Composer Phillip Bimstein Debuts Buddhism-inspired Work on the Brahmaviharas

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-09-24 |
Charlotte Bell and Phillip Bimstein at their Salt Lake City home. From sltrib.comCharlotte Bell and Phillip Bimstein at their Salt Lake City home. From

A new Buddhism-inspired work by alternative classical composer Phillip Bimstein, “The Brahma Viharas, A Meditation for English Horn and Orchestra,” which aims to express the “Four Immeasurables” or Buddhist practices of loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity, will have its worldwide premiere on Saturday by the Salt Lake Symphony.

Charlotte Bell, a long-time member of the Salt Lake Symphony, where she plays the oboe and its slightly larger relative, the cor anglais or English horn, is the soloist on the piece. “Phillip is a great writer of melody,” she said. “I like the fact that it’s tonal and melodic and easy to grasp, but it’s also quite complicated—with tricky rhythms and transitions. The Salt Lake Symphony loves a challenge.” (The Salt Lake Tribune)

Bimstein, who wrote the piece as a birthday gift to Bell, his partner in music and life, said he briefly considered having her play the oboe in one of the movements, but decided in favor of the English horn, which “has such a deep, soulful quality.” (The Salt Lake Tribune)

Despite an underlying foundation in Buddhist spiritual practice, the piece employs Western classical tonal language and is based on a similar structure to a standard symphony. Music director Robert Baldwin described the work as engaging and fresh, interweaving the voice of the English horn with the textures of the orchestra; “music about life itself.” (The Salt Lake Tribune)

The first movement depicts loving kindness, which Bell described as “an unconditional wish of good will to everyone in your life and beyond,” adding, “The main melody is a really sweet melody in a major key. To me, it depicts a feeling of well-wishing.” The second movement, on compassion, is expressed though stormy orchestral passages tamed by soothing refrains from Bell on the English horn, while of the third movement’s portrayal of empathetic joy, Bell said, “The whole orchestra is really playful.” The closing movement, on equanimity, which includes an extended improvisation by Bell, was “probably the hardest to depict” musically, she said. (The Salt Lake Tribune)

The finale “encompasses bits of all the foregoing, interrupted by deep sustained chords and silences representing balance and evenness amidst life’s ups and downs,” Bimstein explained. “I wanted to give [Bell] an opportunity to comment and speak through her own notes.” He added that it was also important to include brief solo passages for her Salt Lake Symphony colleagues: “Everybody gets a moment, so it becomes like a dialogue in which there are many participants.” (The Salt Lake Tribune)

Another performance of “The Brahma Viharas” has already been scheduled as part of the Parliament of the World’s Religions scheduled to take place in Salt Lake City in October, and includes an address by the Dalai Lama.

“I have no idea if he’ll hang around to hear this,” said Bimstein, “but who knows?"

Bimstein, a conservatory-trained composer, lives in Springdale, Utah, where he has also served two terms as mayor. Bimstein’s music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Bang on a Can Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, and London’s Royal Opera House.

Bell studied the oboe at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, joining the Salt Lake Symphony in 1996. A yoga instructor since 1986, Bell is also the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life (2007) and Yoga for Meditators (2012).

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Composer Phillip Bimstein sets virtues to music (The Salt Lake Tribune)
Phillip Bimstein (
Charlotte Bell (Salt Lake Symphony)

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