Composer Daniel Sonenberg found himself in an odd position when Eckart Preu recently hit him up for details about a piece Sonenberg wrote for the Portland Symphony Orchestra, “First Light: A Fanfare for Maine.”

Preu, the PSO’s music director, had specific questions about specific measures, and Sonenberg had to turn back the clock. It had been slated for premiere in March 2020 as part of Maine’s bicentennial celebration. Then the pandemic happened. The pandemic is still happening, but we’re learning to function safely, and so the full orchestra returns to Merrill Auditorium, with a live audience and Preu at center stage, for a season-opening concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19, that features Sonenberg’s “First Light.”

The program also includes Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare of the Common Man,” Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” and a piano concerto by African American composer Florence Price, with guest pianist Michelle Cann. In all, the orchestra is scheduled to perform 39 concerts this season, through June 2022, all at Merrill, where proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are required.

When Preu contacted Sonenberg with detailed questions, “It was almost like having to relearn it all again,” he said of his fanfare, which he wrote in honor of Maine’s status as the first state to see the rising sun. “March 2020 is relatively recent, but a lot has happened since then. Now, it’s not like quite dealing with someone else’s piece, but that distance that you develop with a piece you have written in the past makes this experience pretty unique.”

The symphony shut down two days before rehearsals for “Fanfare” were to begin the first time around, so Sonenberg still hasn’t heard it performed – despite having already moved on to other work. “It’s an interesting process getting reacquainted myself,” he said.

“Mint Explosion,” a five-song EP by Daniel Sonenberg. Design by Daniel Sonenberg, courtesy of Daniel Sonenberg

The pandemic did not slow Sonenberg, who teaches at the University of Southern Maine. In addition to the premiere of this new symphonic work, Sonenberg has two new albums of original music, a five-song EP called “Mint Explosion” and a collection of chamber compositions performed in recent years by chamber ensembles called “Machine Shop.” Both are available as digital downloads.

“Mint Explosion” was an accidental pop project that resulted from an ice-cream tragedy. He made the recording over the summer after a composer residency at a North Haven school, where he worked with kids about songwriting with ukuleles. They wrote a song together called “Red Paint People,” which ended up on the recording. Soon after, when he returned home to Portland, he visited his favorite ice cream stand in Ocean Park for his favorite flavor of ice cream, mint explosion.

The first taste of mint explosion each year is a spring ritual and a monumental part of Sonenberg’s life, so much so that his family has wondered what would happen if mint explosion were no longer available. This year, they found out.

“They had mint chip on the board but they didn’t have mint explosion,” Sonenberg said. “So I asked about it and they said, ‘Oh no, that has been discontinued.’ I almost had a heart attack.”

The only way to deal with his grief was to write “a ridiculous song of mourning. But it became much more than about the loss of an ice-cream flavor, but about the grief and loss that have been going on in our lives for so long now. It’s a nostalgic look back at a simpler times” of summer sunsets and green ice cream dripping down your arm.

With two songs written, he decided to keep writing and came up with five songs. “They’re all light topics, but it’s not a light project in so much as I did spend a lot of time and took it pretty seriously. But for me, a lot of the popular stuff I have released in the past has been pretty heavy and singer-songwriter conceptual stuff. This was a lot lighter.”

“Mint Explosion” feels like the Beach Boys meet Bowie, with folk overlays. He recorded at Melody Lane Studio, also known as his new basement studio. He played most of the instruments, with help from guitarist Jimmy Dority; guitarist and singer Matthew Schickele; keyboardist Jon Kapsis; and vocalists Sam Chandler, Joe Feldman, and his 12-year-old son, Satchel Sonenberg. “His voice hasn’t changed. I wanted to document his voice now,” he said of Satchel’s contributions.

The chamber album is a collection of pieces he wrote beginning a decade ago and recorded mostly at USM from 2015 to 2017, with help from Annie Antonacos, Aaron Clarke, Bridget Convey, Joshua DeScherer, Robert Lehmann, Kookie McNerney, Ben Noyes, Tom Parchman and Lynn Vartan. Steve Drown mixed and mastered “Machine Shop.” It’s chamber music, with rock guitar, marimba and other instruments not necessarily associated with chamber ensembles.

“I have been waiting for the right moment, and I figured with the premiere by the PSO, now might be a good time to put it out there,” he said of “Machine Shop.”

Best known for writing the opera “The Summer King” about Negro Leagues baseball star Josh Gibson, Sonenberg treats all of his writing as part of the same ballgame. “I have gotten to the point in my life where I do not see working on ‘First Light’ for the symphony or working on the EP as anything different. It’s the same creative work,” he said.


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