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The orchestra and music director in waiting Eckart Preu embrace the work of young writers from The Telling Room.

The composer Michael-Thomas Foumai was given 10 compositions by young Maine writers and asked to choose one, maybe two, as a basis for constructing a new piece of music for the Portland Symphony Orchestra. That proved an impossible task, he said.

“All were compelling and thoughtful works of art. I could have easily chosen all of them to create music,” he wrote in an email.

Ultimately, he chose three poems by writers from the Telling Room, the Portland writing center that helps teenagers express themselves: Husna Quinn, Eliza Rudalevige and Aubrey Duplissie. In his own writing, Foumai used the emotions conveyed by the students in their writing as inspiration for a three-movement piece, “The Telling Rooms,” which the orchestra will premiere on Sunday and Tuesday, Jan. 29, in concerts at Merrill Auditorium. The orchestra’s music director designate, Eckart Preu, will conduct the concerts. Preu begins his full-time duties with the orchestra this fall and is coming to Portland this weekend to announce the schedule and programming choices for the 2019-2020 season.

The Telling Room sponsors an annual statewide writing contest, open to writers between the ages of 12 and 18. They were given a prompt to create poetry or prose based on color. The Telling Room shared the winning poem by Quinn, as well as the other finalists, with the PSO, which passed them on to Foumai.

“A lot of my music is about telling stories,” he wrote. “I look to the written word for inspiration all the time, and I was enticed at the opportunity to create music inspired by our young writers today. The project checked off everything on my composer wish list.”

He set aside three pieces of writing that moved him emotionally, then sat the piano and improvised rhythms, harmonies and melodies to see which one emerged as his muse. He hoped the process of creating a soundtrack to words would make it easier to choose one piece of writing to use as a basis for his musical composition.

But it only made it more difficult, he said. “One entry focused on one color, another on a family of shades and the third on a full spectrum,” he wrote. “I wanted to explore all of these written words, and it became clear that these three could form a compelling triptych. I was relieved when I was given the go-ahead to choose three entries.”

Each piece of writing inspired a movement of music. The first movement is about recognizing similar colors in different things. It’s music that sounds majestic and happy, but Foumai hopes listeners will feel a tinge of sadness, because the original writing is about a color that represents love and loss, he said. The second movement is all about dark and visceral memories. “The colors in the writing are shadowy, so the music is secretive with volatile outburst in the orchestra,” Foumai said. “This is music of infidelity as witnessed by a child so there is nothing cheery here.”

The final movement is upbeat in tempo and the writing is frivolous.

Quinn’s winning poem, “Dressed in Red,” inspired the difficult second movement. In her poem, she describes witnessing infidelity from a child’s perspective. “Her aura breathes ‘vile stepmother’/but her attire screams ‘fleeting lover,'” Quinn writes.

In an interview, Quinn said it was thrilling to think that her writing could inspire someone to compose music. “I thought it was a fantastic idea, and I was very happy when my poem was chosen,” she said. “I wrote it because sometimes children’s perspectives aren’t heard.”

Likewise, Duplissie said it felt “surreal” to think about her written words being turned into music. When she learned her poem was among those chosen, she didn’t believe it. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re not doing my piece. That must be a mistake.’ But they are. It’s very exciting,” she said.

This is Foumai’s second time working with the PSO. The orchestra commissioned him to compose “Becoming Beethoven,” which premiered in 2015. His works have been performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and the Dolce Suono Ensemble at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He teaches theory and composition a the University of Hawaii.

In addition to “The Telling Rooms,” the concerts on Sunday and Tuesday will open with Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo & Juliet” Fantasy Overture and conclude with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”


WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29. WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland HOW MUCH: $25 to $83 INFO: (207) 842-0800, PROGRAM: Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo & Juliet” Overture-Fantasy, Michael-Thomas Foumai’s “The Telling Rooms” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”

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