Willa Hawthorne

Hello, my name is Willa Hawthorne and I am 11 years old. I take cello at Pasadena Conservatory of Music and play bass in my school’s orchestra. This year, for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, my mom (a pianist) and dad (a writer) commissioned a young composer named Hannah Lash to write a 50-second piece for cello and piano to perform at their (my dad’s parents) anniversary party.

Composer Hannah Lash was born in 1981 and graduated with a Ph.D. from Harvard in 2010. She then obtained from the Yale School of Music her Artist Diploma. She has composed many pieces for orchestras including the L.A. Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Since my mom used to work at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as executive director, she had been working with Hannah. My mom told me of the many beautiful pieces that Hannah has written, and that she wanted Hannah to write a piece for us. The piece she wrote is called “Join.”

“‘Join’ was written to commemorate a 50th wedding anniversary,” Says Hannah Lash. “Because of this occasion, I wanted to construct the piece in such a way that its form and content reflected the idea of two separate entities being joined together in a cooperative and participatory manner while maintaining each of their individual characters. So, I built a form that is essentially an ABA in the way in which the harmonies work, but not in a perceivable presentation of a material followed by contrasting B and finally a return to A. It was important to me to keep the manifestation of the form hidden so that a duality wouldn’t be presented. I did this partly in the way in which the instruments work together as a unit to present the material, but also by maintaining separate roles for each. The piano has a tender and quiet character, while the cello’s music feels much more melodic, sitting in the most expressive register of the instrument. And yet the basic material for both instruments is essentially the same, shared.”

I took the piece to my cello teacher Rebecca Merblum. It was quite challenging, with very high notes and tricky rhythms that I had not yet mastered in previous pieces. This was my very first piece of contemporary music, so it was a bit strange for me. But as I got the piece into my mind, I learned to enjoy it. My cello teacher did enjoy it too, even though it was a challenge to teach. “Exploring contemporary music is exactly that: an exploration,” Becky said. “Hannah is using her unique musical vocabulary to create a captivating atmosphere. This piece is highly evocative of a mood and temperament – using the counterpoint of the cello and piano to both create motion and stasis simultaneously. I have found tremendous pleasure in opening up this world alongside Willa.”

Photos by Michelle Feynman

During winter break it was quite a struggle for me to learn the piece without my cello teacher. My mom and I worked hard for a steady hour each day, mastering the rhythm and notes. Finally, day after day, I seemed to have the whole piece mastered and in my ear. “The process of discovering, exploring and learning a new work by an impressive young composer with my daughter was incredibly gratifying,” said my mom. “Certainly, we had our moments, but the greatest rewards in life involve a certain amount of struggle. The piece is hauntingly beautiful, and evokes great nostalgia. Even when I’m not playing the piece, I remember and hear the memorable intervals.”

Finally, the party was ready, and I was, too. I was most looking forward to this occasion. My dad was also excited to hear me play because he had never heard the piece performed in concert.

“After I introduced Willa and Rachel and said a few words about Hannah Lash and the piece we had commissioned in honor of my parents 50th anniversary,” said my dad, “I was able to sit down and, with the partygoers, hear it performed for the very first time. It’s a tricky piece of music, but the two of them played it beautifully.”

“The piece, “Join”, written specifically for the occasion of our 50th wedding anniversary, was very modern and, according to Willa’s mom, the pianist, ‘very difficult’.” My grandfather said. “But Willa nailed it! It was a very emotional 50 seconds for us!” My grandparents were very thankful for this performance.

“What an amazing surprise! The beautiful music took my breath away.” My grandmother recalls “How to capture 50 years? Impossible, but Hannah Lash’s 50 seconds of glorious music as played by Willa condensed time in a wonderful way. In less than a minute, past, present and future came together.”

“We are very proud of Willa. Very grateful to her, too. We know she worked hard to prepare. She played beautifully and could not have given us a better gift.”

I’m glad that I took all the hard work to prepare this piece, it was quite worth it in the end.