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Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music commissions a work by heavy metal drummer

for The Brooklyn Paper
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With luminaries like Beethoven and Brahms on the bill, the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music’s 100th concert would seem like a festive enough affair.

But when Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music (BFCM) director Wanda Fleck decided she wanted something new for the March 28 program, she turned to a 25-year-old from New Jersey, who grew up on heavy metal but was inspired to compose contemporary classical music a decade ago, after he saw the animated film, "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

"A friend dragged me to [the movie], I heard Danny Elfman’s score and thought, ’That’s what I want to do,’" David T. Little told GO Brooklyn in a telephone interview from his home near Boston. "I didn’t really know contemporary classical music was out there. I knew about [Aaron] Copland, but I didn’t know there was music like what I was listening to at age 15 - Megadeth and other metal bands."

Little, last year’s recipient of the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has made up for lost time: in 2001, he was the Leonard Bernstein Fellow in Composition at the Tanglewood Music Center; and this year, conductor David Zinman chose his composition "Screamer!" as winner of the Jacob Druckman prize at the Aspen Music Festival.

For the BFCM concert, Fleck commissioned Little to write a piece for the Amelia Piano Trio to play alongside Beethoven’s B-flat Trio and Brahms’s B-major Trio. Not bad for a Jersey kid who played drums in a rock band (which he still does, by the way).

"Wanda heard a short piece of mine called ’Duet for Solo,’ which was written for clarinet and tape, and a dancer," Little said of Fleck’s first encounter with his music, at Tanglewood. "We met afterwards, then stayed in touch. I came to some BFCM concerts, and about a year ago, she told me that they’d like to commission a piece from me.

"I was unfamiliar with the piano trio repertoire, so I studied the traditional trio music and checked out the Amelia Trio. I got to know them and they told me what they’d enjoy playing. They’re a wonderful ensemble."

Little’s trio is "a celebration of many things," as he describes it, since it pays tribute to both Fleck and BFCM as well as the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, where they hold their concerts.

"It’s a very community-based experience," Little said of the church. "When I’m there, I see a lot of familiar faces. There’s something wonderfully resonant about the space, and I wanted to write a really long, slow piece. But Wanda told me, ’No dirges.’ Oh well, that was out.

"Wanda told me different things that they wanted. They wanted me to work in the church, which was an Underground Railroad stop, and its Tiffany windows, which I noticed when I went there for concerts. I also wanted to connect the series to Brooklyn itself."

In three movements and about 17 minutes long, Little’s untitled piano trio telegraphs its agenda through each movement’s title: the opening movement is called "East Coast Attitude," the middle one "On Clouds of Witness" and the finale, "On-the-Job Training."

"That was the first movement I composed," Little said of the final movement, "and I related Wanda’s experience with starting this concert series to my experience of becoming a composer. The idea of learning as you go was very important for both Wanda and me ... at least, that’s how I imagined Wanda’s experience was!"

"East Coast Attitude" was composed next, he said. "I connect with Brooklyn in this movement. I was in California when I was writing it, and I saw that phrase in a magazine, which is perfect for Brooklyn, because of its tough reputation. But regardless of the reality, these misperceptions are prevalent. I describe this movement as ’neo-classical funk,’ since it’s rhythmically driven, and in a certain sense, the trio is treated like a drum set. It was really fun to write."

The middle movement, "On Clouds of Witness," was the last completed, and it has rich associations. "It has many different connections to it," Little said, "the biggest between Wanda and myself, based on my clarinet piece she first heard. I also could not get the church’s mural, ’On Clouds of Witness,’ out of my mind. It’s very still and quiet, and I imagine the people in the mural coming to life and moving around the church."

Little, who returns to New Jersey this fall to begin his Ph.D. studies in music at Princeton, admits the metal he heard in his teen years heavily influences his work.

"I prefer that edge, which reminds me of the dark music I listened to growing up," he admits. "Without putting the performers at a real risk for failure or making them look bad, I like to push performers to the edge with my own music. That’s why I still play drums - that edge appeals to me."

 

Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music presents the Amelia Piano Trio performing Beethoven, Brahms and Little at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, Lafayette Avenue at South Oxford Street in Fort Greene, at 3 pm, on March 28. The concert is free. Reception follows. For more information, visit www.brooklynfriendsofchambermusic.org or call (718) 855-3053.

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