Who The Folk?! Max Zelle

The St. Paul JCC Symphony celebrates its 90th anniversary this month, and to celebrate the occasion, the symphony is debuting a new piece from local composer Max Zelle. What makes it extraordinary is that Max will have just completed his freshman year in high school at St. Paul Academy. Max talks about how he got into composing music and the inspiration for his June 14 piece in this week’s Who The Folk?!

When did you get into music?

I started getting into music when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, my parents bought a piano. I messed around with it, but I didn’t take lessons until I was 9. Once I started taking lessons I got more into music and I started studying composition with my teacher. That’s when I really started actually writing music.

Was the piece on YouTube the first big-time performance?

Of that scale, definitely. I had written a lot before that, but chamber stuff. That’s mostly what I write because there aren’t that many orchestras out there. I worked on the piece for the JCC, and I’m working on a film score piece with my school. That’s another orchestral thing.

What film?

It’s a silent version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

Who’s doing the film?

My English teacher is really into silent film, so he had this idea of someone writing a soundtrack for it and he asked me to do it. It’s been really cool to work with him. We watched a ton of film and picked this one out. We found a local film composer named Brent Michael Davids, so I’ve met with him and talked about film scores. So I’m going to work on that. That’ll get played next year.

You’re a freshman in high school; do you get weird looks from people that you are accomplishing this much at this age?

I think people are generally impressed. It’s interesting. I’d say with my non-musical peers, no one thinks it’s too odd. They don’t really follow it. Musical peers my age, the last four years, I’ve been going to a musical summer camp for composing called The Walden School in New Hampshire. It’s been a really cool experience for me because it’s kids close to my age. I tend to be the younger of my peers, but it’s kids in high school who are really talented composers. Here in Minnesota, in St. Paul, there are very few young composers. I happen to be really good friends with one of them. But that’s about it. It’s been a cool experience and really inspiring to have people my age who are into the same thing.

What kind of guidance or restrictions were you given on the piece for the JCC?

Not a whole lot. Right off the bat, there wasn’t a lot of information. When I went to sit down and write the piece, I wanted to hear the orchestra. I looked them up on YouTube and all the recordings were pretty old and I wanted to hear them now. There was a concert coming up and I went and I was impressed. The YouTube recordings are from three or four years ago and they sound a lot better now. I was very happy about that. After the performance, I talked to Amir [Katz, the conductor] about restrictions of the orchestra, what players would be good soloists, what sort of stuff I could do, and that was helpful. I had a list of things to ask so when they went to sit and play it, it wouldn’t be anything I needed to revise, ideally.

What was the inspiration for it?

After Yom Kippur services, I decided to walk home from Mount Zion. I really like the High Holidays music. That’s the coolest part for me. I was inspired by the music of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There’s even a little reference to Kol Nidre in there. I’m not sure if people will catch it because it’s brief. For me, it’s always been a time to reflect on the year. When you’re my age, a lot happens and there’s a lot of change. On the walk back, it was calm. And I started thinking about music. I started playing around with the sounds that I heard and some of the chord progressions and came up with the theme. I didn’t have any use of the theme at the time, but when I went to write my piece, I thought why not use that.

Do you have to know how to play all the instruments in an orchestra to be a composer?

No. My composition teacher always wants you to take lessons with all the instruments to get a feel for them. I haven’t done a lot of that and piano is really my only instrument. I feel more comfortable writing for certain instruments than others because of my experience writing for them. String instruments, I’ve written a lot for strings, so I feel pretty comfortable. I’m not a string player. There’s some stuff I write that string players would look at and say ‘he’s not a string player.’ Brass and woodwinds a little shakier on because I haven’t don’t as much. There are certain limitations: They need to breathe. Strings can play a whole piece. I realized at some point I wasn’t letting them breathe. It’s harder for me to write for those sorts of instruments. They have more limitations and it’s harder to do fast passages well because of the nature of the instrument. As a composer, you have to study orchestration and get familiar with all the instruments.

Are you conducting the JCC piece?

No. Amir will be conducting. I’m happy about that because I’m not a conductor. I’m able to conduct. I’m solid. I’m not terrible, but at the same time, Amir is a professional conductor. It’s a lot of work to conduct. Plus, it would mean working with all musicians in a way that I’m not professionally trained to do. He’ll be able to get my piece to sound the best it can. I did show up to the last rehearsal and took questions from him. He led the rehearsal and directed people to do stuff, but would turn to me and ask what I thought. They sound good. There’s still some work, but I’m really excited to hear the finished product.

How long is the piece?

I think it’ll be 10 minutes. For an orchestral piece, it’s not long. Orchestral pieces are generally very long. People don’t write as long orchestral pieces anymore because they aren’t writing something for a whole program. I was asked to an 8-10 minute piece. For a while, it was at 13 minutes so I had to cut it down, but it wasn’t filled out and polished. It’s one of the longer pieces I’ve written. I wrote maybe another 10-minute piece. But It definitely took me the longest to write of anything I’ve done. It’s the most instruments I’ve written for. It’s maybe 30 pieces. You’ve got strings in five parts, seven winds, and two percussions. You’re writing 14 lines on the staff. I printed the whole thing out and it’s 68 pages. It took a lot of hours – more than I anticipated. If I learned one lesson, it’s to start earlier with orchestral music. I was up a lot of nights.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Passover. High Holidays have the best music, but Passover has the best food.

Favorite Jewish food?

Matzah ball soup.

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