Lowell Chamber Orchestra elevates various composers with new symphonic album

LOWELL — When Orlando Cela founded the Lowell Chamber Orchestra in September 2019, he experienced the same heartbreak and disappointment as others in the music industry. He had to cancel the group’s fourth concert, switch to video performances, and remain in a state of stasis for two years.

But It found a way to make good out of bad.

COVID restrictions forced the 20-plus-person orchestra to social distance, rehearse and perform between sheets of plexiglass and only perform in groups of 10 or fewer. However, it was these small orchestras that inspired Cela to create “Miniature Symphonies”, a CD arrangement containing the works of 20th-century French composer Darius Milhaud, as well as several new pieces by modern composers Cela commissioned for the project.

The album is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and elsewhere.

Released Aug. 26, the 25-track album features Milhaud’s five “light” and “quirky” short symphonies alongside five different composers’ “response pieces” to his work, Cela said. In this way, Cela said, the album pays homage to an “experimental” artist while creating new symphonies influenced by his music.

Cela, a professor of music at Middlesex Community College, said he intended not only to continue creating music with his orchestra, but also to commission works for composers who were also struggling during the pandemic, as there were no live shows.

The project also focused on increasing the diversity of classical music, Cela said, as the genre has traditionally centered on white males. This stated that he not only sought to choose talented composers, but also those who represented different minority groups, ultimately choosing four.

“The idea was to show a little bit of the artistry of the people of BIPOC who have not been heard for many, many years and deserve to be heard,” said Cela. “These are all amazing composers who weren’t white. So it’s about making sure we understand that great composers come in all sorts of shapes, colors and genres.

Yoko Nakatani, a composer who lives in Jamaica Plain, spent about a year organizing, brainstorming and writing her contribution, titled “La Giclée,” which means “water splashes” in French.

Nakatani said she was inspired by children running through sprinklers in a park near her home last summer. It was this observation of joy and movement that prompted Nakatani to write “three-dimensional music” that could almost replicate the random direction of these sprinklers. During the performance, the musicians almost play in a call and response, as if bouncing off each other, Nakatani said.

“It’s kind of a visual or imaginary world,” Nakatani said. “Water comes and goes, crosses space.”

“La Giclée” precedes Milhaud’s “Sérénade”.

Brittney Benton, a Las Vegas-based composer, was tasked with responding to Milhaud’s “Le Printemps” — meaning “springtime” — on the album, and she approached the task from an interesting angle: video games.

Having worked on musical composition for games and movies, Benton said she wanted her piece to be “programmatic” and tell a story. His three-part symphony, “The Sentinel”, follows a watch guard who is suddenly awakened by an eerie danger. In the second piece, the music picks up speed as the Sentinel fights off the threat, and after the battle, in the third act, the Sentinel resumes his post and falls asleep in a slower, more “lullaby” arrangement.

Keeping her command to just about five minutes posed a slight challenge, Benton said, but developing a story helped the music flow.

“When trying to compose my own piece, I was looking at the length that (Milhaud) used for his movements, because a lot of his miniature symphonies aren’t that long either,” she said. “I love video games, so I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this big fantasy sentry thing guarding someone or something.’

Benton said it was important to encourage non-white, non-male people to write classical music and “not be afraid” to do so.

“It can be very overwhelming when you look at famous composers or popular composers of today and you don’t see anyone who looks like you,” Benton said. “People of color, people who aren’t male, (it’s) putting them in the spotlight more so that other people, potential songwriters or potential musicians who want to do this seriously don’t have the feel like they can’t.”

As the orchestra enters its fourth season, Cela said he looks forward to embarking on more dynamic and “unusual” musical compositions and possibly presenting “Miniature Symphonies” to audiences in Lowell and beyond.

“I hope to organize a concert in which we can play some of the main composers, these miniatures, alongside another concert,” he said. “The orchestra, because it is free, depends on donations… People need to see that we exist.

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