World Premier of the Bucknell Overture: Christian Humcke’s Passion and Talent for Composition

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[image source: christianhumcke.com] Last month saw the world premier of the Bucknell Overture, an orchestral homage to one young composer’s beloved institution. For the first time in over 30 years, the conductor of the Bucknell Symphony Orchestra—Professor Christopher Para—stepped down from the podium and relinquished his baton to another. The guest conductor was Composition major, Christian Humcke, ’15, who is also the aforementioned young composer of the Bucknell Overture. As a player in the orchestra, I thoroughly enjoyed playing the piece. It was a satisfying blend of challenging riffs demanding rhythmic integrity, and lyrical themes leaving room for expression and breath. Listener receptions were positive, as well. Comments ranged from astute appreciation (“I especially liked the modulatory techniques used before restating the ‘A’ theme”) to less technical comparisons (“It was like Jurassic Park music, but more exciting!”). Overall, it was a valuable addition a program that also housed the compositional geniuses Mozart and Berlioz.

But let’s take a step back and consider the beginning of this story: Bucknell senior Christian Humcke wrote a substantial piece of music for a full symphonic orchestra. Furthermore, I suspect that without Conductor Para’s introduction of the overture—in which he explicitly credited Christian—audience members would not have been able to distinguish it from a John Williams or late Romantic orchestral piece.

Who do you know that has written music of that caliber for a symphonic orchestra?

Curious about his compositional process and emerging notoriety, I spoke with Christian about his recent debut. To most people, even those with musical training, writing something like this would be quite the undertaking. But to Christian, it wasn’t too much of a challenge. “The orchestration comes naturally to me,” he told me, when asked about taking on a full orchestral composition as opposed to a smaller work for, perhaps, solo piano. “I learned mostly through listening instead of studying specific texts.” Generally, composers learn sets of rules or practices that are outlined—as with other subjects—in textbooks, more or less. Christian seems to have a talent for observational learning. He cited late Romantic and early Impressionist composers as his most influential inspirations. Once he had the initial musical idea, the various instrumental colors of the orchestra seemed to fall into place.

But what of that initial musical idea? How does he begin a composition? He said he doesn’t have a set strategy or approach. Instead, “the ideas just sort of pop up… you’ll forget them unless you record it or write it down, so I always make sure to do that.” He mentioned that the first theme he thought of for the Bucknell Overture was inspired by the beauty of nature as he was hiking one day. Other ideas may not have experiential associations at all, but instead “one idea just leads to another” What amazes me is that one idea, one melody, can then be expanded and refined to accommodate a dozen different instruments and sensible, moving harmonies. Of course, that is the art of composition, and here it is, happening on our campus. Although his ideas do not have a fixed or consistent source, he adds that he “would like to work on that part of his process, how [he] comes up with ideas.”

Discerning musicians might ask, “is this really an overture? An overture usually comes before a larger piece, such as an opera or a suite.” As a discerning musician, that was my first question. Christian responded appropriately: “I don’t know, maybe…” By that he meant that nothing additional was in the works currently, but that doesn’t mean he won’t return to it. I foresee—or at least hope for—a Bucknell Operetta…

There you have it. Bucknell officially has its very own overture, written by one of its very own. Why is this important? These days, just about anyone can dabble in some form of composition using Garage Band or similar sequencing software. And that’s great! However, it is easy to forget the roots of composition. Often, the orchestra is lost to the DAW and we think of “classical” art music as antiquated and over with. But it’s not! The talent and perseverance to keep the tradition alive is found in our own backyard.

And where will that talent go from here? “I’m hoping to go to grad school for composition.” His top choice: the prestigious Peabody Institute. Regardless of the outcome, Christian intends to continue creating music. In fact, if you missed the last orchestra concert, you can hear Christian play some of his own music (in addition to that of some of his favorite composers) in his senior recital later this semester. We will be sure to follow up with details on that as the date approaches.

You can also check out Christian’s professional website here. It contains recordings of his many works.