Feb 22, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

When composing MOXIE, Kristin Kuster said she wanted to create an immediate festive atmosphere that grabs the audience right from the downbeat. What might have been less immediately obvious to the audience at first listen is the tribute and musical cipher that Kuster built into her piece.

Kuster — who teaches composition at the University of Michigan — is one of 10 composers commissioned to write encore works to be premiered during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s centennial season. The composers chose themes from a long list of topics that celebrate the culture and history of Baltimore suggested by the community, which range from blue crabs to Edgar Allan Poe to David Simon and The Wire.

When looking at the list of topics, Kuster said she was immediately drawn to the idea of writing a piece for Maestra Marin Alsop.

“All that she’s done, not only for this orchestra but for the community and artistic culture at large, is huge,” Kuster said.

As part of that musical tribute, Kuster used the composition technique of musical ciphers, where individual notes in a piece correspond to letters in a name. Ciphers have a long history in classical music. Numerous composers have used the “Bach Motif” of B-flat, A, C and B natural (the latter note is written as an H in German), and music scholar Eric Sams has written that Robert Schumann used a cipher system to hide the name “Clara” in his music.

Instead of assigning individual notes to letters, Kuster used chords to spell out M-A-R-I-N for a motif at the heart of MOXIE.

See Kuster talk about her piece and hear the premiere performance below.

The centennial celebration works are commissioned for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Marin Alsop by Classical Movements, Inc. as part of the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program. Also made possible by a grant from New Music USA through a generous contribution from Thomas Brener and Inbal Segev, and additionally supported by the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Randolph S. and Amalie R. Rothschild Endowed Fund for New Music.

Kristin Kuster talks about MOXIE

The BSO performing MOXIE at its 100th Anniversary Concert