program can best be described as eclectic, since there is no thread or theme connecting any of the other works. "We just play whatever we want," says Alias artistic director Zeneba Bowers.
One piece worth mentioning is New York City experimental composer John Zorn's Cat o' Nine Tails, a 12-minute string quartet that seamlessly (and incongruously) fuses avant-garde classical, folk and cartoon music. Henry Cowell's Homage to Iran will round out the program.
"We played the Cowell on Alias' very first program" in 2002, says Bowers. "So we are coming full circle."