Classical music is often thought of as predictable and tightly ordered.
But it's the music's spontaneity and improvisation that led the Bay-Atlantic Symphony to make its commercial recording debut on a CD issued by one of the biggest labels in classical music.
The symphony is accompanying Canadian-based composer Lee Pui Ming on an improvised piano concerto she composed at the urging of Bay-Atlantic conductor Jed Gaylin.
The pair first crossed paths in the spring of 2008, when the Bridgeton-based symphony performed a composition titled "Awakening" with Jiebing Chen, who plays the Chinese folk violin. Lee wrote the piece specifically for Chen and came to the performance to hear it in person.
"I heard her do some improvisation. She did pre-concert talks for us, and she improvised for the audience. I said, 'Pui Ming, why don't you write a concerto for me down at Johns Hopkins, and it will be an improvised piano concerto where we have written out parts, and you have some written out stuff, but you can do it as you want. She loved the idea, and we premiered it in March" said Gaylin, who is also the music director of the Johns Hopkins Symphony Orchestra.
As the pianist and composer was writing her piece, titled "She Comes to Shore - Concerto for Improvised Piano and Orchestra," Lee felt it was turning out well. She wanted to record it.
Many classical music composers travel to Eastern Europe to have their compositions recorded, but Gaylin told Lee the Bay-Atlantic Symphony could do a better job and accommodate her budget.
Lee approached the innova Recordings label, based out of St. Paul, Minn., to record the piece.
"They were able to hear a live recording that we had done from the concert at Johns Hopkins, so that they could hear the piece, and they liked it," said Gaylin, who added an improvised piano concerto in the classical realm is a seldom used form.
When Lee plays, she likes to improvise even though she is a classical pianist.
"In this case, the piano part is really improvised, by in large, for the entire piece. The orchestral part is composed. Some of the orchestral parts are less structured. They work on a cueing system," said Lee about "She Comes to Shore." "Except for a section in the piano that works off almost like a chart, like a jazz chart where the melody and chords are there, the rest of the piece on the piano is really open."
Lee started her music career as a classical musician playing notated music and other people's compositions. Music she wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s was also more structured, but her desire to improvise increased as the years passed.
The pianist had already recorded five CDs.
Lee was nominated for a JUNO Award by the Canadian recording industry in 1994 for best global recording for the second release of her career, "Nine-Fold Heart." Lee's fifth recording, 2002's "Who's Playing," was completely improvised, and she wasn't keen on putting out another CD after that one. Improvisation and studio recordings are two different beasts, she said.
After being approached by an American company to put out a sixth recording, Lee started thinking about going back into the studio.
"I thought, 'OK, I will do this, mainly because I feel another round of intense public performance arising in me. I want to do that, so OK, the recording will be a vehicle for that,'" Lee said.
Lee considered working with other orchestras on the project, but she knew Gaylin was always going to conduct the piece.
"Jed commissioned this piece, and he premiered the piece, so he had close ties to the piece. He knows it. We work well together ... so regardless of who I invited to play on the recording, Jed would conduct. In the end, it just seemed logical that I would ask Jed, 'So what about Bay-Atlantic,'" Lee said. "The Bay-Atlantic Symphony played with great heart on this recording, and I am quite pleased with what we have."
Recording took place during two days in late August in Pfleeger Concert Hall at Rowan University in Glassboro, Gloucester County. The concert hall was used as a recording studio. In addition to "She Comes to Shore," the CD will also include several of Lee's solo compositions. The full 53-piece orchestra can be heard on the CD. Innova paid for the recording, which will be distributed internationally by Naxos, the world's leading producer of classical music.
A lesser-known orchestra appearing on a commercial label recording is not unusual, said John T. Bence, director of public relations for League of American Orchestras in New York.
"Naxos distributes many recordings of interesting and lesser-known repertoire," Bence said.
The CD can be ordered in December through innova at www.innova.mu. The CD also will be available in February through iTunes, amazon.com, in stores and other outlets, said Philip Blackburn, who runs innova.
"There are certainly plenty of composers and artists who are equally influenced by the classical and jazz idioms, but to have such a fine performer as Lee be equally comfortable with improvising as a performer and not really caring what genre or what record bin it gets puts in, that's very unusual," Blackburn said.
Besides documenting the talents of the Bay-Atlantic Symphony, the CD also spreads the word about Pfleeger Concert Hall throughout the classical music world because the CD was recorded there.
"The Bay-Atlantic Symphony is an orchestra in residence here. It just started with that status last year, so we're excited to have them here and certainly to have them record for a record label that will credit Rowan University. (It) is going to help raise awareness of Rowan University," said Jon Robert Cart, dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts at Rowan University.
Contact Vincent Jackson:
Upcoming Bay-Atlantic Symphony performances
(music inspired by Scottish legends and themes)
8 p.m. Friday at Pfleeger Concert Hall, Rowan University, 201 Mullica Hill Road, Glassboro
8 p.m. Saturday at Frank Guaracini Jr. Fine and Performing Arts Center, Cumberland County College, Sherman Avenue and College Drive, Vineland
2 p.m. Nov. 7 at Performing Arts Center, Richard Stockton College, Jimmie Leeds Road, Galloway Township
Tickets are $25 at each venue. Call the Pfleeger Concert Hall box office at
856-256-4545, the Guaracini Fine and Performing Arts Center box office at 856-692-8499, or the Stockton College Performing Arts Center box office at 609-652-9000. For information, call 856-451-1169 or visit