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New Albany Symphony And Cameron Leach Premiere Adam Roberts' Percussion Concerto

color photo of Luis Biava conducting Cameron Leach and New Albany Symphony in rehearsal
Jennifer Hambrick/WOSU Public Media
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Conductor Luis Biava and percussion soloist Cameron Leach rehearse with the New Albany Symphony Orchestra

It was a big idea – to commission an award-winning composer to write a splashy new percussion concerto that would be premiered right here in central Ohio.

The plans came together so easily – maybe too easily – in just a few brief, high-energy conversations a few years ago. At the time, no one had any reason to think a pandemic would derail those plans.

And it didn’t.

Last weekend, the New Albany Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Luis Biava and percussion soloist Cameron Leach gave the world premiere of the Concerto for Percussion by Ohio composer and Guggenheim Fellow Adam Roberts. The program also featured Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”

The performance was livestreamed to remote audiences and allowed for a limited in-person audience at New Albany’s McCoy Center for the Arts.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhANwjRSsDk

In 2018, Roberts, Leach, Biava and Heather Garner, executive director of the New Albany Symphony Orchestra, had their first conversations about commissioning and premiering a new percussion concerto. The Johnstone Fund for New Music funded the commission, the soloist’s fee and other expenses associated with the project, and Roberts got the green light to start composing.

But when the pandemic forced the U.S. into lockdown in March 2020 – one year in advance of the dates scheduled for the concerto’s premiere – all plans were thrown in doubt.

“As we started learning more in March of 2020, I had several calls with Adam, saying we may still be in a position where we’re at a small orchestra or maybe not even a live concert at all,” Garner said.

Roberts, who serves on the faculty at Kent State University, held off starting work on the concerto.

“I was waiting for word that maybe the (concert) season was going to be cancelled, but I didn’t hear anything,” Roberts said. “And I checked in, and everybody was still wanting to move forward.”

With that assurance, Roberts got to work. He spent summer 2020 writing a percussion concerto rich in virtuosic flights of fancy for the soloist, who must play more than a dozen different instruments with equal aplomb over the course of the piece.

“One minute you might be playing drums, the next minute you have to run over and play crazy-fast marimba licks,” Leach said. “So it’s demanding in a sort of general sense from the performer, in that you have to really be ready for anything at any moment.”

Roberts also had to write for a much smaller orchestra than he normally would, in order to accommodate fewer musicians who would be socially distanced onstage.

“Ideally we’d have more players in the string section,” Roberts said. “There can only be 42 people onstage, and so that’s exactly what we have to do to be safe.”

The musicians also followed a slew of other safety protocols in order to rehearse the concerto –completing temperature checks before rehearsals, wearing masks during rehearsals and other protocols you can see firmly in place in this video from a recent rehearsal of the concerto. The rehearsals themselves were also shortened to limit the musicians’ exposure to each other.

But following safety protocols while playing is a small price to pay when the alternative is not playing at all.

“Some orchestras are furloughed and not doing anything. But I’m just grateful that we are doing something,” Biava said. “It’s been difficult, but not as hard as for the people that have suffered so much.”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.