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Bishop mom, premiere composer

When Arlington resident and composer Betsy Schramm agreed three years ago to be "Composer of the Month" at the Bishop Elementary School, she arrived with carefully prepared lessons plans.

What she wasn't prepared for, says music teacher Janet Welby, was being treated like a rock star.

Concert held at Town Hall, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, 2009

"She found out that all [the children] wanted to do was interview her," says Welby, who had previously highlighted composers ranging from Beethoven to Stevie Wonder. "They were just thrilled to have a real composer in Arlington."

For her part, Schramm was thrilled to be able to engage the kids and show them that a composer can be a "living thing." So thrilled, in fact, that she continued to work with the school, and composed a fanfare for the graduation ceremonies for her son's fifth-grade class.

Although Schramm writes a kind of music "contemporary classical" that is sometimes viewed as esoteric, there is nothing aloof about her approach to audiences or other musicians. She thrives on the personal connections that can happen between composer and audience, and between composer and performer.

"It's a great feeling when a performer brings a piece of music to life. It's such an intimate relationship you share with them, especially when you're there to help in the rehearsal process to give comments."

On Friday, Nov. 6, a work by Schramm with local links will be premiered as part of the Menotomy Concert Series. "Words of War/Letters of War" is a work for soprano, tenor, narrator and chamber ensemble featuring songs whose texts are war poems by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg. Interspersed with the songs, letters and quotes about war are narrated over instrumental music.

The letters are written by servicemen, "including one from Arlington," on active duty during wars ranging from the American Revolution to the Gulf War. The work was funded in part by the Arlington Cultural Council.

State Representative Jay Kaufman will narrate the letters, and tenor Charles Blandy and soprano Melanie Salisbury will perform the songs.

Schramm got the idea for the work when she passed a handmade sign on Jason Street that kept track of the number of American military deaths in the most recent Iraq war.

She wanted to delve behind the numbers into personal stories of war.

Although she describes composing as great exercise for both the mind and the emotions, reading so many texts about war, she says, "was one of the most painful things I've ever done."

Schramm grew up in a musical home and began studying piano at age 4 or 5. In middle school she switched to percussion, which she credits with giving her an excellent basis for composition. Not only did it develop her sense of rhythm, but playing a variety of instruments "from triangle to snare drum to marimba -- gave her a good feel for the timbre, or tone quality, of different instruments.

But she didn't expect to be a composer, and at the University of Texas at Austin she majored in psychology and minored in computer science.

"I tried doing other things," she says with a laugh. But she was very drawn to writing, and the first piece she wrote, for a music theory class, was chosen to be performed and then given an award.

Hearing her music played, she says, is very special.

"I remember the first time I had a big performance, I had this feeling inside that I wanted to buy everyone a car, I was so grateful."

She went on to earn her Ph.D. in composition from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., and then went to England on a Fulbright, where she was in a program for composers and young directors offered by the English National Opera in London and also studied composition at Cambridge University.

In addition to writing music, she learned the crucial skill of rounding up performers.

"I would stand at the orchestra door," she says, "and get people to commit to playing for me."

She made some lasting connections with performers, such as the trumpeter Mark Ponzo, who frequently commissions her to write music for him. Ponzo, who will be performing on Friday, points out that "when the composer is alive it's a lot easier to get to the source."

"It's fun working with composers who are actually working and breathing," he adds.

For Schramm, who started conducting about five years ago, there is also real value in participating in the rehearsal process.

"It makes you become very articulate about your music," she says, "because you have to talk about it with a performer to get what you want."

But ultimately what she finds most satisfying is the solitary work of composing. After her children, ages 6 and 12, have gone to school, she sits down at her piano to write.

"I just love that act of creation," she says. "It gives me so much energy to bring it forth."

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