Sarah Mellinger ’20 recently had her work selected by Hiram College’s composition instructor, Stephen Stanziano, to be featured in the Cleveland Chamber Symphony’s “Young and Emerging Composers Concert” for 2020. Hers is the first piece to be submitted from Hiram College in over twenty years.
The concert series began in 1983 and has asked local universities to select pieces for the performance ever since. The Cleveland Chamber Symphony itself was founded in 1980 by composer Edwin London as a professional ensemble in residence at Cleveland State University to perform new, primarily American music.
“The most important thing is that the concert gives student composers a taste of the real world because we are a professional orchestra and we have contracts and hired performers,” says Rich Rhinehart, board president and general manager of NEOSonicFest. “I am a composer as well, and I used to attend the performances about every five weeks, back in the 90’s,” Rhinehart continues. “Where else can you find constant exposure to new music?”
Over the years, they’ve used a few different processes to select the pieces that will be presented at the concert. “The last couple of years, we have contacted the schools and ask them to select one student,” says Rhinehart. “Most of the time, there are entries from the conservatories. We tell the students what instruments we have available and what we can afford, but it’s a pretty well-staffed chamber symphony. We always provide a harpist: It’s kind of one our trademarks.”
While COVID-19 changes the way we live our lives, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony is working on finding the best way to present these pieces. They had to postpone their spring concerts, much like many entertainment groups in the United States.
Nevertheless, this tradition will continue on. As far as they know, they are the only ones who’ve been doing something like this for the last 40 years.
Honoring the tradition, Mellinger adds, “I submitted the piece because my professor at Hiram, Stephen Stanziano, was once featured in the concert, and he told me about it,” says Mellinger. Stanziano was selected for the concert in 2004.
“If I could give any advice to young composers—or really, anyone my age—” says Mellinger, “I’d tell them to try and understand what they need and what they want before they start worrying about everything else. If they are unhappy with their situation, that’s going to reflect in their work.”
Her advice seems appropriate in these turbulent times; however, Mellinger’s inspiration comes from her experience over the last few years with music.
“I’ve been composing for almost as long as I’ve been playing the piano,” says Mellinger. “I think the experience of entering in so many composition contests when I was younger really helped me. I believe composing is as much about your skill as a composer as it is about your creativity. You might know how to write for each instrument—get all the details perfect—and still have a really boring piece,” describes Mellinger.
“I’ve spent all my time composing picking up on the details of how to write down music on paper, and how it’s supposed to be notated, which, for me, is the easy part. The hardest part for me is the creative part. I can’t write anything down on paper until I have the ideas in my head just right, and that means sitting at the piano, playing the same couple of notes over and over again, until I’m satisfied with the way it sounds. When I finally do get the ball rolling, I can barely write fast enough to get it all down,” Mellinger exclaims.
“The movement of my orchestral piece that I submitted is called Elentiya, and there’s a quote that goes along with that. ‘I name you Elentiya, spirit that could not be broken’. This piece was inspired by a character named Aelin, [from the Throne of Glass series] whose best friend, Nehemia, was murdered.” Mellinger finishes her description with, “This piece represents both the tragedy of Nehemia’s death, and Aelin’s unwavering spirit, loyalty, and friendship.”
“I think the best thing that’s happened to me at Hiram, both musically and otherwise, is all the changes that really shook things up at Hiram.” Mellinger says, describing some other personal challenges that she experienced, as well. “I feel like I learned so much about myself, and about how to find creative solutions to problems—that it doesn’t matter anymore. I learned that sometimes the best thing you can have is a support system that won’t let you down. I had Professor Mike Waddell, the Residential Staff, and everybody else here at Hiram that stayed steady while everything else in my life was having an earthquake.”