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Starling Variations

The key image for Ogonek’s BSO co-commissioned Starling Variations is the group flight of starlings, known as murmuration, in which hundreds of the birds swoop and dive, separate and recombine. The analogy is apt for Ogonek's dynamic treatment of the orchestra's groups.

Elizabeth Ogonek was born May 26, 1989, in Anoka, Minnesota, and grew up in New York City. She lives in Ithaca, New York. She wrote Starling Variations on a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, supported in part by the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency; and the Lakes Area Music Festival in Minnesota. She completed the piece in late spring 2022; the BSO and Andris Nelsons gave the world premiere on July 31, 2022, in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, Lenox, MA.

The score of Starling Variations calls for 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 percussion (I. vibraphone, marimba, high suspended cymbal, crotales, wood blocks, snare drum, timpano; II. vibraphone, xylophone, sizzle cymbal, flexatone, timpano), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 11 minutes.

Ogonek was born in Minnesota, where her mother was a church organist. They moved to New York City when Elizabeth was 4 so her mother could pursue a graduate degree at Columbia University. Ogonek began piano lessons at 5, and though she says she was unenthusiastic about performance as an end in itself, she often improvised at the piano. She also sang in choirs. Because her experience with music was largely confined to long-dead composers, it didn’t really occur to her that one could compose music until she attended the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. She concentrated on piano but was fascinated by music theory and analysis and by the puzzle of realizing the Baroque shorthand notation of figured bass. When her theory teacher suggested she compose, she “scoffed” for two full years until sitting down to attempt something.

Ogonek’s first formal composition lessons were back in New York City with Matt Van Brink, who quickly opened her ears and awareness to the enormous plurality of contemporary classical music. It was at his suggestion that she applied to Indiana University, where, she says, the collegial and cooperative atmosphere in the composition department was ideal for her growth. She was inspired to learn while at Indiana, where the composer Augusta Read Thomas gave guest lectures, that there were American women composers both making a living as composers and teaching, having discovered very few women on the faculties of major music programs. (This situation has continued to improve even in the short time since Ogonek’s college years.)

Ogonek attended Indiana University for her undergraduate degree, where she studied with Don Freund and Claude Baker. She worked with Donald Crockett and Stephen Hartke in earning her master’s degree at the University of Southern California, and with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London for her doctoral degree. In 2012 she was selected as a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow at an unusually young age for a composer; in 2016 her Falling Up for mixed ensemble was performed as part of Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. Ogonek joined the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory at age 26 (remaining until 2021), and this fall she returned for her second year as an assistant professor of composition at Cornell University.

At age 27, Ogonek began (with Samuel Adams) a three-year position as Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which entailed not only composing for the CSO but also programming and advocating for other composers. The CSO commissioned two large-ensemble works and an orchestral piece, All These Lighted Things, that Riccardo Muti premiered and took on tour with the orchestra. The London Symphony Orchestra commissioned her as though birds and Sleep & Unremembrance as well as giving the European premiere of All These Lighted Things. She has worked with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Music Academy of the West, the FLUX Quartet, pianist Xak Bjerken, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which premiered her Cloudline in August 2021 at the BBC Proms in London. That work was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She is currently at work on a new orchestra piece commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and scheduled for premiere in January 2023.

Because of its virtually unlimited resources, the orchestra is for Ogonek the most interesting (as well as the most difficult) of musical media, and as part of her experience she has become attuned to the differences among the ensembles she has worked with. Although Starling Variations marks her first time working directly with the BSO, during her time at Walnut Hill she attended concerts at Symphony Hall as often as she could, experiencing her first Brahms symphony cycle, big works by Mahler, and other orchestral staples, and as a Tanglewood Fellow she heard the BSO perform on a weekly basis. The prospect of hearing the BSO play her new commission last summer was an energizing factor in composing the piece.

Ogonek considers her Proms piece, Cloudline, the first part of an orchestral triptych on the broad theme of “looking up.” Starling Variations is the second; the San Francisco Symphony piece next year will be the third. Whereas Cloudline “had some weird things” in it, including unusual techniques and explicit microtones, in Starling Variations she arrived at simpler, more economical ways of creating novel sounds, mostly through imaginative and non-traditional ways of combining instruments. An example might be reversing the expected positions of high and low instruments—putting, say, bass clarinet and piccolo in the same range in upper treble clef, or placing the trombones higher than the oboes. The sound from each instrument is outside its typical timbre and, in combination, might be quite striking. The idea of recasting the expected also extends to other aspects of the process such as harmony and rhythm or the shape of gesture and phrase.

The key image for Starling Variations is the dynamic group flight known as murmuration, in which hundreds of the birds swoop and dive, separate and recombine in ways that resemble the flow of fluids, like an ornithological lava lamp. Without attempting purely to illustrate that phenomenon, Ogonek created five episodes or “variations,” each of which represents a new murmuration in the orchestra and a new musical mood. Indications in the score call for “trippy, psychedelic,” “like scurrying chipmunks,” and “eerie, still,” among others. The murmuration analogy lends itself to different orchestral sections moving at different speeds and in different directions, the opposition or combination of high versus low, and the melding or breaking apart of distinct timbral groups (winds, strings, brass, percussion, and subsets of each). The resulting piece is a sonically brilliant ensemble essay that encapsulates the particle-to-wave magic found in so many great works for orchestra.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony’s Director of Program Publications.