Three Music Composition Graduate Students Selected as Composers-in-Residence with Irving Symphony Orchestra

Symphony will premiere their works Oct. 23, Nov. 13 and Feb. 26, celebrating 10-year partnership with SMU Meadows

Spencer Roberts

By Holly Haber

Three Meadows Division of Music graduate students have written works that will be performed by the Irving Symphony Orchestra (ISO) as a part of their serving as “composers in residence,” a rare opportunity for any composer -- whether student or professional.

“It’s tough for a composer to get his or her hands on an orchestra,” says Lane Harder, co-chair and senior lecturer of music composition and theory and a member of the selection committee for the Student Composer-in-Residence program. “We try to impart the specialness of it to the students, and they really rise to the occasion and often produce some of the best, well-executed work for this opportunity year after year.”

This marks the 10th year of the unique collaboration between SMU and the ISO, which was sparked by Hector Guzman, SMU alumnus and ISO music director, and Robert Frank, ISO-SMU program director and associate professor of composition/theory.

The first program of its kind, it has grown into a highly successful opportunity that annually gives SMU composition students experience and training with a professional orchestra.

“Being in residence is like an internship,” notes Frank, “and in addition to writing a new piece for the orchestra to perform, students have the chance to develop professional skills in public speaking, outreach, conducting, rehearsal techniques, and wherever their individual areas of interest lie within the orchestral field.” 

“The orchestra loves it,” Guzman says. “Each composer has never disappointed.”

The ISO will play “A Cowboy in Space — Inspired by The Mandalorian” by Spencer Roberts on Oct. 23, “An Inevitable Overture” by Michael Boss on Nov. 13, and a yet-to-be titled work by Luis Solis on Feb. 26. All concerts will be held at the Irving Arts Center.

Only one SMU graduate student was selected in each of the prior years for the prestigious Composer-in-Residence program, and there will be three in the 2021-22 season largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Guzman explains.

The 2020-21 winner, Boss, had his premiere delayed because of the restrictions on live music last year to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Then, Guzman proposed featuring two student composers for 2021-22 both to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the ISO-SMU collaboration and mark the return of live performances.

“Unusual times call for unusual solutions,” he notes.

The selection committee also includes Xi Wang, associate professor of composition/theory, who notes that both Roberts and Solis had strong portfolios and experience writing for orchestras.

“It was very hard to choose one or the other,” she says. “With the support of Maestro Guzman, we decided to bring two composers forward.”

For the students, the opportunity has been eye-opening.

“It’s an opportunity to break into a field that is very difficult to get into these days, and also just to learn how to interact with a conductor and a professional orchestra outside of a scholastic setting,” Roberts says.

For instance, he learned always to voice his comments to the conductor — never to individual players — and how to format and print each part of the score using Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) guidelines, which are highly specific and mandatory in the professional world.

It’s also given Roberts confidence and a chance to practice talking about his music.

“People in modern orchestras already have this stigma that dead composers are better than living ones, so the fact that I am getting something premiered is a win,” he says.

Roberts’ work will be featured at the Oct. 23 concert themed “Star Wars Through the Years.” Guzman asked him to compose something inspired by The Mandalorian TV saga without using Mandalorian melodies. The show is about a traveling bounty hunter, which led Roberts to envision a space cowboy.

“It opens very grand and triumphant, very brassy, but goes through a couple of moods,” he explains. “There’s a moment of tranquility in the middle meant to exude the vast calm universe compared with the action of the past nine movies. The essence is really heroism.”

Notes Harder, “It’s very big and bold and fantastically exciting. It sounds like it comes straight out of a film score and jumps off the page. It just grabs you by the collar and says, hey, pay attention.”

Roberts, who earned undergraduate degrees in music composition and music education from SMU, will complete two Master of Music degrees in May, in composition and instrumental conducting.

Meanwhile, he’s collaborating with fellow SMU students on a two-act ballet and performing in a wedding band. He’ll also have his solo clarinet piece performed at the University of Wisconsin in May as part of a competition he won.

Boss, a 2008 graduate of the Berklee College of Music with a focus on music for films, video games, and mixed media, says the opportunity to write for the ISO was freeing.

“This was a real opportunity to rid myself of the box that a film can put you in — like ‘it needs to sound like this,’” he says. “It has lent me the chance to really explore concert music as a viable option, more so than I expected.”

Guzman advised Boss to write something “festive,” and “An Inevitable Overture” reflects the highs and lows that he experienced during the pandemic, including being the new father of a daughter born in December 2019, getting engaged, and navigating the challenges of lockdown.

Harder observes, “It has tremendous reach in emotional complexity, harmonic richness and melodic inventiveness, and has orchestral color for days. It’s kaleidoscopic orchestration — extremely well-orchestrated.”

Boss’ “Inevitable Overture” was named for one of the words he used to propose to his fiancée and also references the overture’s overdue premiere.

“With the rescheduling of the performance, the piece itself became inevitable,” Boss says. “It was the adjective of the year for me.”

He expects to complete his master’s degree in music composition in December and is setting up shop in Dallas to provide music and sound design for a variety of media and projects.

“I want to go further with my film scoring career and maybe video games as well,” Boss says.

The theme of the ISO’s Feb. 26 concert is “Musical Treasures from the World,” and Guzman asked Solis to explore Native American music in his piece.

Solis, who hails from Honduras, says he studied music of the Cree and Lakota tribes for inspiration.

“I like how pure it sounds,” he says. “Combining that purity with the complexity of the orchestral sound is very interesting, and I’m very excited to be working on this.”

Professor Xi notes, “He is expressing his understanding of native America through his own lens to create something ‘Luis.’ My hope is for him to be courageous to work outside of his comfort zone, creating an authentic and personal piece, and to bring his orchestral writing to a higher level.”

Solis says serving as an ISO Student Composer-in-Residence still feels a bit unbelievable.

“Back in my country, music composition is not an area that you can choose to study,” he reflects. “We are trained to be performers more than anything else. Having a professional orchestra perform my piece is kind of surreal.”

Solis, who is also an accomplished pianist and earned a master’s degree in piano performance at SMU earlier this year, is due to complete his master’s in composition in May 2022.

“I plan to continue to teach both composition and piano and expand my repertoire,” he says. “In the long term, I would really like to be able to do outreach back in my country and help cultivate a school of future composers there. I would like to bring all of this knowledge that I’m getting here and open this door for students. They are curious, but they don’t have the resources to do it.”

As for Guzman, he is passionate about nurturing young composers at his alma mater.

“They’re all very talented, and each one has a unique style — they’re nothing alike,” he observes. “That is what makes it very interesting.”

For tickets and more information about the ISO’s 2021-2022 season, visit