"When the Houston Symphony asked Pierre Jalbert for a piece to take to Carnegie Hall, the Vermont-born composer thought about a trip to the Big Bend. ‘What is it about the southwest that the Houston Symphony could take to New York with them?' the Rice University professor asked himself.
"Memories of his visit to the national park last year provided Jalbert (pronounced with a hard t) the inspiration for big sky, which music director Hans Graf and the orchestra will premiere in Houston next weekend…. The symphony will then take the piece to Carnegie Hall on Jan. 24, where it will open their first New York concert in eight years.
"Commissions are the lifeblood of composers; they almost guarantee live performances. And this commission was especially juicy. Houston Symphony artistic administrator Aurelie Desmarais had heard Jalbert's name in keeping up with trends in the orchestra world, and conductor/pianist Jeffrey Kahane prompted her to take a serious look at the composer's music…
Desmarais asked for scores. She and music director Hans Graf settled on Les espaces infinis (The Infinite Spaces), written for the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which champions new American music. The Houston Symphony played it in February 2004.
Les espaces infinis "really clicked" with Graf, Desmarais says. So when they started thinking about a commission for Carnegie Hall, they approached Jalbert. Graf and Desmarais wanted something "celebratory" that would also show off the orchestra. "Pierre thought he could do it," she says. He began active work on the commission in June 2005, and completed it in November.
"Recalling his experiences with Big Bend, Jalbert remembered a sky that ‘seemed to go on forever." He didn't want to just paint a sonic picture. So mused, ‘How does the environment seem when you're standing in an area like that? The infiniteness of it?'"
The huge physical expanse dovetailed with the large orchestra he could use in the new work. For Les espaces infinis, the Albany Symphony had given him a chamber orchestra with only one trumpet. The Houston Symphony offered full brass — three trumpets and trombones plus tuba — and three percussionists. With a sound that big, he really could suggest "the largeness of space."
But at the same time, Jalbert notes, when you're standing in a wide-open place like Big Bend, "you feel very small, almost alone." That feeling suggested slow music, almost frozen in time. There he could also write solos for principal players.
In big sky, Jalbert honored in spirit Graf's suggestion that he include a quotation from a work by Mozart, whose 250th birthday will fall this year. Snuck into the violas' music in measures 156-157 — there are 247 — is a quote from the Mozart concert aria Bella mia fiamma, addio! At Carnegie Hall, soprano Barbara Bonney will sing that piece immediately after big sky.