Photo Gallery | Lee High School band rehearses 'Chaconne'

LEE — Every four years the Lee Middle and High School Music Department and its supporting parent group commission a new work to be studied and performed by the school band.

In turn, the band members are given the challenge to bring such a project to life in a world premiere performance.

"It's such a nice privilege to have because I don't think this happens at many other schools," said Karen Hernandez, a senior flutist.


On Thursday, during a daytime open rehearsal for the school and a 7 p.m. public winter concert, the piece, "Chaconne," composed by Matthew Quayle, Ph.D., will be debuted by the students under the direction of Joanne Nelson-Unczur.

"I think it's so cool because this is our song and it's a special opportunity," Hernandez said. "And it's been really nice to be working with [the composer] in person too."

Quayle's residency at the school began Monday, coinciding with double period-long rehearsals, but the instrumental group has been working with the piece since October.

Nelson-Unczur met Quayle, an assistant arts professor of music at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, when they were children living in upstate New York, and she kept track of his musical career as a composer and pianist.

"He's been at the top of my wish list of someone to work with," the band director said, noting she was thrilled when Quayle accepted the commission, a $2,500 investment by band families.

Joanne Nelson-Unczur conducts the Lee Middle and High School band through "Chaconne," a work commissioned for the group composed by Matthew
Joanne Nelson-Unczur conducts the Lee Middle and High School band through "Chaconne," a work commissioned for the group composed by Matthew Quayle, Ph.D., right. (Jenn Smith — The Berkshire Eagle)

Through various correspondences, Nelson-Unczur described her band students' strengths and weaknesses to the composer. He then developed a work that showcased the students' ranges of skills and instruments, from traditional sections of woodwinds and brass, to singular instruments like violin, bassoon and glockenspiel.

The music teacher said more than half of the band's 35 members are freshmen, but she said Quayle's composition has been able to showcase the seasoned talents of the seniors too.

Nelson-Unczur said the commission and residency is "nice because [the students] get to see how the composition process works and they get to see a live composer and how a new work is created."

Quayle said it's true that students are often used to playing masterworks of classical composers like Stravinsky and Brahms, who are long gone.

"I think it's a great program and not very common," said Quayle. "I've been impressed with this group's discipline and commitment. They sit patiently and listen to ideas. They've been asking me questions too. This is what it's all about for me."

The chaconne style of composition gained popularity during the Baroque era, and is easily understood because the chord progressions tend to be repeated over and over. For the Lee band piece, Quayle added variations to this style by orchestrating small group instrumentations and unique solos that build throughout the approximately six minute duration.

Clarinetist Darby Curtin, also a senior, asked Quayle about this process — she had been hearing about the school band's commission program since she was a freshman.

The composer said he's been enjoying the process and challenge of "putting together the puzzle," noting that he's never worked on a commissioned piece for a small high school band in the kind of setting that's been established at Lee.

Curtin said the program "is a really great opportunity."

"Over the years, we've played easier pieces and harder pieces and this one wasn't so bad, but we've definitely had to practice at it. As as senior, this is a really great kind of send-off project, and as a group, I think we're doing a really great job."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.