Jamie Wehr - composer, OCCO Co-Founder

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Tell us a little about yourself.

I doubt my story is much different from many in the audience here: I am originally from a small town in rural west central Ohio.  I have an older sister who was always better at school and music than I was...and who terrorized me when we were both smaller...but I lover her now!  Both my parents were teachers; my Mom an elementary school teacher and my Dad a college professor.  Like most children my sister and I were made to take piano lessons, something my sister excelled at, but I did not me.  When I went to junior high school, and got to join the band everything changed.  Before I wanted to be play baseball or football for the Cincinnati Reds or Bengals, now I wanted to play the trombone!!  And not just play the trombone, but make a career of it.  So while I still root for the Reds and the Bengals it has been my joy to have traveled the road of a musician.  To have had the opportunity to study from some of the giants of the instrument, perform in Europe, to have toured nationally is something I enjoyed and will always cherish.  But I must admit that while that was certainly a lot of fun, what I am doing now here with the Orlando Contemporary Chamber Orchestra is what I love best.  I hope to be writing music and working with these incredible musicians/artists for many years to come....it doesn't get any better than this.


What’s your role with this music/performance? Please elaborate on your piece and writing for OCCO.

When I first met Dr. Stephen Caldwell-Wright, roughly 15 years ago, we had been asked to collaborate on a work celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of Sanford, Florida.  Upon being introduced to his poetry I knew immediately that I had found a "kindred spirit." After the premier of our piece: Ballad for My Other Brother, Stephen sent me four volumes, collections of his poetry. I knew then that I would be returning to his words, his art for inspiration.  At first I was thinking I would write a song cycle, but as the work progressed my ideas kept becoming more expansive instrumentally and in form.  I soon enough I realized that what I had in my head and my heart was to write a symphony.  I reevaluated the poetry chosen, keeping Retrospective and Stephen's Ode which I had been setting for voice and changing out the poems Houses and To Amherst, With Haste for Correctness and For You, Too, We Shall Always Sing.  What I appreciate most about Stephen's poetry is he never seeks to vainly impress nor does he condescend.  He is always, in person as in word, honest, forthright and thoughtful. I very much want my music to reflect him and his words. In my symphony I use an archaic compositional device called "word painting" that was often employed by composers of the Renaissance and Baroque Era.  It a technique in which the composer tries to evoke the words and meanings of the text(s) they are setting by use of melody, harmony and rhythm.  Before three of the four movements a narration of the poetry is given, for the second movement the poem: Correctness is read with the music, so you the audience will be able to judge if my musical "word painting" aptly describes the words and emotions of Stephen's words.


What attracted you to music, especially orchestral music?

What I discovered in music, in myself after beginning my studies on my instrument, is that the composer of the music was speaking to me. Who they are, what they were thinking and feeling.  Then through me as a performer they were communicating, connecting to the audience.  It was something I found very profound, in being able to connect to people, the musicians and audience, in a meaningful way.  I began composing shortly after I started taking formal trombone lessons. Of course when I started I was writing tunes for a "pop band" that my best friend, a trumpet player, and I had formed and was writing things that sounded a whole lot like the music of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago.  When I went off to college I began my first formal study of composition and would pursue my studies for the next six years while in undergraduate and graduate school.  As you can imagine much of my writing has changed from my first attempts but I still find it so deeply meaningful to connect to people through this art. 


As for writing for the orchestra, it is the range of emotion it can bring to the audience that makes it the sine qua non of instrumental ensembles.  These musicians can play in near silence that can then lead to such thundering crescendos.  The range of instrumental timbre is the most diverse and opulent of any ensemble.  It is a sound canvas that beats all other ensembles in sheer wealth of sound, allowing the most flexibility to the composers in expressing themselves.


 What were your musical influences growing up?

I guess if I were to name three musicians/composer that still fire my mind they would be, in no particular order: Don Ellis, Chick Corea and Toshiko Akiyoshi.  Please forgive me if I wax eloquent here:  All three of them are jazz musicians so I was listening to them, buying their albums beginning when I was in junior high school, and is most often the case the first influences are the strongest.  What attracts me to them is not only their amazing playing on their instrument but for me as a composer, the music that they wrote.  What they were doing musically is still is to this day unmatched in its originality.  To stand out as they did, to continue to work and write with such conviction in such singular fashion for a career is nothing less than inspiring.  


Don Ellis, is maybe best known for being the composer of the edgy film score to the French Connection, an award winning film and score.  In 1968 Don Ellis had a trumpet made with a fourth valve, one that would allow him to play in micro-tones or quarter-tones, the notes between the notes on the piano.  An instrument he often would hook up to various electronic devices that would modulate the sound in very unusual ways. His music stretched the very concept of meter, even recording a piece called: Bulgarian Bulge that was in 33/16.  In the late 60s early 70s [he unfortunately passed away in his early forties from heart arrhythmia in 1978] his band toured with one of those psychedelic screens placed behind the band being splashed with vivid colors and shapes as they performed.


