And it was possibly the first of its kind. Lance Willett, executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra Association, thinks it might have been the first time that a commission for a composition for young performers and audiences also put an age limit on the composer - 35 at the time of the application.
David Dzubay, an associate professor of music at Indiana University and director of the school's New Music Ensemble, won the commission and wrote Orchestra-Schmorchestra, a 20-minute piece that will be getting its world premiere on Sunday, May 6, at 2 p.m. in Augustana College's Centennial Hall.
Dzubay, who is now 36, will be narrating the piece for the premiere.
The composition is meant as an introduction to the orchestra and follows the lead of Benjamin Britten's famous Young Person's Guide to Orchestra. It starts by describing the sounds of an orchestra and then goes through each of the choirs and their instruments.
"This is the kind of work that will find its way into the repertoire for youth orchestra," said Willett, who described the piece as "witty and clever" and "quick."
"There is some visual humor in it," he said. "There's lots of quick repartee between orchestra and the narrator. ... It's a complex work for a youth orchestra."
Dzubay said he enjoyed developing the composition. He added that aside from writing the narration, the process wasn't much different than other pieces.
He said writing for a youth orchestra means the music needs to be technically less difficult than a composition for adult performers. "The restriction is more for the orchestra than the audience," Dzubay said. "I don't consider that a compromise. There's some really beautiful music that's easy to play."
The commission is the Quad City Youth Symphony Orchestra's fifth, but its first since 1988. Willett said the orchestra likes to commission works because it gives the organization "a profile nationally" but primarily because of the education value. Young performers get to meet and work with the composer, and they learn what it's like to be the first people to prepare a piece for performance - "an experience they might not even get in college," he said.
The commissioning process is also important because there's a dearth of new music written specifically for youth orchestras. And that's a function of nobody commissioning new works. (Most commissions are in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, Willett said.)
"Successful composers are working on commission," Dzubay said, and without commissions, there won't be much music.
That might explain the massive response to the orchestra's application request. The call for entries in 1999 drew 142 applications, "an astonishing number for us," Willett said. The response "affirmed the whole process - young composer, young orchestra, young audience."
Willett said that Dzubay stood out immediately because of the volume and variety of his work. "He's also well-established at one of the premier music schools in the country," he said. The composer's application "pointed exactly in the direction we wanted."
The commission was announced in December 1999, and Dzubay had until November 1, 2000, to write and deliver the piece.
"Our youth orchestra has been working on it since December," Willett said. "This is the kind of thing that keeps us going."
"I'll be part of the rehearsal," Dzubay said. "I haven't heard it played by instruments yet."