Our first Masterworks concert will take place on September 24th to kick off the 2023-2024 season, A Symphony for All. The title piece is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, arguably his most famous piano concerto ever composed. Additionally, the symphony will perform Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1, the first symphony composed by a Black woman to ever be performed by a major orchestra in the 1930’s. The third piece to be performed is a world premiere titled Flourish & Air by Pawleys Island native and Long Bay Youth Symphony alumnus, Joseph R. Kaz.
Kaz’s devotion to composition is an embodiment of the hope we have for all of our Youth Symphony and Youth String Ensemble students, that they may go on to pursue music as a career or stay in touch with their passion for it at the very least. To get to know him a little bit better, I asked Kaz a few questions about his life since graduating beyond the Long Bay Youth Symphony.
To start, can you tell our patrons a little about yourself and how you became interested in composing?
As a native of Pawleys Island, I started making music by studying piano with Harriet Hunter, and then joining band to play the trombone at the Waccamaw schools. From there, I became much more active in instrumental and vocal ensembles around the area – the Indigo Choral Society and Long Bay’s own Youth Symphony to name a few! Composing was something I took a casual interest in very early on, and then I got much more serious about it in high school. I was very fortunate to have amazing teachers at Waccamaw High School, Chris Graham and Suzanne Young, who not only helped me in the music writing process, but also gave me the chance to have my music performed by peers. Dr. Charles Evans with the Long Bay Youth Symphony was no different! I recall to this day Dr. Evans telling me that the piece I wanted to play for the concerto competition my senior year didn’t have a suitable orchestra arrangement, so he asked me to write a piece instead! And thus, my first piece for orchestra, La Terre de Dieu, came to be!
How I came to decide that making music, and specifically composing, was what I wanted to do is a twistier story. I knew after attending the Sewanee Summer Music Festival for the first time that music was what I wanted to do. I then remember having to choose between Ithaca College and UNC Greensboro for school, and it was definitely a loaded choice – Ithaca wanted me to be a composer; UNCG wanted me to be a trombonist. Ultimately, I chose Ithaca College because deep down I knew that composing is really what I wanted to pursue. Interestingly enough, while a freshman at Ithaca, I saw an opera for the first time – a production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo – and was blown away. That’s when I knew that opera is really what I wanted to do, both as a composer and otherwise, and so I “retired” from playing trombone and doubled down on singing.
Outside of composing, I’m a singer, conductor, and educator in the Washington, DC area. Presently, I’m the head of the music department at the Nysmith School in the DC suburbs, as well as the Chorister Program Director at St. Alban’s DC. As a singer I work with many of DC’s local opera companies including InSeries Opera, Bel Cantanti Opera, Annapolis Opera, and others. When not making music, I spend my time with my two cats, Bug and Malcom, and enjoy a plethora of activities in our nation’s capital.
I’ve read that your opera, Alice Flagg, was inspired by the famous ghost story of Pawleys Island, your hometown. Did your roots similarly inspire your latest world premiere, Flourish and Air, or did you pull inspiration from elsewhere for this piece?
I’ve always taken inspiration from the world around me, particularly my home, for my music. Be it La Terre de Dieu which was inspired by Debordieu just north of Georgetown and a place of incredible significance to my parents, or my piece for wind quintet In the Garden of Statues which was inspired by Brookgreen Gardens. The most notable are three of my operas – my first being Alice Flagg, which is about Pawleys Island's most popular and tragic ghost; The Female Stranger, which is about a peculiar grave in the Washington, DC area; and The Lady in Granite, which is another grave story from the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Flourish and Air, however, did not have a specific geographical emphasis. Rather, I wanted to craft a piece that would work well with the rest of the program for this concert. Price and Rachmaninoff are two very bombastic, yet incredibly lyrical, composers and so I wanted to write a piece that would “foreshadow” that in some ways. With this being said, there are a few subtle references to “growing up” that I snuck into the piece. It starts with the trombone. Then, there is another short trombone solo in the middle, and a lengthy oboe solo for Jessica Miller, who, of course, was the LBYS manager when I was in the ensemble. Furthermore, the composer I draw the most influence from is Puccini, whose opera Tosca was famously described as a “shabby little shocker.” Now, while I think Tosca is much more than that – I would love to have any of my pieces reviewed as “arrogantly shabby.”
Several members of our Youth Symphony have gone on to do incredible things in the musical world, yourself included! Can you speak a little about your time in the Long Bay Youth Symphony and in what ways it helped prepare you for a career in music?
My time with the LBYS was absolutely amazing! There is nothing like playing in an orchestra, and playing in a youth symphony that was so unafraid to conquer some amazing pieces was incredible for me, and I made so many amazing friends who were phenomenal musicians. Waccamaw had an amazing band program, but playing with an orchestra was so much different – it taught me how to be a more independent musician, and it allowed me to become immersed in a much broader range of styles. Making music with Dr. Evans was always a joy, and he always insisted upon us putting intention behind every note we played. This is something that I really took for granted at the time, but as I’ve continued to make music, I now continually remind myself of – and definitely has paid dividends in the audition room!
What advice do you have for the younger generation of composers who are interested in making music their career?
For anyone thinking about pursuing composing, I would say to remember to be honest with yourself about the kind of music you want to write, but to practice writing in as many different styles and with as many different techniques as possible. For me, studying composition has always been about finding more tools to put under my belt and more ways to be expressive. With this being said, the music world is no fairy tale. Find a way to “make it” that isn’t the story book ending of finding a patron or expecting to work solely on commission. Furthermore, keep making music yourself. Never stop performing, as it is one of our greatest teachers.