Musical Masterpiece

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By Melissa Hoffman '10
November 9, 2009

Bradley University music professor Dr. John Orfe is having two busy weeks that bring national and worldwide recognition to him and to the University.

On October 15, the NOVUS Trombone Quartet premiered Dr. John Orfe’s “The Parable of the Sower” at New York University, which it commissioned as ensemble-in-residence.  On October 17, the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra premiered Orfe’s fanfare “Aerials,” which it commissioned to celebrate its 50th anniversary season.  On October 23, critically acclaimed new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound travels to Hamburg, Germany to give the European premiere of “Dowland Remix,” which it premiered in July to positive mention in the “New York Times.”

A talented musician and dedicated composer, Dr. Orfe became a Bradley University temporary assistant professor in fall 2008 in the Department of Music, where he teaches five music theory and ear-training and sight singing classes each semester. 

Orfe was awarded the ASCAP Standard Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for the 10th year in a row in September for his musical accomplishments.  Orfe earned the honor for his musical compositions, which are performed around the world including Australia, New Zealand and Thailand.

Orfe is the core keyboardist and a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, a 20-member contemporary classical group that was hailed as “the future of classical music” by the “New York Times.”  Alarm Will Sound has performed across the United States, as well as in Russia and Europe.  The group introduced his Chamber Symphony to audiences in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which indicated their positive reaction by synchronizing their applause.  The group’s latest recording, called “A/rhythmia,” was released on September 15 and earned a glowing review from the British newspaper “The Guardian.” “It would be great to bring Alarm Will Sound to Bradley,” Orfe said.

As a soloist and collaborative pianist, Orfe has performed across the United States and in Central and South America.  His performances have been described as “breathtaking” and “hypervirtuosic” by the “New York Times” and the “San Francisco Chronicle.” 

Orfe compares composing music to writing poetry or prose because he finds the literary editing process a useful analogy in his approach to working with musical narratives.  Compositions can take from a couple days to more than six months for Orfe to complete.

“It’s a lot of work even when musical ideas are fluid,” Orfe said.  “It can be very personal when you’re in the process.  You need to have an honest ear and work diligently.” 

Orfe attributes his inspiration for music to the world around him.  Literary and visual sources motivate him to sketch musical ideas or they can be completely abstract.  Even current events can provide the seeds of musical inspiration.  Orfe literally took the seed metaphor as a compositional premise in his trombone quartet, “The Parable of the Sower.”  In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the Bible, a man tosses four seeds on the ground; one is snatched by hungry birds, one lands on shallow ground, another is suffocated by thorns and thistles, but the fourth prospers on fertile ground.  “It’s one of the few parables Jesus explains.  The seeds and soil represent the word of the Lord and the human heart.  It’s a powerful metaphor for anything full of promise,” Orfe said.  In the work’s four movements, each of the trombones played a leading part to represent the fate of the four seeds. 

Orfe also enjoys teaching music at Bradley.  “The students are great and my colleagues have been very supportive,” Orfe said.  He uses a variety of musical sources to illustrate his points.  For example, he once played the start of the Limp Bizkit song “Break Stuff” to illustrate the Locrian mode, an ancient church mode.  “It’s a very unstable mode in its arrangement of half and whole steps,” Orfe said, “He’s singing about letting loose all this aggression.  The choice of mode might not have been conscious, but it’s there.

“Teaching is a lot of work and a lot of fun,” Orfe added.

When performing at other colleges and universities, Orfe has used Internet2 technology  to cybercast his music theory lectures to Bradley students in real time.  “It’s wonderful that this technology exists!” Orfe said, “I couldn’t ask for better help than what I’ve received from Tony Barron, Jim Kelly and Nial Johnson.”

Orfe earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religion from the University of Rochester and a Bachelor of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music.  He holds three graduate degrees from the Yale School of Music, including the Doctorate of Musical Arts.

On November 13, Orfe will perform a recital of rarely heard piano pieces in the Dingeldine Music Center at 7:30 p.m.  The recital is free and open to the public.  Orfe will also take part in the premiere of his “Nativity Carol” by the Bradley University Chorale on Sunday, December 6 at 3 p.m. under the direction of Dr. John Jost.  In the spring, Danish audiences will hear the premiere of a new acapella work Orfe is writing for the Bradley University Chorale’s 10-city tour of Denmark.



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