A symphony and violin concerto composed by a Mercer University professor were recently recorded in London by the London Symphony Orchestra. The music and the making of it will be shared with the community this spring when an album and documentary are released.
Dr. Christopher Schmitz, music theory and composition professor in the School of Music, and a dozen Middle Georgians traveled to London in late September for the recording sessions. The group also included McDuffie Center for Strings Director Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin soloist for the concerto; Macon producer and recording engineer Steve Moretti; School of Music Dean Dr. Gary Gerber, who planned the trip logistics; and Tabitha Walker and her film crew from Big Hair Productions, which is making a documentary about the project.
As a community component for the project, a local middle school violinist, high school bassist and orchestra teacher also went on the trip.
“Having a symphony and violin concerto recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra is a major accomplishment for Dr. Schmitz and Mercer University,” Dr. Gerber said.
The multifaceted project is supported by the Community Foundation of Central Georgia’s Josephine Phelps Fabian Fund, which approved the funding proposal in early 2022.
“I am so proud of what we have going here in Macon,” said Amy Schwartz Moretti. “The quality of our music making is worth sharing with the world. The pieces fell into place to make this recording happen thanks to the Fabian Fund.”
Dr. Schmitz composed his two works at home while on sabbatical in spring 2023. The violin concerto is a rewritten and reorchestrated version of a performance piece he wrote for Moretti a few years ago, he said.
“That piece was designed as a showcase for her many talents,” Dr. Schmitz said. “I was able to make the solo part that she played for that piece very challenging. It’s got a lot of theatrics and fireworks throughout it that I think make for an exciting performance.”
Titled “Cloudscape,” the concerto has three movements, each with its own title and mood, “Dark,” “Warm” and “Electric,” Moretti said.
“Chris is a great friend and colleague at Mercer, so when he approached me about writing a violin concerto, I was immediately excited at the possibility,” she said. “He has a beautifully intense writing style and has a way of pushing new boundaries, always in a way that an audience can appreciate and enjoy.”
Dr. Schmitz’s Symphony No. 1 has five movements. It starts off dark and mysterious, journeys through heavy emotions, and ends on a positive note with a “prayer of hope,” he said. This final prayer, featuring text from the Latin mass (“Agnus Dei” or “Lamb of God”), was performed by the London Voices.
“The symphony is kind of a reflection of how I was feeling the semester I was writing it. With all of the turmoil that was going on internationally and politically, I felt the heaviness associated with the news and what was happening,” Dr. Schmitz said. “I’m hoping that an audience listening to it will feel that path from feeling hopeless and overwhelmed to (coming) out on the other side with positive feelings. My objective was to create a story without telling the story.”
With the reputation and prestige of the London Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Schmitz said he didn’t have to hold back on the difficulty level when writing his music.
“It was completely tailored to that ensemble,” he said. “I was super excited to be able to work with world-class musicians of the caliber of the London Symphony Orchestra.”
Producer Steve Moretti has worked on recording projects with Dr. Schmitz before and noted how accessible his musical compositions are. His latest works weave together classical and contemporary music elements as well as portions with a movie-score feel.
“The musicians were just over the moon with playing this music. They were thrilled to sink their teeth into something so musically deep,” Moretti said.
Dr. Schmitz said he provided the scores to conductor Stefan Sanderling this summer, so he could prepare. Amy Schwartz Moretti and the orchestra recorded the violin concerto on Sept. 23 and the symphony on Sept. 26 in St Luke’s Church, a church-turned-music venue that is the group’s home base, Dr. Gerber said.
Dr. Schmitz said it was surreal to have the orchestra bring his compositions to life. Other ensembles have recorded his works in the past, but recording with the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra was particularly exciting.
“I had to keep pinching myself. It’s such an amazing orchestra. It was so exciting the whole time to hear all of that come together,” he said. “There’s just nothing like getting to the actual recording session and hearing a group like the London Symphony Orchestra. Hearing them play brings such a level of depth to the music.”
The project allowed Moretti to reconnect with Sanderling, whom she worked with 20 years ago when she was concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra.
“It was a dream come true to do a recording project with London Symphony Orchestra and to collaborate with Chris on this,” she said. “(Sanderling’s) musicianship is inspiring, and I knew he would be the right kind of musical partner for this project. The producers were simply the best. They helped us get the best possible recording.”
Steve Moretti ran the recording sessions in London, and he and Dr. Schmitz provided feedback and suggestions for changes to the musicians as needed.
“My responsibility besides the artistic component is getting everything arranged and put together, the logistical side of it as well. It took a year to get this project from start to finish,” Moretti said. “My job is to capture the best artistic performance possible. It’s one big collaboration.”
Through an essay and interview process, Northside Middle School eighth grader Kaleigh Baker and Central High School senior Keaton Money were selected to participate in the London trip. They were accompanied by Jaris Tobler, orchestra director for Central High and Miller Magnet Middle schools. Baker plays in Tobler’s orchestra since her school in Houston County does not have one.
They observed one of the recording sessions and had the chance to talk with the conductor and production team, Tobler said. Tobler livestreamed part of the session for his students back in Macon, giving them a front-row seat to hear a renowned ensemble and get an insider’s look at the production side. Tobler, Baker and Money also spent time touring London’s most notable sites and music facilities.
“I am overjoyed with the entire experience overall,” Tobler said. “A huge thanks to Mercer, Dr. Gerber, Dr. Schmitz and Mr. Moretti for thinking of Central High School, and I really hope we are able to build more partnerships with Mercer and throughout the community in general. I appreciate their generosity. I really wanted to offer this opportunity to my students.”
Walker and her film crew, which included McDuffie Center for Strings student River Sawchyn, filmed interviews with the Macon group prior to the trip and afterward. While in London, they documented the recording sessions as well as the Central High group’s sightseeing experiences.
“I had a camera in my hand the entire time,” said Sawchyn, a junior violin performance major who also has skills in video production. “It was just film as much as you can.”
Sawchyn brought his violin with him to London, practicing in his hotel room every day and doing a few street performances.
“(London Symphony Orchestra) is historically one of the greatest orchestras in the world. It was very inspiring and gave me a peek into the professional work style of a big orchestra and a big professional recording session,” Sawchyn said. “This was such a big moment for Dr. Schmitz, and it was a real pleasure to hear live music from really great live players by a great live composer.”
The recording is now in the editing process. With assistance from Dr. Schmitz, Moretti is going through all the raw audio, comparing different takes and choosing what will be included in the final recording. Moretti will return to London in December to complete the mixing and mastering process with co-producer Simon Kiln.
“I want the consumer when they’re listening to this to feel like they’re in the room with us,” Moretti said. “I want that energy to be translated into the recording. The people are going to really enjoy listening to this.”
Meanwhile, the documentary crew has started to edit the video. They have footage going back to January when Dr. Schmitz first started composing his music.
The recording will be commercially released by Navona Records in the spring, and the documentary will come out around the same time, Dr. Schmitz said. The team hopes that the finished products will generate Emmy and Grammy buzz.
“I like to say that Macon has a rich music history, but I also feel like we have a rich music present,” Moretti said. “This project in particular, you’ve got an incredible composer here at Mercer. You’ve got a wonderful violinist, world class. To put together a project of this magnitude with all original music of this scale puts Macon and Mercer on the global map. I think it’s going to resonate in the recording industry world.”