To say that Robert Moody has a personal connection to “Desert Transport,” the first piece on the program he’s conducting for the Phoenix Symphony this week, is something of an understatement.
He has known Mason Bates, the composer he refers to as “a great friend,” since Bates was 16 and a student of Moody’s at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.
This was in the mid-’90s, and Moody recalls, “He was a piano student. And all the piano students had to sing in the summer festival chorus, which I conducted. So one day, this 16-year-old kid comes up to me and tells me he’s written a piece of music for singers and would I take a look at it? And I realized it was a stellar piece of music.”
Moody went on to commission Bates’ first orchestral work for an orchestra in Indiana.
In 2002, while resident conductor under maestro Hermann Michael, Moody introduced Bates and his music to the Phoenix Symphony, which has gone on to program many of the young composer’s works.
This particular piece, “Desert Transport,” was commissioned by Moody in his current role as artistic director for Arizona MusicFest, which premiered Bates’ piece in 2011.
Moody was even along for the ride that inspired the writing of the piece.
“It’s music depicting a helicopter ride that Mason and I got to take,” Moody says. “We lifted off from the Scottsdale airport and the helicopter pilot took us up to Flagstaff, over Sedona, around Humphreys Peak, along the Mogollon Rim. We actually hovered over Montezuma’s Castle, made our way out to Lake Roosevelt, saw the Tonto ruins.
“So it was this amazing aerial tour of Arizona, and I thought it just seemed like a perfect souvenir, if you will, that I could bring now to the Phoenix Symphony. That’s the piece that I’m really excited about introducing to the Phoenix Symphony.”
Bates’ piece begins, Moody says, with the orchestra “re-creating the sound of a helicopter going from the blades not moving at all to where the blades are really whirring and we’re lifting off. The music captures that perfectly.”
Bates also got permission to use a recording of a Pima tribal chant called “Mountain by the Sea,” which becomes the main melodic structure of the piece.
“It’s really powerful,” Moody says. “And he was thinking about it while we were hovering over Montezuma’s Castle. He was trying to imagine what it would be like to evoke the spirits of those ancestors. So it’s the perfect piece for that great state.”
Moody lives across the country from “that great state” these days, on a lake outside Charlotte, N.C.
“I have two music directorships on the East Coast, the Winston-Salem Symphony in North Carolina and the Portland Symphony in Maine,” he says, speaking from home. “And then, of course, I do the Arizona MusicFest in north Scottsdale every February. So being on a lake is nice and being 20 minutes from the Charlotte airport, which is a major hub, is also very good for me.”
Although his work with Arizona MusicFest has been his “touchstone” with the state since he ended his tenure with the symphony, he’s thrilled to be returning.
“I was resident conductor until 2006,” he says. “And I’ve been back a few times for lighter concerts. But this is my first time back for a classic cycle, so I’m really excited to make great music with my colleagues back there.”
In addition to Bates’ “Desert Transport,” he’s conducting Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major with Ronaldo Rolim on piano.
“I chose the Sibelius,” he says, “because Sibelius is also a great writer of music that has a landscape feel to it. So I thought the pairing was really nice because Sibelius has this expansive way of writing.”