Fall, winter and spring, Benjamin Broening drops his children off at school and drives across the Huguenot Bridge to work.
“I see the same scene every day,” he says. “But every day it’s different.”
When the composer and University of Richmond music professor received a commission from the Richmond Symphony last year, he knew he wanted to write a piece about this experience.
The poem “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens served as further inspiration and the work’s title. Each of the poem’s five stanzas describes the same morning scene using similar sentence patterns but evoking strikingly different moods. Likewise, each movement of Broening’s 20-minute work uses similar musical building blocks but with textural and instrumental variations.
Many of Broening’s compositions are inspired by light. While on a Fulbright fellowship in Estonia about 10 years ago, the composer was captivated by the nature of its daylight. For the previous seven or eight years, he’d focused on electronic music. But Estonia “was a big turning point,” he says. “It opened up a body of work for me.”
Acoustic music, particularly for large ensembles, allows Broening to use more musical color. For instance, although the substructure of “Sea Surface” is based on a simple half-step and minor third, he layers and diffuses these elements, refracts them through different instrument groups, and bends them into swelling gestures reminiscent of ocean waves.
“Each movement undergoes a transformation,” he says.
“Ben has a wonderful sense of instrumental color,” says Steven Smith, music director of the Richmond Symphony. “And he has a great sense of flow.” While Broening doesn’t necessarily use traditional phrase structures, Smith says, his music has a breathing, singing quality.
Late last year, the symphony introduced Musical Shares, a program that “gives anyone the chance to take part in the creation of new and exciting orchestral works,” such as Broening’s, by donating $24 to $480 over a period of six months, according to symphony materials.
If you’d become a shareholder for $10 a month, one of your perks was a copy of a page from the score, signed by Broening and Smith. Major investors, at $80 a month, were invited to lunch with Broening, among other benefits. The symphony declines to comment on how many people participated. But unlike a Kickstarter campaign, the program isn’t project-specific. It’s meant to be an ongoing source of funding for new works. Also, Musical Shares isn’t the only means of support for Richmond Symphony commissions.
Every morning on his way to work, Broening says, he looks forward to seeing what the James looks like that day. But it might not be that the scene itself has changed. The viewer, the reader, the listener — “the changes are in us,” he says. “We’re sort of a different person every day.” S
The Richmond Symphony will perform Broening’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” on April 18 at 8 p.m. and April 19 at 3 p.m. at the Carpenter Theatre, 600 E. Grace St. Tickets are $9-$78. richmondsymphony.org.