Reasons abound to feel at home with Kenji Bunch’s high-flying new work, Vesper Flight for Flute and Piano, that premiered July 10 and July 11 to a rapt Chamber Music Northwest audience at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.
For one, Portlanders have a special relationship with Vaux swifts, the subject of the piece. The birds return every year without fail, even in 2020’s smoke-filled skies, to roost at Chapman Elementary School before flying on. People swarm to see them.
More significant than local swift-fascination is the Portland music community’s continuing appreciation of Bunch, the homegrown violist/composer who attended Wilson High School and returned to Portland in 2013 after graduating from Juilliard and working in New York for a couple of decades. Bunch continues to forge a reputation for writing compelling compositions that have been played by more than 60 orchestras and ensembles — as well as for producing an ample discography and movie music.
Though he’s not quite 50 (he’ll turn 48 at the end of July), Bunch continues to pursue a full-time music career aside from composing. He has served as the artistic director of the new-music group Fear No Music since 2014. He teaches at Reed College, Portland State University, and Portland Youth Philharmonic. He performs regularly, including at Chamber Music Northwest concerts, and occasionally with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, among many others.
Despite all that, alchemy is key to bringing a new piece into the world. An accomplished composer like Bunch and Vaux swifts came together thanks to a commission by CMNW flutist Tara Helen O’Connor. Then Bunch carved out a piano part played by Monica Ohuchi, who happens to be Bunch’s wife and Fear No Music’s managing director. And as Covid began to lift this spring, the 10-minute Vesper Flight for Flute and Piano was launched and landed, this summer, as a world premiere.
There’s more to the equation of this beautifully honed and ecstatically received premiere. Those birds, for one. Their uncanny habits, such as sleeping while flying and soaring so high during the evening that no human eye can track them, stand as a metaphor for what we really don’t know.
Vesper Flight was inspired by award-winning natural world essayist Helen Macdonald’s 2020 New York Times Magazine piece, The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down, which Bunch had read. Macdonald’s newest book, Vesper Flights, which includes this essay, was coincidentally published this month. “Vespers are evening devotional prayers,” MacDonald writes in the essay, “the last and most solemn of the day, and I have always thought `vesper flights’ the most beautiful phrase, an ever-falling blue.”
Macdonald explains that “animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves.” Bunch has translated such insights into his sweeping, soaring, undulating music in this ear-opening piece that takes the flute and piano on an unusual and colorful sonic journey. As Bunch told the CMNW audience on July 11, the swifts’ nighttime flight when they cruise out of human sight is a kind of “parable for the process of grief and lightening the loads we all carry.”
Collaborating, then and now
Though they live on opposite coasts, Bunch and O’Connor are musical colleagues. Six years ago O’Connor, who has played with CMNW for 21 years, fell for Bunch’s piece Ralph’s Old Records, another world premiere at CMNW. The piece told the story with flute, clarinet, viola/violin (which Bunch doubled on), cello and piano of Bunch learning about his father’s life by listening to his father’s record collection, replete with jazz and popular mid-century tunes. Ralph Bunch, a political science professor at Portland State University who died in July 2020, at 93 years old, “permanently loaned” his son his record player when he discovered he was working on “Ralph’s Records.”
“From the first note of it, I knew that it was incredibly special, wonderful and evocative,” O’Connor said in July after playing Bunch’s Vesper Flight. Theirs — Kenji and Ralph Bunch’s — “was a beautiful relationship, the kind of relationship I had with my mom and dad.”
O’Connor lost her parents, Thomas and Sara O’Connor, before the pandemic and within a few months of one another. She quickly decided that she wanted to have music commissioned in honor of them, “knowing this piece would be a great gift to the flute community and it would live long beyond my time on this planet,” she said.
Bunch came quickly to mind, and she suggested a composition for flute and piano, similar to his often played Velocity that was commissioned by flutist Marya Martin in 2006 for an anthology of new flute music called Eight Visions. Flute and piano pieces are popular, as well. But she was hands-off other than her suggestion of instruments.
Bunch was thrilled, and although commissions more often come from grants, institutions and arts organizations, it’s not uncommon for a single person to commission a piece in honor of some occasion, such as an anniversary, or to recognize or commemorate an event or person.
“I’m open for business for whomever is interested in my music,” Bunch said in July. And though commissioning comes to him from a variety of sources after 30 years of writing music, he adds, “I will say that there’s no greater honor, as a performing musician myself, than to have a fellow musician believe enough in my work to want to invest in something new.”
Logistics: Bringing the piece to the people
To prepare the piece for a July CMNW concert, there were logistics to manage, even for quick-study professional musicians like O’Connor and pianist Ohuchi, who had Bunch in the next room to answer her Vesper questions. O’Connor worked with a pianist in New York before coming to Portland in early July. She texted Bunch about details and ideas. She landed July 4 in Portland and she and Ohuchi practiced for several days before the premiere. “Things locked in really quickly between the two of them,” Bunch said. “They were just really simpatico musically and it felt as if they’d been playing together for years.”
The most interesting sections of Vesper Flight fall where Bunch left the music “open” (or unscored) so performers could offer their ideas. “I’ve been doing this more and more in my work—adding elements of improvisation. The notion of some unique and unexpected happening with every performance of a piece of mine keeps me interested in writing these days.”
O’Connor agrees that each performance differs from the last, and much of that is because she has a number of measures in which she combines sounds by using different kinds of syllables with air over the flute, which resemble an elegant form of spitting. She cannot reproduce the same sounds each time she performs.
As well, the “bird calls” between the flute and piano are not written out. “So we imitate each other as we play live in concert,” O’Connor said. “It makes you listen very differently.”
With each performance slightly varying from the previous, O’Connor says she feels a part of the creative process. The last feat that she performs in the piece are “very, very high-pitch whistle tones. These tones are so magical and so high that they seem to mimic that final vesper flight each evening when the swifts fly out of sight.”
Premieres – second nature to CMNW
Bunch’s composition is one of five world premieres this summer at Chamber Music Northwest, and usually the festival programs more, CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta said.
Five premieres “is unusual – in that it is actually fewer than we normally do!” Bilotta said in July. “New music and contemporary works have always been a major part of our festival, with about 30 to 40 percent of a typical summer focusing on music of the 20th and 21st centuries. CMNW regularly commissions or co-commissions five to eight new works every year, and we will often premiere other new works commissioned by others, including some by our artists. In addition to mainstage concerts, the summer festival normally includes a full weekly series of five New@Noon / New@Night concerts featuring only new works by living composers written in the last year or two.”
At least 100 works were commissioned during David Shifrin’s 40 years as CMNW artistic director, from which he retired in 2020, said Soovin Kim, CMNW’s new artistic co-director with his wife, Gloria Chen.
On July 10 and 11, Vesper Flight preceded David Ludwig’s Les Adieux, a chamber concerto for clarinet played by clarinetist Shifrin and 14 other musicians, plus conductor Earl Lee. It was also a world premiere. Bunch referred to Ludwig’s farewell “gift” to Shifrin as the program’s centerpiece.
Many listeners, myself included, disagreed: For us, Vesper Flight was the main event.