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Composer’s music strikes unique chord

Thursday, August 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:22 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

The story of David MacDonald’s contemporary chamber work “Elegy” starts a couple of years ago when he began taking private composition lessons with MU music professor Thomas McKenney.

“He asked me what I wanted to write,” MacDonald said, “and I decided to write songs because I’d never done that before.”

The 20-minute piece — for soprano, baritone, string quartet and horn — has won MacDonald the prestigious 2006 BMI Student Composer Award.

“This means that composition students here can keep company with those from bigger institutions,” McKenney said. “It enhances the reputation of the school.”

MacDonald, who graduated from MU in May and now studies composition at Michigan State University, said McKenney advised him to choose text for his song that could be enhanced through music. MacDonald landed on “The Pilot Star Elegies,” a 1999 compilation by MU English professor Sherod Santos, and drew from the poem, “Elegy for My Sister,” which reminisces about a sister lost to suicide.

“I was very moved by David’s setting of the elegy I wrote,” Santos said. “How could someone so young know so much about the work of mourning, as Freud called it? How could he have struck the chord of that unfathomable experience?”

MacDonald came to MU from St. Louis to study trumpet performance. But composition class with Stefan Freund, an MU assistant professor of music theory, broadened his plans. In addition to “Elegy,” MacDonald has written 10 works for groups including wind ensemble, choir and saxophone quartet.

He’s about to start work on a chamber piece for piano, cello and at least one other instrument, perhaps saxophone. Its premiere will be in March at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall as part of the Mizzou On Tour recital. MacDonald will likely share billing with works by MU graduate John Ernst and senior Patrick Dell.

In a first for MacDonald, the atonal piece "Elegy" uses stage directions — for example, the soprano sings from off-stage — and aleatorics, also known as chance music. The latter is a compositional technique in which a composer leaves some elements in the work up to the performer.

The BMI Foundation, which honored MacDonald for “Elegy,” encourages the creation, performance and study of music; its awards, commissions and other monetary incentives come mainly from songwriters, composers and publishers.

In addition to MacDonald, recipients of the 54th annual BMI award hailed from Eastman School of Music, the Royal Academy of Music in London, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and other music powerhouses.

“It was really satisfying to be considered in a group with these guys,” MacDonald said. “I can’t say I ever imagined myself actually winning the competition.”


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