We are excited to bring you another installment of ROCOInsider, as part of this weekend’s events focusing on women in the arts: Friday’s Concert & Conversation and Saturday’s ROCO In Concert: Queen of Hearts! We had a chance to sit down with composer Heather Schmidt, ahead of the premiere of Solitaire for violin and orchestra – written for a close friend and someone very special to ROCO, our concertmaster Scott St. John.
Heather is truly a Renaissance woman, with a broad variety of artistic pursuits – in addition to being a composer and virtuoso pianist, she is also an artist, screenwriter, director, and former dancer, plus has a passion for animal rescue, founding husky rescue organizations in both America and her native Canada.
Discover how we came to work with her, how she balances all of her interests – and, how they inform each other to keep her writing fresh and creative!
Hi Heather! Can’t wait to hear your piece! This is the first time you’ve worked with ROCO – how did the connection happen, to lead to the commission?
Thanks – excited to be here! It all came about through my friend Scott St. John. Both of us being Canadian, we have known each other for a long time, and had first worked on a piece together way back in 1996 – I wrote for him a piece for violin and piano that we premiered together in Prague, which he actually performed at ROCO’s recent New York chamber debut at The Crypt Sessions. He approached me a little over a year ago about the commission of Solitaire, as ROCO had interest in a piece for violin and orchestra. Scott and I had collaborated as performers over the years, yet I hadn’t written anything for him since 1996, so after twenty years it was the perfect chance to work together again. I really love writing for orchestra, and especially strings, even though my instrument is piano – and it’s so much fun when it’s for a musician I know well.
Tell us about your musical background – you began playing piano at a very young age, and also composing too – how did you get started?
I had quite an interesting, unusual background – I don’t come from a musical family at all, in fact, I come from a long line of optometrists! I grew up in a very rural part of Canada, and my dad was also a farmer – he had a wheat and barley farm in my teens (optometrist during the week and farmer on the weekend!) There were few activities for young children in our neighborhood, but there were group piano lessons which my mother enrolled me in at age 4, and I knew right then, this was what I wanted to do.
As soon as I started playing piano, I began to also naturally hear melodies in my head, and was lucky to have an amazing piano teacher who encouraged all of her students at every age, to compose. I was extremely active as a pianist as a child, giving my first public performance at 6, performing on television at age 8, then my first piano piece was published when I was 9.
Wow – at age 9! When did you begin writing for other instruments, and orchestra?
I wrote for solo piano for the first few years as a kid, then when I was 14 I started studying composition privately with Allan Gordon Bell, who is a Professor of Composition at the University of Calgary. With him I started learning all the instruments – going through strings, winds, percussion, writing chamber music for all these combinations, then at age 16 I wrote my first full orchestra piece, called Apparition.
I remember I was so excited when I finally got to write for orchestra, I love the colors of the orchestra – I had been asking my composition teacher when I would get to as we went through writing chamber music, and it was a huge deal when he finally allowed me. My first orchestral work had a reading with a student orchestra but was not performed publicly, then in school at Indiana University and Juilliard I wrote further orchestral pieces played by those orchestras.
Ironically, the first real public orchestral performance I had was in Los Angeles (where I now live), which came through winning the BMI Student Composer Award three times (1993-1995) – and it was in 1994 for my piece Efflorescence, performed by the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. From there, this piece was picked up and performed by several Canadian orchestras, leading to further commissions.
You have several concertos in your list of works, but this is your first violin concerto, right? What other instruments feature in your concertos?
Yes, I’ve written quite a bit of chamber music for violin, but never a concerto. My first concertos were for piano – I have six piano concertos, which I have performed myself as soloist with various orchestras. I then branched out into other instruments – during a three-year residency with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra I actually wrote a double concerto for viola and horn, and I’ve also done concertos for flute, cello – and saxophone quartet!
What was it like working with your friend Scott St. John on the commission of Solitaire?
It’s so great to write for a musician you already know, as I already know his playing, his personality and character, which really helped in writing for him. We worked closely more toward the end of the piece – I consulted with him on his preference in bowings and slurs for certain passages, and then we had a chance to get together recently in Los Angeles (as he is now teaching at the Colburn School) to play through it together and go over interpretation, tempos, etc.
Tell us more about Solitaire, and the themes that inspire the work.
