A world premiere for Northwest School of the Arts

The North Pole can be discovered only once: Explorers may plant flags for decades to come, but the first intrepid group gets bragging rights forever. Students in the Recital Seminar class at Northwest School of the Arts, who are about to play a world premiere written for them by a nationally known composer, are feeling that same sense of pride.

“I think they’re just starting to realize what this means,” says NWSA music teacher Erica Hefner, who’ll conduct the Sunday concert that ends with “Canzona for the Music Makers.”

“A world premiere is a significant event in any musician’s life, even a professional’s, so to have that happen in high school is remarkable. They’ll always be connected to the school and to each other through this piece.”

Dan Locklair, composer in residence at Wake Forest University, put a secret stamp on the six-minute work: He used the school’s initials for a four-note theme that recurs through four sections. By counting up the scale, matching notes to the alphabet, he turned N-W-S-A into G-B flat-E flat-A. Musicians since J.S. Bach have played with names that way, and students beamed when they found out.

“He told us there was a code, but we couldn’t figure it out,” says pianist Ian Wise, a sophomore. “Even our band teacher tried, and he couldn’t. But when we found out, we felt the piece was really ours.”

“We have a sense of ownership,” says clarinet player Rodneya Hall, a junior. “He’s told us everything he wants to happen (when we play), but he’s letting us make this piece our own.”

The premiere has been brewing since last summer. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musicians have long had a relationship with NWSA, especially as mentors for kids in the Recital Seminar class. So CSO education director Chris Stonnell met with NWSA staff to draw up a grant that would cover some of the mentoring costs and Locklair’s commission. The N.C. Arts Council came through with $14,000.

Students get into the Recital Seminar class only by invitation, and the makeup changes every year. So when Locklair said yes, he didn’t know exactly what he was saying yes to.

Hefner later told him she had a fine marimba player, so he wrote a part for one. Two pianists? Bring ’em on. No bassoon player? That was a problem, until Hefner imported a couple of woodwind players from the Charlotte Youth Symphony. She has also beefed up the brass with other players from NWSA.

Locklair likes brass, especially antiphonal brass. (He’s known as an organist but studied trombone with Bill Hanna while growing up in Charlotte.) So brass at the back of Charles LaBorde Theatre will bounce “Canzona” themes back and forth with the other musicians at the front.

The young players will stretch. Hall is playing high notes she has rarely encountered outside musical theater. Wise usually pedals sparingly at the piano; Locklair told him to pedal for 12 measures straight, which he’s never done.

They’re under more pressure than usual, because this performance must be definitive until others come along. Yet they’re under less pressure than usual, because the audience has no preconceptions and won’t compare students’ playing to other recordings or renditions.

“There’s safety in numbers, and there’ll be 22 of them,” says Hefner with a smile. “But these musicians will do anything you put in front of them. I told Dan not to hold back, and he didn’t.”

“I try not to write down to anyone, to give players something they can reach up to,” Locklair says.

“If students have a lot of experience playing Mozart and Beethoven, they don’t have a lot of experience with changeable meters. I like those; that’s my style of creating rhythm. So I didn’t leave them out, but I wasn’t as demanding as I would be with a professional orchestra. I’m giving them challenges that are not far above them.”