It may be too early for such a declaration, but Ventura-based composer John Biggs may now have earned the title of court composer for the New West Symphony.
His "Ballad of William Sycamore" had its world premiere during New West's inaugural concert in September 1995. And this weekend, the symphony will premiere Biggs' new Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra for its first concert of 1997. Two premieres in a year and a half--not a bad track record.
As is typical for this composer, who says that he only writes for a specific purpose or commission, the cello concerto began with an invitation. This one came from New West's music director Boris Brott, who asked Biggs to write a piece that would complement a concert program called "Basically Baroque."
Seizing the opportunity, Biggs considered his options. He had long wanted to write a concerto for cello. "It was always in my head as a piece for cello, wind octet and a couple of percussion players," he said. "But when this occasion came up, I took a bird in the hand and changed my ideas."
The conception of the piece was propelled, as well, by the composer's admiration for the talent of Ojai cellist Virginia Kron, who will be the soloist in the premiere.
"I was always very taken by her playing," Biggs commented. In addition, he'd already written concertos for violin and viola, the 64-year-old composer said. "And I don't want to die before writing a cello concerto."
The piece has a poignant anecdote in its history. Longtime symphony patron Carmel Maitland, to whom the composition was to be dedicated, developed brain cancer. "We got word that she might not last to the concert," Biggs said. "Boris got together an emergency performance of the second movement, with piano accompaniment. We went to Carmel's ranch in Ojai. She sat there and enjoyed it, with tears in her eyes, and was dead within 10 days. It was a nice tribute."
Born in Los Angeles, Biggs studied composition with such notables as Lukas Foss and Ingolf Dahl. He gained renown as head of the John Biggs Consort, a touring ensemble, and has amassed a number of awards and honors over the years, including a Fulbright and Meet the Composer grants.
He lived in various cities around the United States, landing in Ventura in 1988. Since then, he has become a fixture on the regional music scene, a composer whose works have proven reliably solid and accessible.
Biggs has written orchestral works, chamber music and has a fair number of vocal pieces in his catalog. But this was his first real experience in writing specifically for the cello. It was a learning process.
"Cello is a hard instrument to balance with an orchestra," Biggs explained. "When people hear concertos on recordings, they're often hearing the solo instrument which is miked differently from the rest of the orchestra.
"You can make anything work in the studio. You could have sax and muted violin and make them work with the right miking. Knowing the timbre of that solo instrument, you have to take care to make it work in concert. A lot of concertos do fall down in the balance department."
Keeping in mind the other music on this weekend's program--Bach, Handel, Telemann and Mozart--Biggs drew on his love for things baroque while writing the new concerto.
"The first and last movements are in the baroque feeling of economy and pristine formal concepts, and also rhythmic drive. But I still think that the piece will be a nice counterpart to the other composers. I'm really happy with my fellow composers on the program. I'm in very good company."
Even by his standards, Biggs has been busy of late, fulfilling commissions and having his music performed in various settings around Ventura County. His "Fantasy on a Theme of Rameau" was written for the Westlake Chamber Ensemble, which premiered the piece last spring during the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, and again this fall at Civic Arts Plaza.
Biggs is, by his own admission, a 20th century composer who appreciates the music of earlier times. In addition to his Rameau-based piece, and the Baroque-ish new work, he was recently commissioned to write medieval- and Renaissance-styled works for the Michigan-based Verdehr Trio.
On the day of an interview last week, Biggs had just begun shaping his latest project, a series of songs for cello and baritone voice.
Biggs will perform as vocalist for a May 8 premiere, which is part of the third annual Ventura Chamber Music Festival. Commissioned by the city of Ventura, this piece, too, will look back into history, using Renaissance texts.
While his music has enjoyed regular live performances, Biggs is trying to expand his catalog of recorded works. His "Shostakovich Variations" was included on an album three years ago, and this year the Master Musicians Collective label will release an all-Biggs album.
It is an accomplishment for any 20th century composer to have his music documented. But Biggs had the rare opportunity to travel to Czechoslovakia last May to oversee the MMC recording.