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Interview with Jim O’Leary

by Heather Doran

Jim O'LearyOn April 3 the PEI Symphony Orchestra will introduce their first Composer-in-Residence with the world premiere of his work Softly at Night the Stars are Shining. Jim O’Leary, an award-winning composer, will be joining the PEISO in the fall. Originally from Windsor, Newfoundland, O’Leary has studied at the University of Prince Edward Island, the School of Music in Pitea, and at Cambridge University. I asked Mr. O’Leary about the upcoming concert and his position as Composer-in-Residence.

The work you have done with the PEISO previously featured instrumentalists. Why did you decided to write something for voice?

I have written several works for soprano Helen Pridmore over the last 10 years, but mostly for her in a chamber setting. Discovering the vocal music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski a couple of years ago provided the impetus to want to compose something for voice and large orchestra. It felt like a logical progress to write something on a large scale for Helen. Compared to writing purely instrumental music, the main deference obviously is that I had to consider Helen’s voice and how I would set the poems to music. Otherwise the process wasn’t any different than my normal way of composing.

Does our audience need to know anything about specific about your new work?  How do you want audiences to approach your work?

Audiences can approach my music in any way they want; what is important to me is that there is an audience. There is no right or wrong way to listen to music, just different musical experiences which every audience member brings into the concert hall. As a composer I am trying, within my own artistic vocabulary, to offer an audience something new and exciting while maintaining a drama that is accessible. I use a spatial set up in my new piece, dividing the orchestra into 3 distinct groups spread around the stage, which provides for very thrilling sonic possibilities; something I have tried to exploit. Helen Pridmore’s fantastic voice and the profound Polish poetry I employ also provide common ground for the audience. I think Softly at Night the Stars are Shining is the most engaging work I have composed to date and I hope to see a large audience to hear its premiere.

What will a position like composer-in-residence add to your development as a composer?

Working with one ensemble over several years is a fantastic way, through collaboration, to develop musical ideas on a large scale.  Conductor Jamie Mark is very supportive and provides me with artistic freedom, something I value. This is very liberating creatively, especially in combination with the tremendously positive attitude the PEISO musicians have shown towards my music when they previously performed my Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra and 3 Studies for Orchestra. I am looking forward to developing my musical language and embarking on new musical adventures in tandem with this dedicated group of musicians.

Your position with the PEISO obviously involves composing, but what else will you be doing?

I will advise the programming committee on contemporary works suitable for performance by the orchestra with an emphasis on Atlantic Canadian composers. I will also potentially be involved in pre-concert talks, workshops and other like-wise projects. I am looking forward to being part of the vibrant musical community on PEI.

The upcoming concert, A Fresh Turn, will also feature Bach Figural Chorales, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and Schubert’s Symphony #9.  The concert, which begins at 2:30 pm, will be preceded at 1:15 pm by a pre-concert talk in the Studio Theatre.

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