Chick Corea is a classically trained pianist who took his training into the avant-garde of free-jazz in the late 60s.  Later he would form the fusion band: Return to Forever that stands out for its virtuosity and the melding of classical, jazz and electronic elements.  Of his many albums there are two which especially stand out to me: Leprechaun and The Mad Hatter.  Both of them are presented as an artistic/conceptional whole, not just single tracks.  Both incorporate electronic music, classical idioms, strings and voice, and hard driving jazz into a seamless whole.


Toshiko Akioyoshi is to me, the most natural in her music and possibly the bravest of these three.  A woman composer, a jazz pianist no less from the Japanese culture to strike out and succeed in the wide-world. is, I can imagine nothing to attempt by the faint of heart.  Luckily strike out and succeed she did, and we have her music to enjoy. While she often wrote in very traditional jazz forms, her melodies and harmonies are rich with the sounds of her native land.  At times she would do something very personal and unique.  Writing a piece using musical elements and artists from the Shinto religion.  I found those works very moving and powerful.  In either case when listening to her music there is always an enjoyment of meeting someone who sees and hears the world through a very different prism. 


Any other influences we might want to know about?

I think here would be the opportunity to mention my parents who raised me, and my mentors that inspire me personally, spiritually and artistically.  I have always thought of experiences, as person to person, life experiences.  You never go away from a personal encounter the same, so always do your best to make it something special.  To my parents, a sense of conviction to always do your best to do what is right, by yourself and by your neighbor.  Abide, always, by your faith because you will need that peace of mind and strength when the life is not so easy.  All my love for my dear wife Elisabeth and my two sons Alexander and Adam.  Thank you for putting up with "grumpy Dad" for all these years, who shouts "QUIET!!" from his studio while you are happily humming or whistling around the house as I compose.  I think you have a few more years to put up with me!  My instructors on the trombone, to whom I am deeply indebted for your time and expertise.  You always set my bar high, knowing that with hard work, I would achieve what I set out to do.  Not for a moment can I overlook my composition professors, Dr. Burt Szabo and Dr. Scott S. Huston   who introduced me to more music than I could have ever known, enjoyed or appreciated, and then helped guide me onto my own path.  To Timothy William and Will Rogers who see in me and in OCCO a unique opportunity for the expression of musical arts here in the Central Florida area.  Last, but not least to Todd Craven, Julia Gessinger, and all the members of Orlando Contemporary Chamber Orchestra, you continue to inspire me personally and musically.  To write for you, is my deepest act of friendship and love.


How long have you lived locally?

My parents moved down to the Orlando area in 1969, so 50 years now, although after graduating from undergraduate school I went wandering about the world for ten years.  My Dad was one of the first faculty members of the then new: Florida Technological University, now the University of Central Florida.


What do you like about being here?

This area is such an enigma.  Most people when if you ask them about Florida will of course mention beaches and the theme parks.  But once you get out of the theme parks, and just step away from the beaches you find a real striking confluence of new and old, diverse people and cultures.  It always seems that there is a new experience to enjoy, just by driving around the corner, heading off to a different town or city for a visit, or taking a long walk in a direction you've never gone before.  I find it very exciting and refreshing mentally, emotionally living here.


Are there any activities, restaurants, or other local establishments that you’re fond of?

Can I just answer yes?  I doubt you would want me to start a list here, it will go on and on, and on!!  Right here in Sanford is a great example of what I was mentioning about Florida.  Sanford itself has a rich history beginning in the 1840s, as Fort Mellon, an important port for river traffic after that. Goldsboro is the second oldest black township in the United States, just a stones-throw away.  You can find all sorts of cuisine right outside the doors of the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center.  From Home-style, to Greek, German, micro-breweries and more. I love discovering new ethnic restaurants and cuisine.  My wife always laughs when I order something new and different from a menu, which often grosses out the kids.  Micro breweries are a favorite, I am a low brass player after all!!  While I am handicapped by the fact that I am partially color-blind, I have always enjoyed friends who are visual artists so going to art galleries, or art shows to go to.  There are poetry readings in the area, a planetarium at Seminole Sate College, and, of course all that is offered here at the Wayne Densch in stage productions and music.


What are you doing when you’re not composing/playing? Any hobbies/interests?

There are few things that I don't enjoy doing or at least trying once.  Okay, fishing, don't like eating them, don't like sitting there waiting for them to stupidly bite the hook at the end of my line, but even then I do enjoy boating.  I've canoed and taken a powerboat down a number of the rivers here in Florida.  My parents used to own a skiff that I would take out on the lake behind our house.  Getting away to the parks, local, state and national, helps me sort of detox from the hustle and bustle of life.  Beth and I always enjoy walking and hiking together.    Reading, I am just about an insatiable reader, from novels, to non-fiction, obviously I love poetry as well.  I enjoy sports, used to play at tennis and racquetball with my Dad when younger, but all sports, I had the joy of coaching my kids on their soccer teams in elementary to middle school at the YMCA.. Quiet times with family and friends are some of the most enjoyable and memorable moments in life.  I do my best to take it in, experience all that life has to offer.   Can I list "getting out of the house" as a hobby?