Composer Dorothy Gates heard the opening phrase of “Servant of Peace,” a trombone concerto inspired by Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld, in the gleaming United Nations Headquarters that overlooks the Hudson in New York City.
“I thought if I went there, and just meditated for a while, I might get more of a sense of him—so I did,” Gates says.
A renowned figure of hope and peace, Hammarskjöld is perhaps most widely recognized for his position as second Secretary-General of the United Nations, a position he held from 1953 until 1961 when he was killed in a plane crash while on a peace mission to the Congo. Gates’ “Servant of Peace,” a Wortham Commission, will see its world premiere at River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s final concert of the season on April 9.
The concerto is divided into three movements, each based on a different stanza of a poem Hammarskjöld wrote. The first movement features bursts of percussion that gesture toward Hammarskjöld’s military heritage, and the second movement settles into a scene of maturation, something Gates describes as “his moment of surrender” to God. Although the first two movements move biographically through his life, Gates wanted to focus on his deeds, the rippling effects of his good work, in the last movement, rather than emphasize his untimely death.
“I think his life speaks of more hope than his death,” Gates explains. “There’s always been conflict, but in the midst of that conflict you have to find hope.”
Gates got the idea of basing this composition on Hammarskjöld from Thomas Hultén, a trombonist who has known Gates since a 1997 concert tour they did together. Hultén, principal trombone with Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet, will be making his debut as a ROCO soloist with “Servant of Peace.”
“The way she writes, it’s very melodic,” Hultén says. “Some new music…it looks good on paper, [but] it doesn’t always sound that great in my humble opinion. Dorothy’s is accessible.”
Historically, concertos are swagger pieces, where a soloist flies over runs at thrilling speeds while the orchestra patters quietly underneath so as not to steal any of the spotlight. But Hultén says Gates taps into more subtlety than we can usually expect from a concerto. Hultén describes the work as colorful and fun, particularly because of the rambunctious jazz waltz in the last movement.
“Some pieces are just technical, show-off stuff,” Hultén tells me. “Harmonically [“Servant of Peace”] is interesting, but I don’t think there are a lot cheap effects, not a bunch of fast notes just because you can.”
With this world premiere, Gates is also staking ground for female composers in the classical music and military band arena, where she says women are more likely to compose vocal pieces than brass concertos.
“I think it’s still definitely male-dominated,” Gates says, but adds that with more exposure across the board, she’ll soon be in good company. “When there’s a certain level of success with one lady who might get a little more performed, then other women think ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ The more opportunities like this [that] are afforded equally to female composers, the less likely the profession will be perceived as male dominated.”
April 9. 5. $35; $25, seniors; $15, students. The Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Blvd. 713-665-2700. rocohouston.org