DD ARTIST PROFILE SERIES
Wendy Durrwachter - Composer’s Musical Journey Takes a Giant Leap
Growing up Green Bay, Wisconsin, Wendy Durrwachter didn’t realize that some of the seeds were already being planted to have her become an accomplished pianist and eventually a music composer, with a piece to be performed by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra (DSSO).
“I don’t ever remember a time in my life when I was NOT captured by music.
I remember at age 3 when my grandmother’s piano was shipped to my house so my 7-year-old brother could start piano lessons,” Wendy said. “I remember pulling myself up on that big bench and being fascinated with the sounds, feel, and even visual pattern of the keys. I said I wanted piano lessons, too, and so I started then with Suzuki for a year.”
Wendy started making up her own “compositions” at age 8, remembering when a friend overheard her having her dolls sing to each other. When her friend sang the song back to her, Wendy didn’t recognize it as a song she had ever heard. Without knowing it at the time, her composing journey had begun.
Expanding on her early interest in the piano, she went on to other piano teachers and music training. She attended various music camps through middle and high school and the Piano Academy at Indiana University Bloomington. In high school, she competed in piano concerto competitions.
Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in piano performance and composition at the U of MN-Twin Cities in 2000, Wendy recently attained a Master of Music in Film Scoring from the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program at the Seattle Film Institute.
She said, “I became quite terrified of composing before college and have always struggled with improv. At a young age, I think I just didn’t trust myself to come up with anything interesting, so I tried to avoid it at all costs.”
When she took a composition class in college and got positive feedback from her classmates and professor, she began to have more confidence in trying to compose music.
“I was always seeking out new and strange music to play, and I noticed that I had developed an urge to find music in styles and sounds that just didn’t seem to exist. I was wishing that one composer’s work had some elements from another composer’s work and wondering what it would be like to combine those elements.”
She took a year of orchestration with Judith Lang Zaimont at the U of M, a composer, teacher, and mentor. Wendy explained, “She also guided me for my senior project, which was to compose a piano toccata. That was my first official piece. I also composed several very short orchestral pieces in her orchestration class. That was where I realized I didn’t have to be able to play all the instruments to be able to write for them.”
Right after college, she had her first child and then her second, and gave up writing for several years. “One day, I was making dinner, though, and I noticed that I had been repeating a strong melody in my head for a while. I analyzed it and realized that I’d never heard it before, so I wrote it down on a little index card and set it on my piano. It remained there mostly forgotten until several years later after I had moved to Duluth.”
Musical Odyssey Continues
When Wendy moved to Duluth in 2007, she was inspired to write tone poems, titled “Meditations on Lake Superior.” She explained, “They mostly were just a few symbols on a page that only I could understand as I played them for my own enjoyment.”
In Duluth, Wendy became a favorite show pianist working with several theater organizations in town. She also got a job with Peace Church serving as the choir pianist for Jim Pospisil, the DSSO principal horn player.
“Jim started asking me to perform things I had written. Over time, I eventually developed them into finished form and performed one in a church service every so often. The response I received from people was really encouraging, so I just kept writing and Jim kept giving me opportunities to have things performed there. I got to form relationships and network with his orchestral music friends which then led to new works of mine being performed at small concerts.”
In January 2018, Wendy received a Career Development Grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, which supported a concert and recording at Duluth’s Sacred Heart Music Center. The concert included the premiere of her violin concerto Ultra Vice with soloist Erin Aldridge, DSSO concertmaster, and Elegy for the Erased, her work for cello and bass.
She recorded her The Two Trees: A Yeats Song Cycle with tenor Adam Sippola and herself as pianist in 2019. In the same year, her first symphony was commissioned by the Chequamegon Symphony Orchestra. Inspired by the landscape of the Chequamegon Bay region of Lake Superior, its premiere was delayed by COVID.
In November 2020, Opera-Oriented Project Sponsorships in Minnesota (OOPS MN) commissioned her to compose an aria to a chocolate chip cookie recipe with libretto developed by Pulitzer-Prize winning librettist Mark Campbell. It was performed by MN Opera soprano Tracey Engleman and pianist Jared Miller.
DSSO Opportunity and Lake Superior Muse
A few years ago, DSSO Music Director Dirk Meyer reached out to Wendy via social media to have coffee to discuss a future commission. Wendy said, “A very generous donor and new classical music enthusiast, Dr. Michael Mollerus, wanted to commission a work by a local composer, and my name had been tossed around for it. Dirk very generously gave me only one stipulation – that it be influenced in some way by this local region.”
Wendy began writing down musical ideas at the piano right after receiving the commission. In a press release from the DSSO, she explained, “With this piece, I aimed to capture the essence and grandeur of Lake Superior’s historically evolving formations and the waterways that surround us. The audience will embark on an emotional journey, immersing themselves in the fluidity and power of these iconic waterways.”
“I recall one night this past winter, I was really fleshing out the part that depicts an aurora borealis. I sat at the piano for a couple hours jotting down musical ideas to weave together for it and finished about midnight,” Wendy stated.
“I remember thinking it was strange that I had started hearing quite a bit of traffic on my road (the Scenic Highway). I noticed on social media several reports that one of the most spectacular aurora shows was happening right then. I was able to walk across the street down to the lake atop two feet of deep snow that had a very convenient icy crust on top. I just lied down in the snow and watched the colors change and pulse. Of course, I then stayed up late writing down more musical ideas. It felt quite surreal, like the universe was just handing the music over to me.”
With Laurentia, a symphony in three movements, Wendy is thrilled to have her musical odyssey make this next step forward. “I am still pinching myself! It is something I’ve dreamed of accomplishing since college, and the day is finally approaching! I still sort of can’t believe it, yet I can also believe it because I’ve worked very hard and passionately for this event to happen.”
Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Concert 3
Nordic Images Bring a Night of Musical Splendor
DSSO Masterworks Concert 3 “Nordic Images”
Saturday, November 4 at 7 pm
DECC Symphony Hall
Laurentia; Commissioned new work from area composer, Wendy Durrwachter
Concertmaster Erin Aldridge, soloist, Henryk Wieniawski: Violin Concerto 2
Jean Sibelius; Symphony No. 2
DSSO Ticket Office at 130 W Superior St. Suite LL2 - 120, Duluth, online at www.dsso.com or by calling 218-623-3776.