Music News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Young composer found his niche by age 10

Chris Rogerson is composer-in-residence for the 2012 Chamber Music Festival of Lexington.
Chris Rogerson is composer-in-residence for the 2012 Chamber Music Festival of Lexington.

Chris Rogerson was a musically precocious child, playing church hymns by ear on the piano when he got home from church. His parents got him piano lessons, but they didn't quite go as planned.

It's not that they went badly, but "I was not really playing what was on the page," Rogerson says. "I was just making up my own stuff, so my teacher suggested composition lessons."

Rogerson continued taking piano and later took up the cello. He is now an award-winning composer set to become the sixth composer-in-residence for the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, if you include Danny Clay as the composer for the festival's July series this year.

The festival's core piano quintet will give the world-premiere performance of Rogerson's Summer Night Music in its concert Saturday night at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion. Rogerson will participate in activities through the week, including Sunday's casual concert, which will feature his String Quartet No. 1.

"Whenever I hear from someone that wants me to write a piece for them, my first reaction is certainly I want to do it," Rogerson says.

Outside of academic posts, composers don't have the promise of steady work that instrumentalists or vocalists might have through performance engagements, ensembles and teaching. It's not necessarily a career with a clear path, particularly because many classical ensembles are content to play the hits of past centuries.

"It's different for every composer," Rogerson says, "as it is for every instrumentalist, though I think they may have a more defined track.

"Composers do different things. I have friends that are doing really well writing for orchestras and traditional kind of venues. I have friends that are doing really well in avant-garde settings, and then there are people that are doing really well in the avant-pop section of the composition world, genre-bending kinds of things."

Rogerson says he has not necessarily pursued any one style of music. His Web site ( features works for orchestras and instrumental soloists. It's a lot of work, considering the man is only 23.

Then again, one of his defining compositional experiences came when he was 10.

"I wouldn't say this was the culmination of my composing before I went to college," Rogerson says. "But the most thrilling was I went to this festival in England, where we were living while my dad was on sabbatical. For composers, you had to write a piece that would be played by the orchestra at the end. It's insane, but it's a good exercise.

"I had never really tried to write anything seriously before, other than pieces for piano and cello, and here I was trying to write a full orchestra piece. Of course there were a lot of things that weren't so great, but to hear a full orchestra play your music when you're 10 was pretty overwhelming."

Rogerson, who lives in Philadelphia, didn't always have orchestras at his disposal, but he had high school ensembles and instrumentalist friends who were happy to play his work. And, of course, he was writing for piano and cello, which he could play himself.

He went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Yale School of Music in Connecticut, where he is pursuing a master's degree, and he has studied with successful contemporary composers including Jennifer Higdon, Aaron Jay Kernis and Martin Bresnick.

"I learned different things from all of them," Rogerson says. "They were completely different teachers, all great in their own way. It's really nice to have people you respect and that are at the top of their fields giving you suggestions about your music and career."

Rogerson's career took a turn toward Kentucky when he was contacted by Chamber Festival artistic director Nathan Cole about writing a piece for the event.

"I've never been to Lexington, but I wanted to do something that was appropriate to the setting and the time of year," Rogerson says. "I wanted to write what is hopefully an evocative piece about summer evenings."

The four-movement piece has an inherent challenge.

"At first I said I wanted to write a piece that didn't have anything fast and didn't have anything loud," Rogerson says. "It never has anything earth-shattering. But when you start writing the music, there has to be a dramatic arc to the piece. I like the challenges that brings in terms of how do you maintain interest.

One movement, Fireflies, was adapted from a movement in a Rogerson composition for violin and piano called Once that has been performed in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"I'm actually really excited about that movement, because the piano quartet version is going to be great," Rogerson says. "I really liked the opportunity to have more string instruments so it can be fuller and richer and more exciting."

As he continues composing, Rogerson has to hope those adjectives will also describe his career.

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