In the fall of 2014, when Collin Kemeny was in his second year as a music major at Case Western Reserve, he approached his band director with a bold idea. Kemeny had been playing the saxophone in ensembles led by Associate Professor Gary Ciepluch ever since he enrolled at the university. But he had poured even more of his energy into composing. His works to date included a string quartet and a piece for chamber orchestra; most recently, he had been sketching the opening movements of a sonata for alto saxophone and piano. Now, he told Ciepluch, he wanted to shape this new material into something more ambitious—a concerto for alto sax and wind ensemble, with 37 instrumental parts rather than two.
“I told Collin, ‘Go for it,’” Ciepluch recalls. His enthusiasm sprang, in part, from his memories of another student composer with high aspirations. Hunter Ewen (CWR ‘07), a music and mechanical engineering major, had come to him in 2005 with plans to write a six-movement work for concert band, inspired by the story of the Pied Piper. Not only did Ciepluch conduct the first performance; he also helped Ewen obtain funding for his project from the university’s SOURCE office (Support of Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors). The moment he heard Kemeny’s proposal, Ciepluch offered to do the same for him.
They wouldn’t need to look for a soloist; Kemeny had already recruited one. Ryan Rose, a sophomore majoring in music and computer engineering, was a classical saxophonist with an affinity for jazz and a reputation as a skilled, versatile performer. The previous summer, Ciepluch had brought him onstage as a featured player with the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony during a tour of Germany and the Netherlands. In spring 2015, he would be named a co-recipient (with violinist Ruolin Yang) of the music department’s Leonard and Joan Ronis Annual Memorial Recital Prize.
With his collaborators on board, Kemeny successfully applied for a SOURCE grant, which enabled him to devote the summer of 2015 to completing his concerto. The following April, the CWRU Symphonic Winds gave the premiere at the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple–Tifereth Israel. The program featured works by seven contemporary composers whose careers had a common thread: Ciepluch had been a conductor, teacher or mentor to them all. But Kemeny was the only one still in college.
“It’s really rare for an undergraduate to have this experience, and it’s something that I am extremely grateful for,” he says. “Both Dr. Ciepluch and the university were so encouraging to Ryan and me throughout the whole process.”
A native of Lewiston, N.Y., Kemeny embarked on his musical education when he took up the saxophone in fourth grade. (Why that particular instrument? “I probably thought it was shiny and cool-looking,” he says.) By his early teens, he had become interested not only in performing music, but also in understanding how it was put together. He would find band concerts online and follow along with the scores while he listened. That experience provided him with his first lessons in orchestration.
He started composing in high school, with encouragement from his band director but without anyone to teach him. The summer before his senior year, however, he was accepted to the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, where he received his first formal training and got to hear some of his pieces performed. His search for similar opportunities led him to Case Western Reserve, where the Department of Music enhances its offerings through a joint program with the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM).
Once he arrived on campus, Kemeny quickly became active in its performing arts community; that was how he and Rose, who grew up in Medina, Ohio, got to know each other. They joined the Symphonic Winds and the University Circle Wind Ensemble, both of which Ciepluch directed. They took lessons and played in chamber groups in a saxophone studio led by CIM instructor Greg Banaszak. In 2015, they formed a quartet with two other studio members, Matthew Castner (CWR ’16) and Leah Feitl (CWR ’16), and last spring the group went on tour: first to Helsinki, Finland, where they gave recitals at the invitation of saxophonist Olli-Pekka Tuomisalo and the Juvenalia Music Institute, and then to Austin, Tex., where they were one of 10 college ensembles selected to take part in the Coltman Chamber Music Competition. On top of all this, both Kemeny and Rose belong to the music department’s Jazz Ensemble, led by Senior Instructor Paul Ferguson.
Yet Kemeny still regards himself primarily as a composer, and during three years of study with CIM instructor Jeremy Allen, he has produced a varied portfolio of works. In 2014, he was a finalist in a competition for new and emerging composers sponsored by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, which presented his piece Allegheny Rain at its annual festival of new music. His String Quartet #1 was performed the next year by Nathan Gilbert (CWR ’15), Alex Bechler, Shannon Smith (CWR ’16) and Spencer Blake (CWR ’15). And last spring, Allen, who serves as executive director of the FiveOne Experimental Orchestra, programmed Kemeny’s arrangement and mashup of pieces by the British rock band Coldplay and American composer Steve Reich for the final concert of the orchestra’s 2015–16 season.
