What began as an effort to enrich the experience of its students has led to a musical coup for Temple University. Two compositions nominated for Grammy Awards were commissioned, performed, and recorded by the school's orchestra.
"This is icing on the cake for us," said Robert Stroker, Temple vice provost for the arts, speaking of the Dec. 5 Grammy nominations for works by the late Dave Brubeck and his son Chris, and by another jazzman, Bill Cunliffe.
"I'm thrilled for the kids and the faculty, and for Temple. It's a real outcome measure of them being successful. They worked really hard."
Stroker has pushed to give students a real-world learning opportunity by commissioning works, as well as performing and recording them.
At the same time, a Temple alumna, Susan Carson, a philanthropist in California, was trying to find ways to expand the audience for classical music.
With a friend, she came up with the idea to get famed jazz composer Dave Brubeck to write a work with his son, celebrating the art of photographer Ansel Adams. Art would be projected on a screen as music was performed.
Seven orchestras would jointly commission the work, and Stroker wanted Temple to be one of them. It was the only university.
Initially, Brubeck, who died at 91 on the day his nomination was announced, declined. He knew what emotion and intensity would be involved in composing such a work.
But his wife read to him the autobiography of Adams, who had a similar background in so many ways, coming from Northern California and learning his craft in semi-isolation.
What sold Brubeck ultimately was that Adams had studied to be a classical pianist before discovering photography.
Chris Brubeck knew it would be the last great project he would work on with his father. The creative process would begin with a photograph, perhaps a mission in an oak grove, and that would "inspire my dad in a Southwest Spanish/Mexican direction with a theme," Chris said. "He'd write it down on the piano, and send me a scratchy piece of sheet music, and say, 'What do you think?' "
"It was great working with the students," Chris added. "Stroker really had the idea of putting the students first, and gave them the experience. My dad went backstage and met a lot of them" in 2010 when they performed at Lincoln Center. They also played it at the Kimmel Center.
Temple students recorded the music on the university's own label, BCM&D, which stands for Temple's Boyer College of Music and Dance.
What students loved most about the experience was the music itself. The orchestra focuses mostly on masters, on classical pieces that have been performed and interpreted countless times.
But with the Brubeck piece and other newly commissioned works, "you get a piece that nobody has played before," said Fiona Last, a senior oboe player from London. "And it's, 'How do we interpret it?' That's a challenge. That's new. That's fresh."
"To play a new piece brings an excitement to the program," said Elisabeth Shafer, a senior trombone player from State College, Pa. "It brings energy. I remember specifically in the Cunliffe, just the atmosphere of excitement as we were playing the piece, with the improvisatory nature of it, kind of being new every time you play it, almost. That adds a lot to the educational experience."
Cunliffe, a jazz pianist and composer, taught at Temple from 2004 to '07. "I really think it is one of the great music schools on the planet," he said. "Students and faculty are amazing, and they have fabulous energy."
He wanted to pursue career opportunities in Hollywood and moved to Los Angeles. But Stroker, determined to continue the association, commissioned Cunliffe to write a piece for Temple that was also nominated for a Grammy in 2010, and then another piece, also nominated last week.
"Academia often exists in an ivory tower," Cunliffe said, "where the students play Rachmaninoff and Bach, and then they're unleashed into the world, and they spend years of disorientation."
But with these new works, "they see how the composer works with the conductor. They see how it is to work in a recording studio, how to play on a microphone, how to project sound so it sounds good in a recording."
"It's something that when they get hired in the real world to do a gig, they're going to know what to do, because they've done it before."
Both the Brubeck piece, "Music of Ansel Adams: America," and the Cunliffe work, "Overture, Waltz and Rondo," were nominated for Best Instrumental Composition.
"What's really wild is that there were 390 entries in this one category," Stroker said. "And we have two of the five final nomination spots. Which is amazing for a university group to get."