Russell Steinberg’s ‘Cosmic Dust’ is New West Symphony’s first commissioned piece under leader Marcelo Lehninger
By Michael Aushenker
The New West Symphony gets intergalactic when composer Russell Steinberg sprinkles his “Cosmic Dust” on Sunday afternoon’s program at Santa Monica High School’s Barnum Hall.
“Cosmic Dust,” Steinberg’s 12-minute “abstract story,” is broken up into four parts: “Magic Sky,” “Shooting Stars,” “Interstellar Dust” and “Nova” (“The idea of the new,” Steinberg said), accompanied by dynamic Hubble telescope images.
Steinberg’s piece arrives this weekend as the first-ever piece commissioned by New West Symphony under its new musical leader, Marcelo Lehninger. “Cosmic Dust” prefaces a program also featuring Chopin (Concerto No. 2 in F Minor for Piano & Orchestra, Opus 21) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67).
“Cosmic Dust,” said Lehninger, “reflects my mission, as well as the symphony’s, to focus the repertory not just on standard works but on education and new music. We try to do a little of everything: war horses as well as new music.”
Founded in 1995, New West Symphony features professional classical musicians holding concerts at three venues in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties: Oxnard Performing Arts Center, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and Barnum Hall. Under Lehninger’s leadership, the symphony presents six Masterpiece Series concerts annually and also operates as a nonprofit with outreach to elementary school students.
“It was appropriate to have Russell as the composer,” conductor Lehninger said this week after returning from the East Coast, where he substituted for the Boston Symphony. “He is not only our pre-concert lecturer and already has a following with our symphony patrons, but he regularly works with a youth orchestra.”
Steinberg was previously commissioned by the Daniel Pearl Foundation’s Judea Pearl, father of the journalist slain by terrorists in 2002, to create 2011’s “Stories From My Favorite Planet,” a symphonic tribute to Daniel Pearl set to images inspired by his articles.
In creating “Cosmic Dust,” Steinberg enjoyed carte blanche, but that’s not always the case with commissions. For a piece created for Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the influential spiritual leader of Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom synagogue, “I never asked him specifically his favorite music. When I learned it was George Gershwin, I realized why I had not hit the mark,” Steinberg said, chuckling.
However, Schulweis’ Yom Kippur service would have a hand in inspiring his latest piece’s thematic thrust.
“I heard him give this amazing talk that we’re all made of dust. We’re stardust. When we look at the sky, we’re actually looking at ourselves, at our origins,” Steinberg said.
“It’s not a programmatic piece, but one that tries to express the sky with the music and sounds,” Lehninger said. “It’s a pretty cool thing.”
In 1999, Steinberg founded Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, drawing students from more than 60 L.A.-area schools to perform at downtown L.A.’s Colburn School. On Friday and Saturday, New West Symphony musicians play side by side with the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra.
Steinberg modestly describes “Cosmic Dust” as “just the appetizer” for a main course of Chopin and Beethoven.
While he did not create his work with an eye toward how the Chopin piece would follow it — he initially toyed with the idea of creating “slow, undulating music, then took a 180-degree different direction” — Steinberg did compose with Lehninger in mind.
“He has a tremendous drama,” Steinberg said of the symphony’s young leader. “I actually imagined how he can build momentum and create calm in places.”
After Santa Monica, “Cosmic Dust” floats on to Baltimore and New Jersey.
“I hope people hear something that’s a little different and excites their imagination,” Steinberg said.
Hear “Cosmic Dust” at 4 p.m. Sunday at Santa Monica High School’s Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Call (805) 497-5800 or visit newwestsymphony.org.