MU graduate's music to be performed by St. Louis Symphony

Monday, April 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:07 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 29, 2013
Stephanie Berg, a recent MU School of Music graduate, composes music on her laptop in mid-April at Kaldi's Coffee House. One of Berg's compositions will have its premiere in a performance by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 10, 2014.

COLUMBIA — Stephanie Berg keeps her eyes on the laptop screen as her fingers move rapidly across the keyboard.

In front of her is a page of lines and bars where notes, clefs and key signatures will be added as she creates a piece of music.

Using software called "Finale," she types a shortcut command and places a series of notes on the page. Then she clicks on special icons to add notations for tempo, dynamics and expression.

Berg is working on her latest piano composition, a tribute to a friend's husband who recently died. She describes the piece as quiet and calming.

The 27-year-old MU music graduate has been composing professionally for the past four years. She recently learned that "Ravish and Mayhem," one of her compositions, will be performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra next season.

This is the first time that a composition will be played by a nationally known orchestra under the Mizzou New Music Initiative,  a program that promotes School of Music students and their work.

“I think her work has really imaginative and unique compositional voice, which is what the School of Music wants students to do,” said W. Thomas McKenney, MU professor of composition and theory.

Composition's theme popped into her head

"Ravish and Mayhem" is a 6 1/2-minute composition for a full ensemble — winds, brass, strings and percussion. Berg describes the general atmosphere of the piece as a Middle Eastern street festival, even though the music is not necessarily Middle Eastern in nature.

“I was driving down the road,” she said about her inspiration for the work. “All of a sudden, the main theme popped in my head with a flute part toward the beginning.

“I kept that image in my mind as I was writing it.”

For this particular work, Berg tried to emphasize the contrast between different instruments.

“At the beginning, it's a pizzicato strings with just the piccolo,” she said. “That is immediately followed by the low winds and brass and percussion. So there is high, twittery thing, contrasted with bombastic, heavy-hitting bass.”

Berg's chance to work with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra followed the Mizzou International Composers Festival in July. It's an annual event that premieres work by young composers from around the world.

As a resident composer for the festival, Berg wrote "Ravish and Mayhem" for Alarm Will Sound, a 20-member ensemble dedicated to performing innovative works.

“It's probably the best piece I've written so far," Berg said.

Waiting for a decision

The work was sent to David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, along with three other compositions selected by a panel at the festival.

Robertson selected two pieces for performance, but initially he didn't reveal which of the four he had chosen.

“Which drove me insane,” Berg said, rolling her eyes as she thought back about the nervous wait.

Two months later, she received confirmation that "Ravish and Mayhem" had been chosen for the orchestra's playlist to premiere Jan. 10, 2014.

The other work chosen is "Rapture" by Patrick Harlin. It will premiere later this year in a September performance by the orchestra.

“Actually, I was just excited that he chose any of them at all,” Berg said. “It's a huge deal.”

In a news release from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in February, Robertson said the “new season explores the amazing range of emotions and feelings that music evokes" with pieces by new composers such as Berg.

Starting with a woodwind

Although Berg is working toward becoming a professional composer, she entered music via piano and clarinet. Raised in a musical family, she began piano lessons when she was 6 years old.

“Both of my parents teach piano in our house, so I was always surrounded by music,” she said.

She picked up clarinet in a band at Park Hill South High School in Kansas City when she was 12.

“I decided to start the clarinet because my dad was a conductor at Parkville Community Band,” Berg said while smiling. "He said he could always use more clarinet for his band, so I was like, 'All right, I'll play that.'"

Clarinet became her passion. When she came to MU as an undergraduate, she majored in clarinet performance. During her undergraduate years, she took a few composition classes, where she met McKenney.

“She was in my class in her freshman year,” he said. “But I really got to know her since her junior year, when she studied composition with me.”

In 2009, she won the Sinquefield Prize, a competition for MU's music major students, for "A Piece With No Name." It is a composition in three movements for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, cello and percussion.

The prize turned her career ambitions around, and she began to think of herself as a composer. She decided to remain at MU for a master's degree in composition and clarinet performance.

During the master's program, she joined the Mizzou New Music Initiative for three years as a graduate assistant. Berg finished her studies in the past year. She still resides in Columbia, continuously working on new compositions in a variety of genres.

As a music student, she participated in several competitions, including the Music Teachers National Association competition. She also had premieres of her work at the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum.

“I'm hoping that I can have my work played by major ensembles or symphonies, like the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, regularly,” Berg said. “That will be really awesome.”

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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