Composer Preben Antonsen premieres uplifting, orchestral hymn 'What Wondrous Love'

Preben Antonsen, composer

Preben Antonsen, composer

Composer Preben Antonsen, whose new piece “What Wondrous Love,” makes its world premiere at Symphony Parnassus’ Nov. 19 concert, graduated from Yale University in 2013, majoring in music and computer science. He has been composing since he was a small child. “Before I knew how to read music, I would make drawings on staff paper,” he said. “At 4 years old, some kids draw pictures. I would draw pictures made out of notes.”

Though he’s only 26, he has an impressive list of accomplishments:

  • Studied with composer John Adams from 2001-2009
  • San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra premiered his first orchestral work in March 2009
  • In 2008, he appeared in NPR’s program about young classical musicians, “From the Top”
  • American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) recognized him with six Morton Gould Young Composer Awards: 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010

Below are a few questions and answers with Preben (pronounced PRAY-ben):

Where are you from and where do you live now?

I was born in Seattle but since age 4, I have lived in Berkeley.  

What is your musical background / family?

I learned to read music when I had piano lessons starting at age 6. I started trying to compose even then—mostly writing down melodies my sister would play on the violin. Both of my parents are amateur musicians: My dad plays trumpet (and has played with Parnassus before), and my mom studied piano as a kid, likes to sing, and is a music lover. My sister plays the violin.

What is your life like as a working composer?

My time split between a few things. I work at a Catholic Church (St. Jerome’s in El Cerrito), and I teach piano / composition students, some of them through the John Adams Young Composer Program at the Crowden School in Berkeley. I compose as much as possible and also perform as a pianist—one concert a year for the past five years. I also write with (composer / conductor) Matthew Cmiel for the new music ensemble, After Everything. I am writing a piece for eight double-basses for a concert later in the year.

What was the inspiration for “What Wondrous Love”?

The main idea was the old Christian hymn. Samuel Barber wrote a set of variations on it, and it’s from that shape-note style of singing, unaccompanied vocal harmony. I always liked that song as a kid, and working in a church reminded me of it. I thought it would be great to do an orchestral version. That’s the arrival point.

I wanted to see about writing a piece that ended happily without feeling sentimental or shallow. It starts in a minor key with a lot of darkness, and then there is some climbing upwards, and there’s an uplifting result at the end of the short but perilous journey.

How is it to work with Symphony Parnassus?  

It’s great. It’s a rare opportunity, and I will definitely try to make the most of it and learn as much about orchestration as I can. It’s thrilling to hear something of mine played by the orchestra for the first time. It’s hard to imagine how it will really sound (played by the specified instruments). I have a clear aural image, but the way each instrument moves through the notes is really distinctive. I have to imagine that aspect of it when I am composing on the piano.