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Commissioned Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra piece evokes balance of ‘tradition and modernity’

Rebecca Barnabi
The Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Peter Wilson and Composer Catherine Fields receive a standing ovation in Waynesboro on Feb. 25, 2024. Photo by Rebecca J. Barnabi.

The United States is caught in a paradox of the past, or traditions, and modern life. Some Americans wish to retain parts of the past that resonant with them, yet others wish to resonate into the future.

Some parts of American society have become artifacts, while others live on from the past.

Catherine Fields, 23, was thinking on such ideas when she composed “Resonances” for the Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra‘s (WSO) “Made in America” program, which was performed this weekend.

Fields said that music is full of resonances also, such as with instruments like the bells. She worked to find notes which had vibrations that complimented each other for the piece what would become the first commissioned by WSO.

This weekend’s performances on Saturday and Sunday were the world premiere performances of “Resonances.”

“What are my own attitudes and feelings about where we are as a country?” Fields said she asked herself before beginning to compose the piece in September 2023. She finished by mid-December 2023.

She said the piece is musical, not political. She did not realize until later that perhaps subconsciously her thoughts about the ideas of where the U.S. is now “grappling between tradition and modernity” were informing the piece as she composed.

As she began to compose the piece, Fields said she was thinking about WSO’s all-American program, the first performed in 2024 with music from George Gershwin, Charles Ives and Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps she would create her piece around an American theme or the landscapes of the Shenandoah Valley. But graduate school in Cincinnati made traveling to Waynesboro a challenge.

“With any piece, I appreciate when a commission gives me the freedom to do whatever I want,” she said.

Fields needed the process to be organic. She had ideas, but she was unsure of them. Perhaps she would include a quotation like Ives did in his work. Quotations are often of hymns and folk songs. However, following that path felt forced, and she was unsure she could compose a piece with a quotation that was as good as Ives’.

The situation presented a challenge for her, and she was more than up to that challenge. She began to think about writing a piece with relationships to America and aesthetics. So came the idea of tradition v. modernity. “Resonances” is her response, based on Bach’s chorale “Herzlich lieb hab’ich dich, O’Herr.”

She also took inspiration from the end of Bach’s “St. John’s Passion,” a quotation from the hymn “Lord, I Love Thee with All My Heart,” a song Fields grew up singing in her Lutheran church. The hymn’s tune came from Bach, he set it as a chorale and later the song became a hymn. For Fields, she said the hymn is about having love for Christ.

“That’s kind of what the chorale evokes in me is love,” Fields said. Although America is polarized in 2024, the answer is love. Americans should embrace the past and treat it with love while also incorporating the past into modern life.

Incorporating the past into modern life is what composers and musicians do with when playing music: they breathe life into the past by playing music written by dead composers, Fields said.

A preservation of the past is created and modernity is embraced.

Fields, who considers her piece neo-romantic, was also inspired by “Violin Concerto” by Alban Berg, considered radical in 1935 and based on yet another chorale by Bach. Fields said that Berg’s piece “transported back to Bach.”

“It’s always so thrilling,” she said of hearing WSO perform “Resonances” this weekend.

She said the vibe in Waynesboro on Sunday was even more enjoyable for her because more musicians were smiling while performing.

“It’s very rewarding to see people enjoying the fruits of my labor,” she said. “It’s very magical to hear what’s been in your head all these months.”

Fields composed a commissioned piece for the MIT concert band in 2023, and also plays piano and sings.

Her goal is to become a full-time composer and she sees herself someday settling in northern Virginia again.

“I have wanted to have the Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra commission a piece for probably 10 years,” said WSO Music Director Peter Wilson. After becoming director in the fall of 2007, Wilson was asked by WSO’s board his wants and visions for the orchestra. The orchestra worked on a standard repertoire and Wilson knew support from the board existed so that he could ask last year for commission of a piece.

Typically, orchestras will open a call for scores from local and/or non-local composers, including already composed scores. Wilson said he remained undecided about how to find a piece for WSO to commission.

“I’m going to let the universe come to me with this,” he decided. With a wide network of resources, eventually the right piece would find its way to WSO. “And that’s exactly what ended up happening.”

Wilson had taken over directing the American Festival Pops Orchestra in 2022. Founder and conductor emeritus Anthony Maiello approached Wilson about a piece by Fields.

“And I just thought that it was a beautiful piece,” Wilson said. That’s when he had a light-bulb moment. Fields could compose a piece that WSO would commission. Fields’ composition professor told Wilson he has never seen a student like Fields.

The added bonus was that Fields is from Burke, Virginia, and Wilson wanted to commission a piece by a composer from Virginia.

Fields, who earned her bachelor’s in music composition from George Mason University in 2023, is now in her first year of graduate school at Cincinnati Conservatory, from which she plans to graduate with a master’s in music composition in 2025, and then pursue a doctoral degree.

Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra receives a standing ovation at First Presbyterian Church in Waynesboro on Feb. 25, 2024. Photo by Rebecca J. Barnabi.

Within two days of notifying the WSO Board of Directors and Board President Charles Salembier reaching out to donors, the funds to pay Fields’ commission fee were raised.

According to Wilson, he set no parameters for Fields except that the piece fit the instrumentation of WSO, and that it would be great if the symphony could repeatedly perform the pieces without adding extra instruments and musicians.

However, Fields’ creative process led her to include antique cymbals played with cello bows.

“It just is a gorgeous setting she puts it in,” Wilson said.

He said he is glad he did not place restrictions on Fields’ creative process.

“I really wanted to let [her] speak in her voice,” he said.

WSO has performed work by other contemporary American composers, such as James Stephenson and Jennifer Higdon.

“I want to champion the work of living composers,” Wilson said.

Commissioning a piece for the WSO was an opportunity to give recognition to a living composer.

Fields attended both Saturday’s performance in Staunton at First Presbyterian Church and Sunday’s performance at First Presbyterian Church in Waynesboro. Wilson said he hopes her visit this weekend to the Valley inspires another piece of music.

“I’m really excited about her journey and where that will take her. I just think she’s a rare talent,” Wilson said.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.