Composer Phillip Bimstein sets virtues to music

By CATHERINE REESE NEWTON | The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published Sep 19 2015 01:05AM

The Salt Lake Symphony will give the world premiere of a piece that music director Robert Baldwin calls “music about life itself.”

Utah composer Phillip Bimstein’s “The Brahma Viharas, A Meditation for English Horn and Orchestra,” set for Saturday, Sept. 26, is based on four ancient Buddhist practices: loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. Charlotte Bell is the soloist.

Bimstein wrote the piece as a birthday gift to Bell, his partner in music and life, who has been practicing the Brahma Viharas for decades. A prominent yoga instructor, she’s also a longtime member of the Salt Lake Symphony, where she plays the oboe — and, when needed, its slightly larger relative, the English horn. Bimstein said he briefly considered having Bell play the oboe in one of the piece’s movements, but decided against it. “The English horn has such a deep, soulful quality,” he said.

Though influenced by Eastern spiritual practices, the work uses Western classical tonal language and follows the same general road map as a standard symphony, Baldwin, Bell and Bimstein noted.

“Phillip is a great writer of melody,” Bell said. “I like the fact that it’s tonal and melodic and easy to grasp, but it’s also quite complicated — with tricky rhythms and transitions. The Salt Lake Symphony loves a challenge.”

The first movement depicts loving-kindness, which Bell described as “an unconditional wish of good will to everyone in your life and beyond.”

“The main melody is a really sweet melody in a major key,” she said. “To me, it depicts a feeling of well-wishing.”

Compassion is portrayed with stormy passages played by the orchestra, calmed by soothing music from the English horn.

The third movement, devoted to empathetic joy, functions much like a traditional scherzo movement, Bell said. “The whole orchestra is really playful.”

Equanimity, the subject of the finale, is “probably the hardest to depict” musically, Bell said. “I could just be silent.” Instead, Bimstein explained, he wrote music that “encompasses bits of all the foregoing, interrupted by deep sustained chords and silences representing balance and evenness amidst life’s ups and downs.”

This closing movement features an extended improvisation by Bell. “I wanted to give her an opportunity to comment and speak through her own notes,” Bimstein said. Because Bell tends to shun the spotlight, he also considered it important to include brief solo passages for her Salt Lake Symphony colleagues. “Everybody gets a moment, so it becomes like a dialogue in which there are many participants,” he said.

Baldwin called the piece engaging and fresh. He appreciates the way Bimstein has interwoven the solo voice with the textures of the orchestra: “It fits perfectly with the message,” he said.

Also on the program are Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1.

There’s already another performance of “The Brahma Viharas” lined up — as part of the Parliament of the World’s Religions next month in Salt Lake City, an event at which the Dalai Lama also will speak. “I have no idea if he’ll hang around to hear this,” Bimstein said, “but who knows?”

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