Concerts Awash in Star Power



Pamela Madsen
Composer Pamela Madsen during the premiere of a commission last month by the Laguna Concert Band, which again performs the work at two Laguna Playhouse concerts this weekend.


Instead, Madsen returned to hike the lesser wonders of Laguna’s coastal canyons. Even so, in absorbing some special comfort while walking Crystal Cove State Park’s environs, her newest composition, “Into the Heart of the Earth: Crystal Cove,” took form. Its premiere was an outdoor performance in the park on Jan. 31.

The public will have another chance to hear Madsen’s new work this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 22 and 23, during Laguna Concert Band performances with former Stray Cats bassist and local resident Lee Rocker at Laguna Playhouse. “I have never played my music with a 70-piece concert band before and it’s going to be awesome,” said Rocker, who will join the band as a guest artist.

He plans to play a few Stray Cat standards such as “Rock this Town” and newer music that he recorded such as “Memphis Freeze.” “Being creative is all about trying new things, and that’s exactly what it’s going to be,” he said.

Madsen’s piece, too, showcases her creativity, which integrates work by her current and former composition students at Cal State Fullerton, where she is an associate professor of composition, music theory and music technology. Her husband, jazz pianist Eric Dries, also teaches music at CSUF.

The concert band performed Madsen’s work earlier this month at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, where Pacific Symphony musicians critiqued eight Orange County ensembles.

“We are a close musical community and when Pamela approached us to perform her piece, there was already an established trust level,” said Ed Peters, the local band’s  musical director. “It’s a real honor to be selected by a composer of her caliber.”

Madsen’s work is homegrown in yet another way. It was commissioned by the Crystal Cove Alliance and the Laguna Beach Community Foundation and underwritten by local residents and foundation board members Lisa and John Mansour.

“When we became aware through the Laguna Beach Foundation that we could help underwrite the concert band performances, we were enthusiastic even though we had not yet heard the piece,” said Lisa Mansour.

Music appreciation runs in the family. Mansour performs in the annual “Lagunatics” and the couple’s 15-year-old daughter Tessa, a veteran of high school theater productions, recently sang a duet with operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli at a fundraiser.

“The arts is something the whole family enjoys,” said Mansour, who is currently enrolled as a freshman pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fine art at the Laguna College of Art and Design.

“In the Heart of the Earth…” is written in three movements, explained Madsen. The first, “Dare to Dream,” was inspired by their daughter Annika Dries, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist water polo player, who took to heart Eleanor Roosevelt’s motto, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Olympic fanfares, the march of the Olympians and “Song to a Pure Heart” drive the movement.

The second, “Faraway (within)” was inspired by a line in a Louisa May Alcott poem, “Far away in the sunshine are my highest aspirations…” It uses the atmospheric canyons as a metaphor for life’s journey.

The third, “Silent Sounding Stars,” was inspired by Madsen’s sunset visits as resident composer of Crystal Cove State Park.

“I compose ‘art music’ or music that is designed to be listened to attentively and focused on, rather than background music or mere entertainment. It is meant to be heard actively but also to be enjoyed,” she said.

Madsen’s musical ambition began early with piano lessons at age 5. In high school, she began composing for piano, orchestra, band and choir. She studied at Indiana University, Yale University and received her Ph.D at UC San Diego, where she also met her husband. “We have similar backgrounds and training. We work together at CSUF, teach the same courses and often share the same students. We collaborate on works: he focuses my ideas while I often expand his,” she said.

The climb for women composers has been steep, said Madsen, who wasn’t taken seriously in college. Instead, she worked in sound installation, recording electronic music and composing music for women friends in theater, she said. “The support from women in other disciplines was significant in allowing me to find my voice as a woman composer.”

She has worked with pioneering artist Judy Chicago’s “Envisioning the Future” project in Los Angeles and annually organizes CSUF’s New Music Festival, which includes the Listening Room, playing recorded electroacoustic works by internationally-based women composers. Madsen also directs the college’s New Music Ensemble.

Her students span a range of ethnicities and interests, but are bound by a common wish to express themselves and possess the discipline to master instruments, material and techniques of composition of past music of all genres, she said.

Her first composition was based on T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men,” a work for spoken text and piano. Disciplined, she composes daily at her piano, followed by a swim.

While visual artists speak of “the agony of an empty page,” there’s no such thing for her. “I teach music so much that I see my composition time as a gift that I am waiting for. I hear music all the time and can’t wait to get to the piano to play or write things down.”

For more on Madsen’s background and work check out her website



Share this:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here