If you want music to be played by symphony orchestras all over the country, you should write a composition for the holidays.
Professor Delvyn Case recalls hearing that advice numerous times before taking up the challenge in 2009. He spent part of his summer composing a fast-paced, four-minute-plus piece he titled “Rocket Sleigh.”
The advice turned out to be accurate. The composition has been played by dozens of orchestras across the country in the years since. This season, the National Symphony Orchestra will include it in its holiday pops program at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“It’s starting to get traction, to take off. People are contacting me about getting the rights to perform it,” said Case, an assistant professor of music who also conducts the Great Woods Chamber Orchestra at Wheaton. “It was picked up by the music publisher Alfred Music, which is one of the biggest music publishers in the country.
“It’s one of the only new orchestral holiday compositions out there,” Case said. “It fills a need that conductors have each year for coming up with the holiday pops program that virtually every symphony in the country does. “If the conductor likes it, the symphony plays it.”
Clearly, conductors like “Rocket Sleigh.” In addition to the National Symphony, Case’s composition will be performed this holiday season by a number of ensembles, including the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and the Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts.
The composition also is finding fans through college and even high school concert bands. In 2011, Case wrote an arrangement of the piece for concert band, thanks to a grant from Wheaton. That version has been played by numerous ensembles, including the Dallas Wind Symphony, the U.S. Coast Guard Band and the Yale Concert Band.
The composition reflects not only Case’s interest in penning a piece of music that would be popular, but also his lifelong love for the holiday classic, Sleigh Ride, which was written by Leroy Anderson.
“Sleigh Ride is such an amazing, high-quality piece of work, a beautiful melody and extremely inventive. It’s so great. It was always one of my favorites growing up and going to the Portland Symphony’s holiday pops shows,” Case said. “My intention was that my piece would be the modern version.”
He also wanted to evoke the idea of Santa leaving behind his reindeer-powered vehicle for a modern, rocket-fueled version. “I wanted to write it so that it sounded like movie music, so that it would create an image.”
The success of the composition in finding audience testifies to how well Case achieved his goal. But it also reflects the work that he has put into helping audiences hear the piece. He bought a domain name for the composition (rocketsleigh.com) at which visitors can hear the piece as played by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jason Weinberger, a former classmate of Professor Case. He has hired Wheaton students to email symphonies with information about the piece during the summer and visited with as many conductors and music directors as possible.
As a composer, Case has received numerous honors and grants, and his work has been performed in concert by many orchestras and ensembles.
“It’s extremely hard to get your work played,” he said. “You’re competing against Beethoven and the entire classical music tradition.”
Fortunately, the musical sketch of a rocket-powered Santa is irresistible.