When Los Angeles-based composer Karim Elmahmoudi stood on the causeway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness a SpaceX launch last year, his childhood passion was finally realized. Elmahmoudi had been selected to participate in the NASA Social program and said time stopped in the moment before the launch, causing him to worry the launch had failed.
“But then all of a sudden you see the brightest fireball,” Elmahmoudi said. “I can’t even describe it and no picture can do it justice, but what you see is the sun, part of the sun in this fireball.”
Then there was the sound. It was delayed by 20 seconds, but the anticipation was worth it.
“It’s like the sky being ripped apart. It’s a thunder bolt. You can feel it in your body. Your bones are shaking, and you can literally see it in space,” Elmahmoudi said. “I couldn’t believe the atmosphere was that thin. Needless to say, it was a ride, a real crazy ride, and I didn’t think of connecting it to music right away because I needed to get my thoughts together, what does this mean to me.”
That’s when Orchestra Northern Arizona director David Cripps reached out to commission a piece in celebration of its 10th anniversary.
Orchestra Northern Arizona will premiere the brand new piece, “Through the Sky,” at its 10th Anniversary Celebration concert Saturday, May 4, in the Coconino High School main auditorium, 2801 N. Izabel St., at 7 p.m. A $10 donation is suggested for admission to this family-friendly event.
“The timing was serendipitous that we were talking about a celebratory piece a week or two after seeing the rocket,” Elmahmoudi said.
Concertmaster Kirah Bartell said the piece has been a challenge for the orchestra, but they are doing their best to convey the emotion Elmahmoudi incorporated into the swells and crashes. She felt the meaning behind the notes even before reading Elmahmoudi’s program notes describing the excitement, tension and hope he had in mind while writing the piece.
“Sometimes you listen to a piece and the composer has somehow done very well in getting his point across even though it’s not verbally spoken,” Bartell said.
She added the piece was very reminiscent of those by John Williams, who composed some of the most recognizable film scores such as “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Schindler’s List” and more.
“I’m definitely a humongous fan of John Williams,” Elmahmoudi said. “I grew up with his stuff in the ‘80s; it was a big part of my childhood, so that was a very big inspiration for me.”
Although he began his studies in aerospace engineering, Elmahmoudi later settled on music and has found a way to incorporate both of his passions into a career.
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He participated in a week-long residency in Flagstaff where he gave talks at local schools and Lowell Observatory on the connection between music and space. Elmahmoudi also worked with ONA ahead of its Dark Skies concert in 2014 where the orchestra performed his “Orbit: A Symphonic Fantasy” as part of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition’s Celebration of the Night at the “NightVisions V” exhibit.
10 years down
Bartell joined ONA shortly following its inception and appreciates having a place to perform outside of the other various community groups of which she is a part.
“I think it’s been a fabulous 10-year run in a time when the arts are not as supported as many of us would like,” she said. “Starting and keeping an orchestra in a community is quite a feat. There’s always the issue of funding, and it’s really a work of love because there’s so much that goes into promoting these things and being visible to the community and all the work that goes into the art itself.”
Bartell is the featured soloist for Beethoven’s “Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op 50” which will be performed at the concert. The solo is a long time coming for the violinist, who discovered her love for the instrument when she was 10.
“I can remember listening to the Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ in the car on the way to music lessons and just seeing all this scenery going by, and it was like, just the beauty of what I was hearing and the lyrical sounds from the violin and the scenery. It was just such a pull for me,” Bartell said.
This will mark Bartell's first solo with an orchestra. She said she’s approaching it as a personal challenge.
“It’s part of being a musician and growing,” she said. “You have to grow as a musician and you have to explore what you can and can’t do in your own world. But if you never get up there, if you never try, you never know.”
ONA will also perform Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture, Op. 96” and Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 (The New World),” the latter of which Elmahmoudi said he drew inspiration from when composing “Through the Sky.”
Like the stars and planets that make up our solar system, it’s difficult to imagine a world without music. With each concert, ONA invites the community to join in as it celebrates the joy of classical pieces performed by friends and family that make up Flagstaff’s diverse creative scene.
“It’s a great resource not only for the audience, but for the community itself, because we all need positive outlets,” Bartell said. “And I think that the arts, that’s what they do, is provide that positive outlet for all of us. That medium of expression that’s often outside of ourselves.”