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SPCO premieres ‘Now and Then,’ an act of musical layering by Viet Cuong

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will perform “Now and Then,” a piece the orchestra commissioned by composer Viet Cuong, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Composer Viet Cuong: “In the world of classical music, for whatever reason, you don’t see many Vietnamese Americans.”
Composer Viet Cuong: “In the world of classical music, for whatever reason, you don’t see many Vietnamese Americans.”
Photo by Aaron Jay Young

His name, of course, is one of the first things that strikes you about Viet Cuong.

His mother was a refugee, one of the “boat people” fleeing Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war in the 1970s. She eventually met Viet’s father, who had come on a student visa in the 1960s.

“Both of them were ‘Americans,’ especially my mom, who was very much into assimilating,” Viet said. “But when it came to picking names, they wanted to name me Viet and my brother Nam. My father said that if we ever became, like, notable people in any way, people would know our heritage.”

Mission accomplished. Cuong is now a talented composer. “In the world of classical music,” Viet continued, “for whatever reason, you don’t see many Vietnamese Americans.”

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Beyond heritage, Viet Cuong has become increasingly notable for his music and mien, both of which are playfully distinctive, collaborative, and ever open to new possibilities. At the tender age of 32, his calendar is crammed with commissioned works, including a percussion quartet concerto (performed last month at Carnegie Hall), a snare drum solo and a concerto for two oboes. He is finishing up his three-year tenure as the Young American Composer-in-Residence for the California Symphony and teaches at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Ensembles ranging from the New York Philharmonic to the intrepid new-classical group Eighth Blackbird have performed his music. But his relationship with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its third commission and the world premiere of Viet Cuong’s work this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, is becoming one of the most mutually fruitful associations in his still-burgeoning career.

Giving composers and leeway

The SPCO has long been one of the more innovative, musician-driven orchestras in the world. Nearly 20 years ago, they did away with the role of a single music director and instead embarked upon a model where the season program was curated by a half-dozen “artistic partners” of rotating tenures in conjunction with the orchestra musicians.

This season, they’ve added the Sandbox Composer Residency program, which enables heralded new composers extended time and leeway to collaborate with the SPCO musicians on new commissions or other material they would like to develop. And Viet Cuong was the composer chosen to pilot the launch of it.

The selection of Cuong felt like a natural fit. He is a prodigal talent with a piquant curiosity and an engaging manner. It doesn’t take long to discover his absence of pretentiousness or defensive behavior — the opposite of the mythically imperial, tempestuous composers of yore. There is gravitas to both his art and his craft, yet his approach is gilded with a free-wheeling sense of shared adventure.

“He’s very open-minded and genuinely excited to work in the collaborative way Sandbox is meant to create,” said Jonathan Posthuma, the SPCO’s artistic planning manager and a composer himself. “We had commissioned him during COVID for a solo piece for oboe and cello and really liked it. We wanted to play more of his music, maybe have him write a full orchestra piece.”

Blending baroque

Sandbox provides the luxury of time. Cuong’s residency began last December when he came out to visit and get to know the members of the orchestra. It was during the period when the SPCO was performing the ever-popular holiday staple, the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, widely regarded as the foremost composer of the baroque style of music.

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It so happens that Cuong is a huge fan of baroque. “I have a piece, like a double oboe concerto, that is part of my take on baroque music. This semester I am actually teaching a graduate seminar that is a survey of notable baroque composers,” he said by phone last week. “So hearing these great musicians play all these Brandenburg Concertos so beautifully, I found it very inspiring.”

That connection became the wellspring of the first commission from the Sandbox residency, Cuong’s “Now and Then,” premiering this weekend.

When Cuong returned to St. Paul in May, he had written five different sketches as the raw material for the collaborative process. But one sketch in particular gained favor and influence.

One of Cuong’s baroque sketches, anchored by the harpsichord, plays with modulation, or changes in tone, and creates a sort of auditory optical illusion.

When Cuong returned again in September, the work had taken a definite shape. The Bach-inspired chord progression was blended with a delay pedal, a device normally associated with electric guitars that essentially records and repeats back a sound, almost like an echo.

“It is another experiment, to try and recreate the sound of a delay pedal within the orchestra,” Cuong explained. “I don’t play electric guitar but I love the sound of a delay pedal when it is used. One of the sketches creates that delay-pedal sound, and it worked well with the orchestra. So ‘Now and Then’ became a hybrid of the two sketches.” The Bach-inspired chord progressions came from “then,” in the 18th Century. The modern pedal-delay effect is “now.”

Layering up

The transparency of the Sandbox residency process not only benefits the composer and the orchestra, but SPCO patrons who want to see the collaborative process unfold in real time.

On a Thursday morning in late September in the Ordway Concert Hall, Cuong and a full complement of musicians were engaged in an open rehearsal for “Now and Then.” The conversation was relaxed but probing, and Cuong sought helpful tips from the experts on how best to achieve his baroque hybrid, the reassuring harpsichord through-line back to Bach, mixed with some “sonic optical illusions” and pedal-delay effects.

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“Viet’s particular style often comes in layers, and so he wanted to hear how many layers he could put on at once,” Posthuma explained. So in the rehearsal, “he would turn a section of the orchestra on or off as you might in a digital or audio work station and just sample something or loop it and hear this loop on top of that loop.”

But the finished product of this daunting, delicate task will occur live with the orchestra.

“Each player in part of a delay chain, like echoes. The (orchestra members) have to get used to that tiny wait, like pieces in a (sonic) puzzle. As they are fading out they have to repeat the note exactly in time. The counterpoint of the music is created by the echoes themselves, in addition to the main notes, which is kind of cool,” said Cuong enthusiastically. “It requires an extremely high level of musicianship, but this is the SPCO, so it worked.”

Throughout the rehearsal, Cuong isolated different sections of the orchestra and sought the counsel of musicians on ways to achieve the subtle timbre and textures he was after. And for their part, the SPCO musicians weren’t shy about unilaterally offering their opinions.

At one point, Cuong was searching for ways to improve the dynamics of the flute in the piece. A member of the flute section suggested he play piccolo — a smaller, higher-range woodwind — instead. “It was so great because piccolo sounds an octave higher than flute, and has weight up in that register, it can penetrate through an orchestra much more successfully,” Cuong said. With a typical lack of defensiveness, he added, “It was something that maybe should have been obvious to me but it wasn’t in that moment.”

Cuong recorded the entire rehearsal, including the isolated sections and then the entire orchestra coming together to see how it sounded. Then he engaged in a 40-minute question-and-answer period with those who had watched the rehearsal, describing how his early love of marching band as a high school student in Marietta, Georgia, had given him a sense of purpose and community.

Finishing touches

This week, the composer has returned for the finishing touches on what audiences will hear this weekend. The proof is in the performance, of course, but everyone associated with this Sandbox residency has been enthusiastic over the way it came together.

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“This is what we wanted to change about the commissioning process, working in a fresh, more iterative, back-and-forth manner,” Posthuma said. “We don’t want the composer to work in isolation and then deliver something nobody is happy with. We want them to use the orchestra as a sounding board, workshop ideas and arrive at something both the orchestra and composer are proud to feel ownership of.”

“It really is a dream come true to be able to collaborate this way,” Cuong said. “All these visits, where at first I got to hear the orchestra play, get to know them. They were very outspoken, there was a lot of mutual trust. I could experiment, and tailor things to what that person or section was really good at. I’m just grateful that they took the plunge with me.”

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to correct Jonathan Posthuma’s job title.