As he tells it, Lawrence Dillon began his career as a composer at the tender age of seven, when he fell in love with his piano teacher and began to write songs to bring to his weekly lessons. Though a childhood struggle with severe chicken pox cost Dillon 50 percent of his hearing, his love affair with music and composition continued. In 1985, he became the youngest composer to receive a doctorate from the Juilliard School.
On July 8, the Seattle Chamber Music Society gave the debut of Dillon’s newest work, Sanctuary, as part of the 2013 Summer Chamber Music Festival at Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. Composed for French horn, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, and piano, Sanctuary‘s unique instrumentation is unprecedented in the classical chamber music canon. The four-movement work explores universal notions of shelter, comfort, and respite. Sanctuary joins a growing collection of pieces commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Commissioning Club, which funds the creation of a new chamber work each year.
An uplifting work that complements the summer season, Sanctuary is full of energetic rhythms and buoyant timbres that would be perfect for an outdoor concert on a warm evening. Dillon’s composition treats the septet as a miniature chamber orchestra, dividing the ensemble into different instrumental sections to achieve specific timbral effects. Brassy tones from the French horn and brilliant passages on the piano float above classic string section accompaniment provided by violins and viola. The rhythmic power of the double bass adds punch to jazzy sections, particularly during the fourth movement, titled “A Reliable Pulse.”
Dillon’s interest in contrasting timbres come into play in Sanctuary‘s dramatic first movement, “Domed and Steepled Solitude.” The movement’s title originates from a quote by Mark Twain, who marveled at the sense of anonymity he felt during his first visit to bustling New York City. Dillon, who is Composer-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, evokes one man’s loneliness among the hubbub busy city streets by pitting a tender string melody (barely audible due to the use of practice mutes) against aggressive chords and erratically-bouncing notes in the piano, horn, and double bass. Playing in unison, pianist Andrew Russo and Seattle Symphony Principal Horn Jeffrey Fair conjured up the image of a rubber bouncy ball with sharp staccato pokes that ricocheted around the auditorium.