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Photograph by Gordon Schmidt

For composer and music professor Benjamin Broening (left), the process of writing a new piece of music begins long before he puts pen to paper.

“The instant we start talking about a new piece, my mind starts thinking, ‘Well, what would I do?’ That’s a really important part of the compositional process,” he said. “When you start putting lots of notes to paper, you’re not starting cold. You’re starting because you’ve been thinking about it.”

When the Richmond Symphony came to him in early 2014 suggesting he write a piece for the orchestra, his wheels immediately began turning, though he didn’t get to work writing music until later that summer.

“I came to Ben with the idea of a commission because we wanted to give him the opportunity to write for our hometown orchestra,” said Steven Smith (right), music director of the symphony.

“There was a long-standing desire on both of our parts to work more closely together,” Broening said.

The piece was the first one commissioned through Musical Shares, a new symphony program that gives local residents the opportunity to invest in the commissioning of new music. “To band together with others in this kind of program makes it possible for many more people to have that shared sense of ownership,” Smith said.

Broening's initial inspiration came from thinking about parallax. “I’m interested in this notion of looking at things from different angles,” Broening said. “If you have a melody and you put certain chords with it, it sounds one way, and if you put different chords with it, you’ve created something completely different.” Combining that interest with his love of nature led him to musically interpret the Wallace Stevens poem “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”

Once the piece was finished, Broening spent four days with Smith and the orchestra preparing for the April 18 premiere at the Carpenter Theatre.

“You have the remarkable ability to talk to the composer and ask them questions,” Smith said. “There are many times you want to ask Beethoven or Brahms why they did something; it’s great to be part of the conversation with Ben.”

The commission is just the latest venture between the Richmond Symphony and the University, whose partnership is defined by deep connections with the music department but also involves projects with others across campus. “We like to think critically about ways that music can become a vehicle for learning in all areas of study,” said David Fisk, the symphony's executive director.

“It’s nice to see arts organizations like the Richmond Symphony not just sitting in their halls waiting for people to come, but opening the doors, going out into the community,” Broening said. “They’re being very proactive about it, and I think that’s really exciting.”