Christopher Theofanidis

Q&A: Christopher Theofanidis

The Fort Worth Symphony's composer-in-residence on his award-winning work Rainbow Body, which will be performed in the season-closing concert this weekend.

published Thursday, May 14, 2015

Photo: Alexandra Gardner
Christopher Theofanidis

Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-‘15 season closes this weekend with a concert centered on Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, played by internationally acclaimed Barry Douglas. Opening the concert is Rainbow Body, the award-winning composition from composer-in-residence Christopher Theofanidis, who Fort Worth audiences know from the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, for which he composed that year’s original work for the semi-finalists We chatted with Theofanidis about the origins of Rainbow Body and how it will fit into the concert. Closing the concert is Revueltas’ La noche de los mayas, which will end the concert with “a tremendous blaze of percussion”; and Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts.


TheaterJones: How did composing the piece come about?

Christopher Theofanidis: I grew up in Houston though I’m from Dallas originally. The orchestra there in Houston, after I had been traveling and doing composition for a number of years, decided it would be a nice thing to have a hometown person write a piece for their orchestra. So they asked me to write that piece [Rainbow Body] and that was the starting point for the work. Whenever I’m starting to write a piece, I listen to the things around me that I’m interested in and try to focus those things into something that has an artistic bent. In this piece, I was listening to a lot of the music of Hildegard of Bingen, who was a medieval composer. She was an amazing person. She knew visual arts, she did poetry, plays, and music as well. One of those pieces that she wrote had a really beautiful, healing quality in the sounds, and I decided to start working with that material.

At the same time, seemingly completely unrelated, I was reading a book called The Tibetan Book of the Living and the Dying. And the book talked about Tibetan Buddhism, essentially, but it talked about how when an enlightened being dies in that tradition, they are supposedly absorbed directly into the universe and its energy and life rather than decay in bodily form. I was thinking about this, and these two things seemed to want to go together, and basically what I came to was the idea that Hildegard’s music, somehow for me, would absorb back into the musical universe, and that music was somehow going to be a lighter energy in my own work. There were a lot of other connections too, but that was the beginning point.


Do various influences play into your music in general?

Absolutely. One of the things that I think is really part of my musical language is world music. There are a lot of different kinds of world music obviously, but there are certain things that are common to all world music, and one is harmonically modal music. That’s a different system from Western classical music. So modal music is the foundation, and that comes a lot from listening to non-Western music. Then things like pitch-bending, and moving from one note to another by sliding is common in my music, and that comes a lot from modal music as well.


I noticed in previous interviews and in listening to Rainbow Body that story seems to be very important in your music. Can you comment on that, especially in Rainbow Body? 

It’s really hard sometimes to talk about story in music. I find a storyline in a piece of music to be a starting point, and then you also have to allow for the logic of the music to do its own thing as well. In the case of Rainbow Body, one of the things I tried to get started with was thinking of Hildegard’s life in that period, and how gritty it must have been in the medieval period. The life inside the abbey where she was practicing was probably really and truly a sanctuary, not only spiritually but also physically. It would be this stable entity in her life. For me, the storytelling structure became going back and forth between inside and outside, and that metaphor also for you as a person and the physical reality. That’s the way the storytelling structure evolved. It’s not really a story linearly, except sometimes when you come back to the insides of that inner sanctuary, it becomes grander and more beautiful, and that was deepening in the sense of meaning in that private place.


How does Rainbow Body distinguish itself from the rest of the program? And then, how does it fit well with the other two pieces?

That’s a good question. The Rachmaninoff, which I know and love dearly…I always feel like it’s an honor to be on these programs, so I suppose the thing I respond to pretty well in Rachmaninoff’s music is a sense of lyricism and melody, and the way that that submerges in the music. I feel like that’s part of my thinking very much. I’ve heard the Revueltas once on recording, but I don’t know the piece well at all, so for me, it’s going to be a real sense of discovery. I remember it is extremely brilliant sounding, and that spectacular orchestral power is something that I go for as well. It seems like it will be a really complementary show.


Rainbow Body is older in terms of contemporary music. It won a Masterprize award in 2003. What is it like bringing this work to the Fort Worth Symphony, and especially one that has arguably contributed to your career in such a big way?

This has kind of been my warhorse, it’s been around a while and it’s been done a ton. The neat thing about that, from the standpoint of traveling, is that what my focus becomes is not trying to make everything a certain way. Also, listening to the way an interpretation goes and responding to that in real time. The first time you do a piece, you’re so concerned about all the details you put into it, and wondering “Can you get it to sound how you want it to sound?” By the time you get to something like this, where you’ve heard it a lot, the joy is the collaborative nature of it, and listening a lot. I feel like that’s one of the things that will be happening today [May 14] in rehearsal, for example, and over the next couple of days, is to have a lot more back and forth.


What can audiences expect from you as composer-in-residence with the Fort Worth Symphony, at this concert and afterwards?

I’ll be involved in the pre-concert talks, so I’ll talk about the piece there. I wrote the opening fanfare for Bass Hall back in 1998, so it’s nice to come back here full-circle. I also did the competition piece for the semifinal round of the Cliburn this past year, which was a lot of fun. I have been in the hall a number of times and I’ve had some experience with the musicians there, and I’m really looking forward to that. After the concert, I’m not sure if the maestro is going to do anything, but my sense is that we’ll have some post-concert review as well. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Christopher Theofanidis
The Fort Worth Symphony's composer-in-residence on his award-winning work Rainbow Body, which will be performed in the season-closing concert this weekend.
by Linda Smith

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