Student Profiles

From napkin sketch to piano concerto: two CMU students' collaborative journey

From napkin sketch to piano concerto: two CMU students' collaborative journey

What began as a student's rough sketch on a napkin has now grown into a sweeping piano concerto commissioned by the Mennonite Community Orchestra (MCO).

Written by Liam Berry and performed by Georg Neuhofer, "Rains Dance" is a piece that carries great significance for the two Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) students. It's the consolidation of musical congeniality, collaboration, and years of friendship.

After winning the 2023 Verna Mae Janzen Music Competition, Neuhofer was awarded the right to perform a piano concerto with the MCO at its fall program, The Power of Hope.

"Liam, maybe 15 minutes after I won the competition, jokingly whispered in my ear, 'I could write a piano concerto for you,'" says Neuhofer. "And what struck me is that no one had ever done that before. It's typically been a piano concerto from the 19th century, but I find it cool to do something that no one has ever done before."

After running the unique idea past the MCO, Berry and Neuhofer were given the green light to start creating their own piece.

Liam Berry
Liam Berry sketched out the bulk of
the 10-minute piano concerto "Rains
Dance" on a napkin.

"We had a napkin sketch of the concerto's general shape. And once the general shape of it is there, that's about 80% of the work is done," says Berry. He spent the next three months blocking out sections, dictating crescendos and diminuendos, writing and re-writing segments. The entirety of "Rains Dance" is about 10 minutes long.

The concerto's theme came from wanting to incorporate a natural element into the music. Berry says that with its brooding intensity and resolving peacefulness, a thunderstorm has an innate poetic arc. As he put the piece together, it guided itself in a new direction.

"There's this kind of interplay in this dance between the many kinds of rain. So, it's not a particular rain's dance; it's the dance of many rains. It's about finding excitement and beauty in all those images," Berry says.

But the true magic of "Rains Dance" is rooted in the friendship and bond between Berry and Neuhofer. Simultaneously working through CMU's School of Music, Berry and Neuhofer have become close friends and collaborators over the past few years.

"Because Georg's a really good storyteller, he's able to delineate the story of the music in a way that I really admire. And so, for me, that kind of gives me a license to go full out with a very narrative approach to the music," says Berry.

Georg Neuhofer, pianist
Georg Neuhofer, pianist, performed
Liam Berry's "Rain Dance" as part of
Mennonite Community Orchestra's
The Power of Hope concert on
November 5.

To Neuhofer, playing that particular style comes down to visualizing the music as you would a score in a movie. "That's pretty much essential with most pieces to really bring it to the next level, right? You can do all this technical practicing and musical practicing too, but the real interpretation comes when you attach some image or even some words to it," says Neuhofer.

What's most surprising about Neuhofer is that, despite all the success and accolades, he is not even enrolled in CMU's performance concertation. Instead, he's focused on music education. However, he doesn't like to sequester the two streams of study; "I think no matter what you're doing in music, going in-depth with performance and with one instrument just makes you that much more of a well-rounded musician."

Neuhofer is eager to thank his piano teacher, Shirley Elias, and the faculty at CMU for encouraging and inspiring him to push past his comfort zone.

"I've been able to do term projects that have involved literally going out to a classroom in a junior high school and teaching them a lesson. And I don't think you'd be able to do that in many other universities. And that's been a big part of my career because it's giving me tangible skills and a taste of what I'm going to do."

Berry has had a similar experience at CMU's School of Music. He mentions a course where the MCO sat in on a class and did reading sessions with the students involved in composition.

"It's massively valuable," says Berry. "The number of opportunities for that in the world is small. And I don't think it happened anywhere other than the CMU because it's this small community where we actually get to know each other."

Berry says, "Writing a piece for my friend and colleague has been awesome. And for the MCO and their willingness to do something like that is such an honour."

Watch the performance of Rains Dance 

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