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A musical first for Queen’s student

[Kento Stratford and Kingston Symphony Orchestra]
Kento Stratford follows along during the final rehearsal by the Kingston Symphony Orchestra. (Supplied Photo)

Kento Stratford, a fourth-year composition student in the Dan School of Drama and Music, knows that his recent experience in writing his first orchestral piece was a rare and special opportunity.

Stratford was not only commissioned by the Kingston Symphony Orchestra to create the piece but was also paid to do it through an internship with the Canada Summer Jobs program during which he was mentored by Queen’s professor and award-winning composer, John Burge.

After months of work, Stratford’s musical journey recently came full circle when the piece was premiered by the Kingston Symphony Orchestra at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, Dec. 2.

It was an experience that will stay with him, he says.

[Kento Stratford and Evan Mitchell]
 Kento Stratford is congratulated by Evan Mitchell, Music Director for the Kingston Symphony Orchestra, on the debut of his first orchestral composition, at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. (Supplied Photo)

“To hear the piece, it just blows you away. It’s only seven minutes of music but it took months to create,” he says. “So it’s almost like a child that you’ve nurtured and this is the product now. A huge orchestra is performing your work and I don’t know if there is a better feeling than that. As a composer that’s what I look for. Hopefully this is to be my life.”

Stratford’s journey first started with the application and interview process. When that was completed he not only had his commission, a real rarity for an undergraduate student, but he was also going to be paid via the internship.

With this support secured, it was time to get to work composing his first orchestral piece.

It would be a monumental task.

“I put in months of sketching but it’s my first orchestral piece. Orchestral pieces actually take a lot of vision, a lot more than say a piece for piano or choir,” he explains. “You have to think about everything and the music has to fit the orchestra. You have to create music that is actually molded to the orchestra and not the other way around. You can’t make the orchestra fit the music. That was hard.”

After months of sketching he was at an impasse and ended up throwing away a stack of paper “about an inch thick.” However, his breakthrough was just around the corner.

In July Stratford traveled to Casalmaggiore, Italy, for a piano study opportunity and found inspiration in the ornate decorations of the small town’s massive basilica. Inside the 18th-century church each wall is decorated with murals that basically create a timeline from its initial construction to now. He was left in awe.

“So what I did in my piece is I took this kind of grandeur of the cathedral and I tried to set it in different lights,” he says. “On each wall they had a different idea and I tried to find a new way to express the sense of awe that I had in walking into this place. What came through, I think, is not only the grandeur but the intricate details of the church itself, some of the textures, some of the decorations.”

Looking back on the finished piece he also notices that he had another influence – the beautiful countryside of the Lombardy region.

“That seeped in subconsciously,” he says.  “Writing the piece I didn’t realize I was doing that at all. But it does sound sort of pastoral in parts and that’s something that I really like about the piece, the kind of overview of my experience in that part of Italy.”

Returning home, he quickly settled into writing the composition. And the process went much more smoothly.

“I came back with that inspiration and I manage to write a sketch in the following two weeks and I was really happy with it,” Stratford says. “So then I started orchestrating it.”

During this stage he was guided by Dr. Burge and worked closely with the staff at the Kingston Symphony Orchestra, who, he says, were extremely helpful.

“That whole experience was a really positive one. Working with musicians, learning how to work with an organization that has a specific sort of vision for the project in mind, how to mold my creative process that actually fits what they’re looking for,” he says. “Overall it was a really, really positive experience. “

That’s a sentiment echoed by Evan Mitchell, Music Director for the Kingston Symphony Orchestra.

“It was wonderful to be able to make use of the Canada Summer Jobs program to facilitate this composition,” he says. “Kento was mentored by Dr. Burge throughout this process and the result was a really fun, interesting piece which the orchestra enjoyed performing. The sense of surprise and discovery which comes with every first performance of a new work is always so exciting, and we look forward to that feeling every time we premiere a new piece.”