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Squirrel Hill composer Opie goes even bigger in his new work

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Trumpet player E. Ron Horton, 37, of Penn Hills, rehearses Ben Opie's new hour-long jazz piece Concerto for Orkestra during a rehearsal at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland on Sunday, April 13, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Musicians rehearse with Carnegie Mellon adjunct professor Ben Opie, 51, of Squirrel Hill, as they work on perfecting his new piece, Concerto for Orkestra, during a rehearsal at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland on Sunday, April 13, 2014. The hour-long jazz piece will be premiered at the New Hazlett Theater.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Ben Opie, 51, of Squirrel Hill, directs his new piece, Concerto for Orkestra, during a rehearsal at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland on Sunday, April 13, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Ben Opie (right), 51, of Squirrel Hill, directs his new piece, Concerto for Orkestra, during a rehearsal at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland on Sunday, April 13, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Carnegie Mellon adjunct professor Ben Opie, 51, of Squirrel Hill, rehearses his new piece, Concerto for Orkestra, during a rehearsal at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland on Sunday, April 13, 2014. The hour-long jazz piece will be premiered at the New Hazlett Theater.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Ben Opie (left), 51, of Squirrel Hill, talks over his new piece, Concerto for Orkestra, with trumpet player E. Ron Horton, 37, of Penn Hills, during a rehearsal at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland on Sunday, April 13, 2014.

Ben Opie was so inspired by a compliment to his music, he wrote “the biggest piece” he ever has done.

“Someone once said my works had become more than music — they had become transportation, because of all the energy,” he says.

With that in mind, he wrote his “Concerto for Orkestra,” which will debut May 2 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side.

Each of its 10 movements is named after a form of transportation — with a “play on words” if possible. For instance, one movement called “Fiat” could be taken as an Italian car or a decree. The other movements range from “Dromedary” to “Bumper Car.”

Bassist Paul Thompson says the work “is some of the best material Ben has even written, and I can't wait to play it.”

The work is written for what Opie calls “an expanded version” of OPEK, his band that is generally around 12 pieces. The concerto is scored for four saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones, two guitars, piano, bass, drums and percussion, with even the conductor getting a bit of a performance role.

Conductor Nizan Leibovich, who is in the doctoral program in music at the University of Pittsburgh, will determine the lengths of some pauses and held notes, thus making the length of the piece variable.

“It is at least an hour,” Opie says.

The saxophonist/composer/arranger says he wanted to write something to celebrate his 50th birthday when he heard of a program for arts grants through the Pittsburgh Foundation. It provided financial fuel for his idea.

He has a hard time describing the piece, saying it has some jazz-influenced elements. But he thinks it is closer to some of the music of film composer Ennio Morricone.

Thompson says one of the work's strongest elements is that Opie wrote for the strengths of individual players, whom he knows from working with them in OPEK and chosen to participate in this premiere. The form of writing is similar to the work of Duke Ellington, he says, who named players in his arrangements, not simply the instruments.

He is impressed with the orchestral work Opie did.

“It is really good to hear the bigger sound Ben has put together,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn't sound like a big band at all. He uses the palette so well.”

Opie says the name of the piece, like some of the movements, also has something of a play on words — or letters, at least.

Using a “K” in “Orkestra” is a slight reference to OPEK, he says. And it gives a little nod to the “Arkestra” of Sun Ra, the avant-garde band leader whose works often are done by Opie's group.

“And I wanted to make it a little different from the ‘Concerto for Orchestra' by Bela Bartok,” he says with a laugh.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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