From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. It isn't every day that a small community orchestra gets to perform a new work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. Over the next year and a half, orchestras in all 50 states will be doing just that. As Jeff Lunden reports, the Reno Chamber Orchestra was the first group up.

JEFF LUNDEN: The audience, after the concert, was buzzing in the lobby of the Nightingale Theater on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. Sure, they had heard their local orchestra play the always-stirring Beethoven's Fifth, but what really excited them was hearing the first performance ever of Joseph Schwantner's "Chasing Light" with the composer in attendance.

Seventeen-year-old Ashley Stein is a drum major at her high school and plays piano, flute, and oboe. She says she was excited to be at a world premiere.

Ms. ASHLEY STEIN: I thought it was seriously amazing. Like, I've never been to one before, and it really means something to be one of the first people to ever hear it. And it was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard, and I'll never forget it.

(Soundbite of song "Chasing Light")

LUNDEN: "Chasing Light" is the product of a program called Ford Made in America. It's helping to bring new music to orchestras that normally couldn't afford to commission a piece by an internationally recognized composer like Joseph Schwantner. But by banding together 58 of them, ranging from small professional ensembles to college and youth orchestras, now have the opportunity to play something written just for them.

One of the project's sponsors is the League of American Orchestras. Jesse Rosen, president of the league, says commissioning and premiering new work is a common experience for major symphony orchestras but a rare event for many others.

Ms. JESSE ROSEN (President, League of American Orchestras): The smaller orchestras have a kind of connection to their communities that's very close, and very palpable, and real. And when a composer goes into those communities, when an orchestra plays in those communities, it's special. It's an event.

(Soundbite of song "Chasing Light")

LUNDEN: The Reno Chamber Orchestra is fairly typical of the groups that commissioned "Chasing Light." It has an annual budget of $600,000 and plays only 10 concerts a year. Scott Faulkner is both executive director and one of the orchestra's bass players.

Mr. SCOTT FULKNER (Executive Director and One of the Orchestra's Bass Players): We have a staff of three people on our orchestra. We have about 40, 45 musicians that play regularly in the orchestra and a music director. And so, it's a fairly humble operation.

LUNDEN: The Reno Chamber Orchestra's musicians all have other jobs. Some teach at the university, some give private lessons, some perform in the city's casinos, some do all three. Principal bassoonist Christin Schillinger teaches music theory at the university. She says preparing a new piece and working on it with the composer is very different from the way that she normally works.

Ms. CHRISTIN SCHILLINGER (Principal Bassoonist, Reno Chamber Orchestra): And to play our parts and have the actual composer step up and say you know, I envisioned this movement in this way. I envisioned this line as a flower growing and blooming, and could you play it that way? And to hear him think of it that way instead of just our ideas is refreshing, and it's exciting.

(Soundbite of song "Chasing Light")

LUNDEN: It took Joseph Schwantner eight months to compose "Chasing Light." He says he was conscious, as he was writing the piece, that it would have to be played by orchestras of varying skill levels.

Mr. JOSEPH SCHWANTNER (Composer, "Chasing Light"): It's a challenging piece, there's no question about it. And one of the issues that probably is most demanding is the rhythmical aspect of my music in general. And what that means is for the less experienced ensembles, they're simply going to have to take more time to prepare the work. It doesn't mean that it's unplayable, hardly that at all.

(Soundbite of song "Chasing Light")

LUNDEN: That's an electronic midi file generated by Joseph Schwantner's computer notation program. In addition to scores and parts, Schwantner sent midi files for the musician's to hear and practice with, says principal oboe player, Andrea Lance.

Ms. ANDREA LANCE (Principal Oboe Player): We had that, you know, in the CD player the whole time. Every time we get a chance and listen to it, to try to fit our parts into what we could hear of the whole. It's sort of different to hear it with the actual instruments.

(Soundbite of song "Chasing Light")

LUNDEN: Over the years, Joseph Scwantner has been commissioned by many orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic and Washington's National Symphony. He says after getting world premiers, it's sometimes difficult getting second performances. But this time, he's getting close to a hundred of them.

Mr. SCHWANTNER: Rarely do you have the opportunity to have so many performances in such a short period of time.

LUNDEN: While Schwantner won't be going to all the places where his piece is being played, he'll be having residencies in several communities. Scott Faulkner of the Reno Chamber Orchestra says his group kept the composer busy, and not just in rehearsal.

Mr. FAULKNER: Well, Joe has been working like a dog since he's been here this week. A number of the things he's done have been here on the university campus. He gave a composition master class to the students, and a couple of them came to our rehearsal last night and sat in the back studying the score with him. And they sat talking until we had to kick them out of the building last night.

He also met with teachers from the Washoe County School District. He'll also be participating in a pre-concert interview before each of the concerts.

(Soundbite of song "Chasing Light")

LUNDEN: And if engaging and pleasing the audience with new work was the goal of this project, they hit the bull's eye in Reno.

Ms. DORIS WEBBER: I'm Doris Webber. The new music, that's exciting and can be a part of it. A real live composer for a change. That's a beauty.

LUNDEN: "Chasing Light" will be performed by the Irving Symphony Orchestra in Texas this weekend. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of song "Chasing Light")

NORRIS: You can listen to an entire movement of "Chasing Light" performed by the Reno Chamber Orchestra at

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