The saxophone concerto was Kemeny’s largest undertaking so far, and he set about it with several goals in mind. He wanted to further his education as a composer by writing in a variety of styles—not only across the entire work, but even within individual movements. He wished to create a virtuosic part for the saxophone, but also to engage the instrument with every section of the ensemble: brass and woodwinds, piano, harp and percussion. He hoped that listeners—even those wary of new music—would find the concerto accessible and appealing, and that musicians, beginning with his fellow students at the premiere, would enjoy performing it.\
Kemeny always begins composing by “messing around” at the piano, which he learned to play for just this purpose. What he comes up with at first may be a melody, a rhythm or a harmonic structure; once he has finished a composition, he can’t always remember how it all started. At some point, he enters his ideas into a computer, returns to the piano to expand on them and then continues shuttling between the two.
To sustain his progress during the months he devoted to the concerto, Kemeny relied on a strategy Banaszak recommended. “He always said, ‘You never know when you’re going to get the inspiration, but always force yourself to write eight measures a day, or something small. And then, when you do get the inspiration, just go with it and don’t stop until you feel that you have to, because you don’t know when you’re going to get it again.’ That’s very true, I found.” By way of example, Kemeny cites the stages of his progress as he wrote the third of the concerto’s four movements: “As soon as I developed the melody and the chords, the structure of the movement just flowed so well to me.”
Kemeny brought sketches of the score to his weekly lessons with Jeremy Allen and showed them to Rose as well. “Collin is a saxophone player, too, and obviously knows how things on the saxophone work,” Rose says. “But he would take feedback from me. I would make suggestions, point things out here and there; he would toss out ideas and I would listen to them and say what I thought.”
They both remember discussing the second movement, which posed the greatest challenge to both the soloist and the ensemble. Wanting to make it exciting and fun, Kemeny filled the movement with long sequences of sixteenth notes and infused it with a powerful rhythmic drive. Once, he handed an especially daunting passage to Rose and said, “I’m not sure you’re going to be able to play this.” Rose recalls looking at the sketch and briefly sharing his friend’s doubts. But when Kemeny offered to take out the passage, Rose assured him there was no need. “I worked on it, and it wound up staying in the movement, and it’s really cool,” Rose says. “It was great for me to stretch my skills and to be able to play a tough piece.”
But learning the concerto required more than mastering the notes; Rose was also developing an interpretation. He sometimes wondered how Kemeny intended certain passages to sound, but Kemeny was careful not to say too much; he didn’t want to impinge on Rose’s creative freedom. Eventually, their teachers took part in molding the performance. Rose exchanged ideas with Banaszak during their lessons, and once rehearsals began, Ciepluch came in with his own thoughts about the piece. He conferred with Kemeny and Rose about the tempo and the balance among the ensemble’s sections. Even at the dress rehearsal, they were still making adjustments; in that second movement, Ciepluch recalls, “We had to knock down the metronome markings a few bits. And as we did, everything started to become clearer and more precise.”
That the concert took place at the Maltz Center, in the newly renovated Silver Hall, added to the excitement of the premiere. Acoustically, the hall is far superior to the music department’s rehearsal space, and Rose says that it enabled him to hear many of the “ensemble intricacies” for the first time. In addition, he felt that the performance brought out the interaction that Kemeny wanted to create among the instruments.
“There are a lot of moments when the soloist is doubled in the accompaniment,” Rose explains. “I’d be playing along with the flutes, or playing the same notes as the oboes. Or I’d do a little solo and then have some orchestral passage where we were playing together and speaking as one. In the fast movements, we were really almost chirping back and forth, like birds chatting.”
Kemeny and Rose will complete their bachelor’s degrees next spring, and both of them plan to go on to graduate school. Kemeny hopes to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in music composition and to build a career as a university teacher and composer. It is unlikely that many other applicants will have worked with a soloist and conductor to prepare a public performance of their first concerto.
Rose wasn’t sure until recently what direction he would take. He spent last summer as an intern at a software company in Pittsburgh, clearing the way for a job in computer engineering. But he also considered earning a master’s degree in performance and becoming a professional saxophonist. Ultimately, Rose decided to blend his two areas of interest by pursuing a graduate degree in music technology.
While he and Kemeny are preparing for a new stage in their lives, Ciepluch has already embarked on one; he retired this summer after 28 years on the faculty. The three of them look back on the April concert with a profound sense of accomplishment, and so do the ensemble members who accompanied Rose that evening, playing a concerto written by one of their peers.
“It isn’t the type of piece that you could look at once and have a good understanding of,” says flutist Brittany Rabb, who was a first-year student when she joined the ensemble last spring. “It is very technically difficult, and it took a lot of work in the practice room to even come close to mastering it. But honestly, it was amazing to see how one person could come up with such difficult parts that in the end fit perfectly together.”