Interview with Scott Wheeler
As conductor, composer, music coordinator and artistic director, Scott Wheeler played an indispensable role in both the founding of Dinosaur Annex 43 years ago and its establishment as an enduring, highly respected, first-rate professional ensemble. Scott’s dedication and guidance inspired the ensemble to become life-long, passionate caretakers of the music of our time. We’re thrilled to feature his Fantasy Dances in our RetroChic concert on November 17.
What is your richest memory of the early days of Dino Annex?
Oh, there are too many to choose from. Dinosaur Annex was a huge part of my artistic life, which is to say of my existence, for many years. Every performance was a chance to connect with another composer, with our wonderful players, and with our loyal audience. In between performances we had meetings, rehearsals, and endless phone communications.
How has Dino Annex changed over the years since your involvement?
I still get occasional compliments on the name Dinosaur Annex, which we never abbreviated, and which many wise people told us to change from the very beginning. I remember Rodney [Lister]’s intransigence on the topic expressed in a meeting in which he said “fine, we’ll call ourselves the Flaming Arts Ensemble,” which seemed to stop discussion. The group was really Rodney’s, at least the vision was his. He and I shared duties as pianist and conductor, with the late Ezra Sims as much-consulted silent partner. In the manner of a composer consortium, we did lots of pieces by the three of us, but we included lots of Rodney’s favorite music, notably Schubert, Britten, Brahms, Cage, Schoenberg, Virgil Thomson and Percy Grainger, whose Harvest Hymn was a finale for many of our early programs.
The core instrumental membership evolved organically; the three clarinet players Kathy Matasy, Diane Heffner and Ian Greitzer were often featured, such that our configuration derived from Schoenberg’s Suite Op. 29 (3 clarinets, string trio and piano) rather than the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble more typical for new music groups.
In the early 1980s, Rodney left, I conducted but almost never played piano, and most of the regular performers became official members – from then on it was an ensemble, and we focused on new music rather than trying to include classic repertoire. We settled into a long tenure performing at 1st & 2nd Church Boston. In the early 2000s, my NEC classmate, the late Peter Homans began sponsoring Dinosaur Annex chamber orchestra concerts at Jordan Hall and dance collaborations at the Tsai Center. We invited several guest conductors, especially as I got busier as a composer, especially with my first couple opera commissions. During my first sabbatical from Dinosaur Annex, Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin took over, and was asked to stay as my co-director, an arrangement that has continued to the present.
How does interacting with your students inspire your own creative work?
I have only occasionally taught composition. At Emerson College I have mostly taught musical theatre performance, which has fed into my own work by giving me a sense of how music works on stage. The composers I have found most inspiring have been from my own generation, though I regularly encounter inspiring and surprising music from composers aged 20 to 90.
Tell us about the composition Fantasy Dances to be performed on the November 17 concert. What is ‘fantastical’ (if anything) about the piece, and to what sort(s) of dances does your piece refer, if any?
The title just meant that the music wasn’t meant literally as dance music. It includes two Round Dances, a Tango, a Hornpipe and Jazz Dance. All are played without pause, and with a couple non-dance interludes that are rather still. The piece is dedicated to Ian, Diane and Kathy, who played the premiere in the early 1980s.
You’re very involved in operatic work. Does that sense of working with the theatrical transfer over to your acoustic pieces?
Attend RetroChic on Nov 17
Hear Scott’s Fantasy Dances in RetroChic, Dinosaur Annex’s first concert of the season at Third Life Studio. Seating is limited, so be sure to reserve your tickets in advance!