Journey through Oz

World premiere, young musician performance part of symphony’s concert

NEXTGEN The winners of the Navaroli Young Musicians Competition, Sanjay Gollipudi and Issabella Romo, will perform on March 7 at Gavilan College. Submitted photo

Christopher Niemann is no stranger to composing. His first work was premiered by the South Valley Symphony in 2013 while he was still a student at Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill.

“I was writing music and one of my former scout masters, who also plays in the orchestra, had heard that I was writing music. I told him about a piece I had finished,” said Niemann, who is working on his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Humboldt State University after earning associates’ degrees in music and psychology at Gavilan College.

The orchestra member connected Niemann with Anthony Quartuccio, music director and conductor of SVS, who liked what he heard. Niemann conducted the composition, “Staircase Into the Unknown,” at the symphony’s 2013 NextGen concert, which highlights work by young composers and soloists who have competed in the Navaroli Young Musicians Competition.

“Really it is at the graciousness of the music director that I was able to keep bringing pieces for his consideration,” Niemann said.

His latest work, nearly three years in the making, is “Ozian Symphony: A Geographical Narrative.” It will receive its world premiere on March 7 at Gavilan as part of the symphony’s NextGen 2020 program. The concert also will feature performances by winners of the Navaroli Young Musicians Competition, Sanjay Gollipudi, viola, and Issabella Romo, flute, as well as the Ann Sobrato High School Wind Ensemble.

The symphony is a six-movement composition “that takes us on a journey through the different compass points of Oz,” said Niemann, who was inspired by Gregory Maguire’s novel “Wicked,” which was the assigned reading in a reading comprehension course Niemann took at Gavilan.

“So I started reading the book and I was absolutely blown away by the amount of depth the author went into. Each of the regions of Oz had different religions, different ideologies, different stereotypes for the people who lived there,” he said. “So I wanted to create these different movements, a little glimpse into the different places in Oz.”

“Ozian Symphony” opens with a storm sequence as the audience is brought up into the violent weather and is transported to Oz.

“The second movement starts rather violently to convey that kind of anxiety of opening up the door and not knowing what you’re going to see,” Niemann said.

Niemann found himself captivated by the subtle religious and spiritual references in Maguire’s book, which became Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway hit “Wicked.” Each region of Oz has its own peoples, politics and religion, which Niemann conveys, for example, through hymn-like music that devolves into a cacophony of chaos and noise.

“A common theme in the book is this doomsday clock that demonstrates faith versus free will,” which Niemann captures with an interval of a clock ticking between each movement.

Each quadrant of Oz offers Niemann a chance to explore different facets of a society through varying musical lenses. In the South, for example, land of the Quadlings, when the government uncovers rare rubies while excavating for the Yellow Brick Road, the Quadlings are forcibly removed from the land in favor of the precious resources that lie beneath it. 

“All of this is orchestral instrumentation.This movement starts out really sad, really melancholy and at some point it gets kind of lullaby-ish. Then it gets very percussive to typify mining and excavation,” he said. 

The fourth movement, in Gillikin Country, taps a solo piano that conveys a sense of external manipulation. 

The fifth takes its cues from tribal culture of the Vinkus, and includes flutes and percussion.

The sixth and final movement is one of celebration as the travelers leave Oz for home.

“The challenge was trying to find out how to sonically emulate different ways of living, different cultures,” Niemann said. “Essentially it’s all about feeling. When we hear certain kinds of sounds, certain orchestrations, the listener is left with a certain feeling. I don’t really know how to describe how I conjured up these sounds. (Oz) is treacherous, so a lot of the feelings within the piece, they evoke a feeling of uncertainty.”

Niemann has no formal training in music composition and has no plans to pursue a career in music.

“I want to enjoy writing music as a hobby rather than something I want to kill myself over,” he said. “I want to continue to enjoy music for what it is and not have the stress associated with mass production.”

Ozian Symphony: A Geographical Narrative will have its world premiere at the South Valley Symphony’s NextGen 2020 concert at 7:30pm March 7 in the Gavilan College Theater, Gilroy. Tickets are $25; free for children under 16, students with ID and Gavilan College faculty and staff. For information, visit southvalleysymphony.org.

Susan Rife

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About Susan Rife
Lover of arts & books; ukulele learner; therapeutic knitter; long-distance runner. Former Arts and Books Editor at Herald-Tribune.