February 25, 2011

Emory Symphony Orchestra conductor sees students as 'greatest gift'

Richard Prior. Photo by Mark Teague.

Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts is an "amazing hallowed space" for Richard Prior, reminding him of the English cathedrals of his youth. As director of orchestral studies and conductor of the Emory University Symphony Orchestra (EUSO), Prior has directed numerous performances at the Schwartz Center since 2004, including his own symphonic compositions. His "Symphony No. 3" premieres Thursday, March 3.

A prolific composer

A variety of well-received choral, chamber and orchestral works are credited to Prior. He grew up singing in England's cathedral choirs and composed his first piece by the age of 12. While still an undergraduate composition major at Leeds University, he made his debut at London's Westminster Abbey with a large-scale choral work "The Seventh Seal."

In Atlanta, performances of Prior's music have included his string quartet "intimations of immortality," performed by Emory's Quartet-in-Residence, the Vega String Quartet; and the Pulitzer-nominated "Stabat Mater."

The text of the "Stabat Mater," a medieval Latin narrative of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, is interwoven with powerful modern poetry by women who have lost children under adverse circumstances. The 2008 EUSO performance of "Stabat Mater" was documented by William Brown, senior lecturer in the film department, and eventually became a PBS special.

Like "Stabat Mater," his latest composition has a bittersweet spirit. Scored for a large orchestra of triple woodwinds, brass, percussion, two harps and strings, "Symphony No. 3" is a deeply personal statement for Prior, combining Romantic exuberance with a dark lyricism.

The symphony orchestra's unique spirit

Whether performing a 19th-century work or his own contemporary piece, Prior appreciates the energy and spirit of the 100 student members of the EUSO.

"An ensemble of 18- to 22-year-olds brings a life and vision to a concert that an older, established orchestra might not. For example, a professional orchestra may have played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony multiple times—in contrast we may do it once in the life cycle of a student's four years here," he says. "A student performance is more of an occasion; their friends get very excited about seeing their peers perform at that level of music."

Without the students' energy, even the "extraordinary" space of the Schwartz Center just becomes a building.

"The students are the greatest gift we have," Prior remarks. He adds that Emory music students, in particular, often double-major in fields such as business or science, and bring very different passions and outlooks to their music-making—"as well as an awareness that it's important to explore their musical passion in the four years they're here before going to graduate school or beginning a career in a different field."

The unique occasion of a student performance is only heightened when it's an original composition. Prior says most original compositions performed by symphonies today are a one-time event. "Because of several hundred years' worth of repertoire along with so many talented composers, the niche for orchestra pieces is fairly narrow. That's why a premiere is so important—it could be one of the few times the work is performed."

The world premiere of Prior's "Symphony No. 3" is March 3 at the Schwartz Center. Performed by the Emory University Symphony Orchestra, the concert is free and open to the public. For details: 404.727.5050 or

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