Considering the theme of ROCO’s season “Games People Play”, I started to think about what were my own favorite games. Funny enough, the first piano piece I ever wrote was about playing dominoes with my grandfather! Because it was a piece for solo violin and orchestra, the card game Solitaire immediately came to mind. Which I find fascinating as it’s not a traditional game, in the sense that you play games with other people, but something you play by yourself – and why does that interest us? As well when you’re by yourself, even when you’re playing a game, different kinds of thoughts are always running through your head.
So this was a basic starting point and concept, then the piece just became what it was. I did tie in a well-known motif – F-A-E, in a nod to the collaborative F-A-E Sonata by Schumann/Brahms/Dietrich, written in tribute to violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim’s personal motto was the German phrase “Frei aber einsam” (“free but lonely”), an idea communicated in this work. The motif features in the opening melody, and subtly reappears, and again at the climactic moment of the piece.
What I intend for the piece is for each audience member to go on their own individual journey – it’s really not about playing cards at all, but about your inner personal journey, and the journey of the mind when you’re engaging in a solo activity, like the game Solitaire.
Who are some of your favorite composers? And do you have any favorite violin concertos?
Definitely Schumann and Bartok were huge favorites of mine growing up, though at this point I don’t have any specific favorite composers as much, more favorite pieces I’m drawn to. For violin concertos, I absolutely love the Tchaikovsky, and many of the Mozart violin concertos (and as a pianist I often enjoyed accompanying violinists in these through college!) And also, I really love the Berg concerto – the opening is just fantastic.
As far as female composers, I have a big favorite there – Fanny Mendelssohn. It’s fascinating, because she was probably as talented as her brother Felix, but her family didn’t allow her to perform in public. I actually did a whole recording of her solo piano music on Naxos, and some of the music on that CD had never been recorded before, and wasn’t even published until the 1990s – even though she died in 1847. I truly love her music, it is so well-written and has this unleashed passion, it doesn’t have the restraint of her brother Felix.
Ten years ago, you moved to Los Angeles, and are now active as well as a composer in the world of film, television, and video games. Have you faced challenges being a female composer in Hollywood? How does it compare to the classical world?
Moving to Los Angeles has been an incredible opportunity creatively – not just for composition, but in being able to pursue other areas of art I’m interested in. But working in Hollywood has definitely been a challenge as a woman. In the classical world, I have been fortunate to not face significant discrimination in receiving commissions – but being a female composer in Hollywood, it is much, much harder to get work. It’s very difficult to break through the “boys’ club” cronyism, which includes male directors, cinematographers, composers – it’s absolutely a disadvantage to be a woman.
In the larger classical world, the big challenge is female representation in programming, and in artistic leadership – in terms of performers and orchestral musicians it’s evenly split, but the conductors leading orchestras, and the composers orchestras are playing, are still overwhelmingly male.
You have a wide variety of artistic interests and pursuits – tell us more about these and how they have blossomed since moving to L.A?
Through composing for film and television, I realized I wanted to not just score the stories, but write them – so I have recently branched out into screenwriting, and directing short films. I really love to tell stories. As well, I used to be a dancer for much of my life, in fact I grew up doing competitive Scottish Highland dancing (to bagpipes and everything!!) But since I quit dancing, I have enjoyed the extra time to expand into other areas, including visual art.
I started taking painting classes about ten years ago, and now am also learning sculpture. I am now fusing this passion with writing and music too, through a new children’s book I’m working on, called Fintan the Fireless – about a dragon who can’t breathe fire, but he can breathe music notes! Fintan is born different, albino, with no color – but he discovers when he breathes music, he will turn color to match the mood of the music – so in essence, through music he has no limits, he can be EVERY color. And, if he breathes music with passion – the notes will actually catch fire!
A music-breathing dragon! Love it! How do your other creative projects help inform your composing?
Until moving to Los Angeles, most of my life was 1000% all about performing and composing classical music. Los Angeles is very creative, very open – when I lived in New York, there was this constraining sense of labels. You were either “a pianist” or “a composer”, or “a classical composer” or “a film composer” – it was not accepted that you could validly be both.
Once I moved, I felt that all these options were available in Los Angeles, and instead of being labeled – I could be any, or all of these things, so it opened up the floodgates to all of these avenues of creativity. Doing classical music since the age of 4, a part of me craved finding other creative outlets that were fresh and new – and I do feel like the music I write now is more open, and more truly reflective of my broad interests and experience.
Solitaire receives its world premiere in ROCO In Concert: Queen of Hearts, Saturday, November 16, 2018, 5:00 pm, at The Church of St. John the Divine. Tickets available at roco.org, or at the door.