In 2017, a few months after graduating from the School of Music, composer Hilary Purrington ’17MMA received the American Composers Orchestra’s Underwood Emerging Composer Commission. After her Likely Pictures in a Haphazard Sky was read during the orchestra’s 2017 Underwood New Music Readings, the organization’s artistic director, Derek Bermel, said, “Hilary Purrington’s music spoke in a highly personal voice … Her work unfolded assuredly, revealing an orchestral palette at once austere and lyrical.”
On November 13, the ACO will give the world-premiere performance of Purrington’s guitar concerto, Harp of Nerves. The yield of the Underwood Commission, Purrington’s concerto was written for JIJI (Jiyeon Kim) ’17MM, winner of Victor and Sono Elmaleh First Prize at the Concert Artists Guild’s 2016 Victor Elmaleh Competition. Purrington and JIJI were roommates during their time at Yale. Their careers are in sync in an upward trajectory.
“I had JIJI in mind, of course,” Purrington said, and proposed a guitar concerto upon receiving the commission. During the composition process, Purrington said, “imagining (JIJI) playing the piece (was) helpful. She loves new music and she plays a lot of new music.” Also helpful was “knowing (JIJI’s) character and what she’s going to put into the piece.” That includes the “drama of seeing her playing.”
Throughout her relationship with the ACO, Purrington attended “as many ACO concerts as I could … to really get their sound in my head. I also wanted to have a sense of (Zankel Hall) and them playing in the hall.” That includes the subway rumble audiences can feel if not hear. “I have these very slow crescendo and decrescendo bass-drum rolls that come from that, directly,” she said, laughing, “since it’s going to be there anyway.”
To write for guitar, Purrington wanted to know the instrument as well as she could, so she studied the instrument herself. “I played quite a bit,” she said. “It was massively helpful and completely changed my approach. When she gave JIJI the music this past summer, Purrington said Jiji had no questions, which she took as the “highest compliment.”
“She really understands the instrument well,” JIJI said. “She really used very idiomatic writing for the guitar. You can tell” she studied the instrument. “I’ve known Hilary’s music since we lived together. I was like, ‘You know what to do. You do your magic.’” JIJI, who recently heard a performance of Likely Pictures in the Haphazard Sky, described Purrington as an “amazing orchestrator” and said, “She knows how to work with textures and colors. She’s just really smart. You can hear it in her music.”
JIJI’s guitar will by amplified for the performance. “It liberates me, so I’m not forcing it on the instrument,” trying to compete with the orchestra, she said.
As Purrington pointed out, JIJI is a champion of new music. “Art should reflect the life of the time we live in,” she said. We live in this century and we should be part of this century.” There’s also a matter of available repertoire. JIJI said classical guitarists have, to a degree, been playing the same music over and over again, whereas, for example, the percussion repertoire has “exploded.” “Classical guitar needs this,” she said. “We need to really reinvent ourselves and try to expand our repertoire.” Purrington is helping with that.
The American Composers Orchestra will present a program called New England Echoes on Wednesday, November 13, at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. The program includes the world premiere of Hilary Purrington’s guitar concerto, Harp of Nerves, with soloist Jiji, a selection of Charles Ives’ songs, arranged by Purrington, YSM faculty composer Hannah Lash ’12AD, and Jonathan Bailey Holland and featuring mezzo-soprano Jaime Barton, and the New York premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s Evidence.