University of Pittsburgh

commons room

Music Makers

Written by Laura Powers

Even before the concert in Bellefield Hall begins, many in the audience are ready—with cell phones in hand—to text their votes.  Pitt ensemble-in-residence IonSound Project will soon appear onstage, and all of the music the group will play has been composed by Pitt graduate students. Adding to the evening’s creative flair, the ensemble’s clarinetist has offered her cell phone number as a hotline so that concertgoers can text their votes for their favorite musical composition of the night.

The concert opens with a piano solo. The pianist plays a series of forceful chords on the Steinway. In the audience, composition student Matthew Heap listens intently, taking in the musical performance. His connection with the work is greater than that of a mere music lover—he is the composer of the piece, and this is the first time he has heard it played in concert. Now, someone else is playing the music he heard in his head as he was composing, but there are also subtle differences based on the pianist’s interpretation of Heap’s notations on the score. It’s a new experience for the fledgling composer.

When the piano solo ends, the rest of the ensemble begins the next piece. IonSound Project is a sextet of seasoned, professional musicians—pianist Rob Frankenberry, clarinetist Kathleen Costello, violinist Laura Motchalov, flutist Peggy Yoo, cellist Elisa Kohanski, and percussionist Eliseo Rael—who explore various musical forms through innovative concerts, the commissioning of new works, and collaboration with other artists. The group is the Department of Music’s first ensemble-in-residence. Many universities host an individual artist-in-residence, but it’s unusual for a public research university like Pitt to host an entire six-member musical ensemble. Individually, the ensemble’s members also perform with professional symphony orchestras regionally and nationally.

Onstage at Bellefield Hall, the IonSound Project performs a work titled “/hum/for violin and vibraphone.” It was written by one of Heap’s friends and colleagues, Ben Harris. The two composers are sitting together in the audience. This time it’s Harris’ turn to listen intently to his musical creation. He’s pleased that he has the chance to hear it live. For student composers, it can be rare to hear their own works performed in concert settings. The IonSound Project offers the exception. “Oftentimes, students have to fend for themselves,” says Harris, “so it’s great that Pitt brings in professionals to play our music.” The concert continues with other new works, while other graduate students wait for their compositions to come alive.

At a reception after the concert, the clarinetist scrolls through the text messages in her phone, tallying the votes. It appears that all of the musical compositions were well received, but there was a clear winner. Before the evening ends, the ensemble announces that Harris’ piece earned the most votes. As a reward, IonSound Project will perform the work again at a future concert. This is truly a prize for Harris—to know that his music has won an audience.