Courtesy of Nolan Gasser

Composer-pianist Nolan Gasser has mastered many genres, including classical, jazz and rock.

Philharmonic to perform new work by California composer Gasser

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 - 10:48 am

The past year was a banner one for composer Nolan Gasser.

And 2013 is not looking too bad, either.

Last year saw the world premiere of Gasser's 10- minute overture "Sonoma," which christened the new $145 million Green Music Center concert hall at Sonoma State University.

That overture gets its local premiere with the Sacramento Philharmonic on Saturday at the Community Center Theater.

The program includes the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor with Rachel Barton Pine performing. The concert will end with Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor. Michael Morgan will conduct.

"I would say that 2012 was the most intense year of my creative life," said Gasser, via phone from his home in Petaluma.

Last year he completed the chamber opera "Secret Garden," a work commissioned by the San Francisco Opera. The company will premiere the opera March 1 at the War Memorial Opera House for a five-show run.

With a libretto by Carey Harrison, the work is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved classic of the same name and is written as a children's opera.

A commission from a major opera company alone would be enough to keep a composer busy. However, last year also saw Gasser writing "Benny and Joon: The Musical," a musical adaptation of the 1993 romantic comedy "Benny and Joon" starring Johnny Depp.

"I don't think there was a day that I did not feel behind schedule," said Gasser.

He is also a consultant and former chief musicologist for Pandora Media. While at Pandora, Gasser was credited with being an architect of the company's Music Genome Project.

"I guess that this is what you dream of when you're a student of composition – that someday you'll have more work than you can barely stand," Gasser said.

Some, like conductor Bruno Ferrandis, believe that the universal appeal of Gasser's work has led to his breakout year.

"His 'Sonoma' overture demonstrates the capacity of using all the virtuosity of the orchestra – strings and woodwinds runs in particular – to render an atmosphere of light and lightness," said Ferrandis, who conducts the Santa Rosa Symphony. Ferrandis conducted the overture with the orchestra during the Green Music Center opening.

"Nolan is a special composer because he's capable of writing in all styles of music, meaning using different languages like jazz harmonies, regular extended tonal harmonies, and even atonal language," Ferrandis said. "For a composer, this is an incredible advantage."

Gasser's willingness and ability to bend genres stems from a unique musical upbringing in the Los Angeles suburb of La Mirada – more specifically at the La Mirada Mall.

A standard music education began with piano at age 4. Gasser admits that his wide-ranging musical focus did not take hold until age 11, when he was hired to play piano in the food court of the mall.

"What was great about that was that I would have people come up and asking me to play Elton John or Scott Joplin," said Gasser.

Before long he had mastered a large repertoire of music and began to realize he had an inclination for playing various styles of music.

"So, I got this sense that if you wanted to be a professional musician, you had to do it all," he said.

And between age 11 and 16, he did do it all. He thought every other player was doing so, too.

"Only later did I realize that it was not typical for a musician to do classical as well as jazz, rock and Broadway styles," Gasser said.

After that he took jobs playing in the orchestra pits for musicals, and he deepened his experience by playing in jazz ensembles. Gasser, who now heads a San Francisco jazz quartet, even performed in a Dixieland band, with one of the first youth bands to perform at Sacramento's Jazz Jubilee. Gasser went on to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in piano performance and composition, culminating in a Ph.D. at Stanford in musicology.

That unusual foundation Gasser says, has served him well – although juggling different genres is no easy task.

"There were many days this past year where I'd be working on a section of 'Secret Garden' and then I would have to shift gears entirely and work on songs of 'Benny and Joon.' "

Gasser describes "Benny and Joon" as fitting squarely into the modern rock style of musical writing. At times it proved a refreshing switch, at others not.

"For me, to go from classical style to that? It really made my head spin."


Who: Nolan Gasser, composer; Rachel Barton Pine, violin

When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Tickets: $18-$114

Information: (916) 808-5181;

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