By Alyssa Pry
These are classic music questions: How should a piece of music be interpreted? What should the listener feel? And who is responsible for shaping that experience? Composer Andrew Boss is purposefully leaving those questions unanswered with his symphony Tetelestai, which Brooklyn Wind Symphony will be performing at MMC’s March 20th concert, Modern Wind Symphony.
“I take an interpretive approach [to composing],” Boss said. “I’m very fascinated by interpretation and the cognitive experience behind music.”
The 27-year-old composer burst on the wind-band scene with the premiere of his 2014 symphony Tetelestai, which was performed by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, where he is also pursuing his Doctorate of Musical Arts in Composition.
The symphony is framed around the biblical account of the death, fall and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But instead of retelling the story, Boss wanted to interpret the images and emotions he felt through music.
Boss also looked to the meaning behind the word “Tetelestai,” which is Greek for “It is finished” and is supposedly the last word spoken by Jesus before his death.
“I’m absolutely fascinated by religion, and I would call myself religious, with a few reservations,” he said. “But what was more fascinating to me was the story line, and the word “Teleo,” which implies that something has been done that can’t be reversed."
Boss had already completed the first movement of the symphony and planned to have it performed as a stand-alone piece. But it was his collaboration with renowned conductor Jerry Junkin that introduced the idea of expanding it into something larger.
“I knew if there was anyone I wanted to perform this, whatever it would become, it would be Jerry Junkin,” Boss said. “And the piece was read and it was great, and I thought, well this is going to be a bigger piece.”
Junkin then commissioned Boss to create a new work for him, after listening to some of Boss's other work.
“That was certainly a huge impetus in my desire to make this a bigger piece,” Boss said. “And after the first movement and before I completed the next two, I decided to bring in the religious component.”
"Different people bring in their beliefs and understanding of the world as they sit down and listen to it, and that determines how they listen to it."
Boss turned to the biblical tale to frame the three movements of his symphony.
“I tried to clarify the three movements as the crucifixion, the battle [of life and death] and the resurrection,” Boss said.
Regardless of religious beliefs or a person’s understanding of religion, Boss wanted the listener to go on a journey--their experience with the piece shaped by their own personal connections to the music.
“Different people bring in their beliefs and understanding of the world as they sit down and listen to it, and that determines how they listen to it,” he said. “[And] how they experience it will impact what they feel about it and the images they see or feel,” Boss said.
Boss portrayed the death of Jesus for the first movement, Homage, and was moved by feelings of betrayal, despair, suffering and death. The symphony begins with a clanging of percussion, and then introduces a distant and melancholy horn solo. The movement ebbs and flows—full bursts of sound giving way to exposed solo lines; an ominous low brass line building to a bombastic climax; before returning again to the haunting and lingering notes of the french horn.
“[In the first movement] I portrayed the death [of Jesus] — which really gives a powerful set of feelings,” Boss said. “If you’re not religious, it’s symbolizing hardship or suffering—things that are very real in society today.”
The second movement, Tocatta, is Boss’s interpretation of the war between heaven and sin, during the three days between the death and resurrection. For Boss, it’s a conflict between two opposing forces—the rhythmic introduction to the 2nd movement swells to a frantic flurry of instrumentation, a thrilling battle cry. The movement is a constant push and pull between moments of intensity and relief.
“The second movement was about war in those three days between death and resurrection,” Boss explained. “It could symbolize an obstacle that you’re trying to overcome.”
The symphony’s final movement, Interlude and Finale, is Boss’s portrayal of the resurrection, and he looked towards feelings related to victory and rebirth. The reflective interlude at the beginning of the movement transitions to the symphony’s soaring finale, a powerful and unrelenting crescendo leading to the final ringing notes.
“For the final movement, obviously I felt I needed to portray the resurrection. And whether that was a personal rebirth or a depiction of the resurrection—it eventually brings its way to a catharsis,” Boss said.
“[Tetelestai] gets to that point where it transcends being notes on a page and it becomes emotion...and it becomes that perfection of existence we get when we play music.”
The 25-minute symphony caught the ear of Brooklyn Wind Symphony conductor Jeff Ball, who was immediately drawn to the originality of the work.
“It’s a piece that has such a unique voice to it—there are parts that really don’t sound like anything else for the genre,” Ball said. “I really respect someone that can make the wind band sound different.”
Ball said the experience of listening to Boss’s piece epitomizes the beauty of wind band music, and for musicians, captures the joy of playing within an ensemble.
“The goal of music and the reason why we’re all here in these community ensembles is that we all at some point in our life became addicted to that feeling,” Ball said. “[Tetelestai] gets to that point where it transcends being notes on a page and it becomes emotion and it becomes power and it becomes that perfection of existence we get when we play music.”
For Boss, working with the wind band community has allowed him the freedom to explore and challenge himself as a composer.
“Because of the friendliness and support of the wind ensemble medium, that was a huge boost to my career,” Boss said. “They’re very open to doing different things.”
Boss will be sitting in the audience at Sunday’s concert; an experience Ball says is a unique and thrilling part of the wind band community.
“It’s been amazing working with him because he’s been extremely accessible. A lot of these [composers] in the wind band world are, [which is] something we’re fortunate to have,” Ball said. “It’s really amazing; that our composers are living and they’re excited we’re doing their work. We’re literally contributing to the future of classical music.”