Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra premieres Bolcom’s ‘9th Symphony’

To celebrate Rice University’s centennial year, the Shepherd School of Music last night presented the world premiere of American composer William Bolcom’s “Ninth Symphony: A Short Symphony in One Movement,” commissioned for the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra. Additional performances will take place Oct. 12 and 14.

The performances are part of Rice’s Centennial Celebration, Oct. 10-14.

Larry Rachleff, the Walter Kris Hubert Professor of Orchestral Conducting, directed the world premiere and will direct the subsequent performances. He called the “Ninth Symphony” “strong and accessible, with a dramatic message.”

“It’s always an honor for us to premiere new works for the orchestra, and particularly this time given the significance of both the composer and the occasion,” Rachleff said. “With William Bolcom’s skills and talent comes across a very moving statement that hangs together in evident and clear ways for the listener. It’s a ‘friendly’ listen that has great meaning in it.”

Unlike traditional symphonies, which are typically two or three movements and 45 minutes long, the “Ninth Symphony” is one movement and lasts approximately 15 minutes. Despite the piece’s short length, Rachleff noted, the virtuosity required in the piece is substantial.

“It is a great statement about our students at the Shepherd School that they are able to meet this uncommon demand,” he said.

Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepherd School, called Bolcom “a senior statesmen in music today and one of America’s pre-eminent composers.”

“He’s had a long and successful career with a number of extraordinary works to his credit,” Yekovich said. “Before the Shepherd School approached him about a commission, (Bolcom) had been thinking about writing a single movement work for large orchestra, so this provided an opportunity to engage the service of a major American composer in the later phase of his career, which historically has proven to be an especially productive time for many composers.”

Yekovich added that for Rice to commission a new work of art as part of its Centennial Celebration makes a strong statement about both the university’s and the Shepherd School’s values.

During the process to select a composer to commission, Bolcom quickly emerged as the top choice, Yekovich said. A list was developed in consultation with the composition faculty and department chairs. Bolcom’s impeccable professional credentials and his 35 years at the University of Michigan made him an ideal candidate.

Bolcom said he had been wanting to do a short, one movement “Ninth Symphony,” which fit the Shepherd School’s desire for a short piece. “I love it when you have an idea that coincides with what someone wants,” he said.

Although Bolcom is not a graduate of Rice, his ties to the university are strong. He’s held residencies on campus, taught composition faculty members Arthur Gottschalk and Richard Lavenda, wrote pieces for the late violinist and former violin faculty member Sergiu Luca and had an anthology of his cello and piano music recorded by cello and piano faculty members Norman and Jeanne Kierman Fischer.

Bolcom said he felt “very much at home” when he visited Rice in the months leading up to the premiere and had absolutely no hesitation accepting the Shepherd School’s commission.

“I knew that I had a wonderful conductor, and I also knew that these days, having done many residencies since I retired from the University of Michigan in 2008, the orchestras in universities and music schools right now are across the board with very few exceptions excellent,” Bolcom said. “I knew Rice would be in that category among the very best, so I knew I had no worries, that I could write something difficult and they would take the time to learn it properly, which is something you don’t always find now with professional orchestras.”

When Bolcom arrived on campus earlier this week, he wasn’t disappointed with the sounds he heard from coming from the orchestra.

“I knew I was going to end up with a wonderful performance, and what I heard coming here was exactly what I expected,” he said. “I sat down at the rehearsal and said, ‘My heavens, this is amazing what they’ve done.'”

A National Medal of Arts, Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winner, Bolcom has received commissions from some of the world’s top orchestras and music organizations, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Philharmonic. Premieres of his works have been given by world-renowned soloists, including tenor Placido Domingo and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

For more information on the Shepherd School of Music, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.