When the Victoria Symphony opens its 75th anniversary season on September 21, School of Music professor Christopher Butterfield will be helping them celebrate—courtesy of the world premiere of his latest composition.
Simply titled Canter, Butterfield’s piece will be conducted by maestra Tania Miller alongside the likes of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkries and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, among others. Vaunted company, to be sure, but apt considering Butterfield’s latest was commissioned by the Victoria Symphony itself.
“They called me up and asked me to do a piece for their 75th anniversary. The only thing they said was, ‘Don’t make it a dirge.’” Butterfied pauses and laughs. “’Don’t worry,’ I said to them, ‘I don’t do dirges.’”
Butterfield—a School of Music alumnus himself—has been a professor of composition and theory at UVic since 1992. His music has been performed across Canada and in Europe, is recorded on the CBC and Artifact labels, and he’s no stranger to the Victoria Symphony. From 1999 to 2002, he was their first composer in residence and a number of his compositions have been showcased by the Symphony—including his popular WWII inspired Convoy PQ 17 requiem, which has been remounted a number of times since its 2001 debut.
Butterfield describes the eight-minute Canter as being like a concerto for the orchestra. “That just means it’s focussed more on individual players, rather than the orchestra as a whole,” he explains. “Instead of just having the first or second violins playing in unison, for instance, I have a lot of individual string parts—18 separate violin parts, 6 separate viola parts, 6 separate cello parts and 4 separate bass parts. The result will be an impressionistic conveyance of either motion or utterance.”
Did the commission come with any specific requests? “There are orchestras that say they want this kind of a piece or that kind of piece,” he says, “but I’m very lucky. For whatever reason, nobody has ever told me what to do, so I usually just do whatever it is I feel like doing. ”
There are a number of decisions that go into creating a commissioned work, Butterfield explains, ranging from the composer’s circumstances and a symphony’s season context, to the size of the orchestra and what else may be on the program the night the piece debuts. The beauty of a commission, he says, is that it provides a composer with an ideal opportunity to play.
“When you find out you have orchestra to work with, it gives you the chance to try out ideas that otherwise might’ve only done with smaller groups,” he says. “Canter, for instance, has radical dynamic changes in volume within the ensemble—a great scattered sound that creates almost a perspective from very quiet to very loud but happening all at once. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a bigger orchestra for this one than I might have . . . I’ve even got a harp.”
And what happens to Canter once it has debuted? “It’ll go to the symphony library,” he says. “When an orchestra commissions a piece, it’s very much part of their artistic capital—it’s been written specifically for them.” Sometimes, he explains, new pieces will languish in the library for years before being dusted off, while others—such as his Convoy PQ 17—goes on to be performed internationally by other orchestras. Butterfiled mentions the first piece he ever wrote for the Victoria Symphony which he was able to revise 10 years later as part of their New Music Festival. “I didn’t change anything structurally at all, just essentially tidied it up, and that worked really well. So sometimes the material goes in the library and gets quite a long life.”
Butterfield is looking forward to hearing the complete Canter . . . especially now that he can move on to other projects. “It’s funny how eight minutes can absorb weeks and weeks and weeks of work,” he chuckles.