The team from Keene meets Symphony NH

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The Team From Keene meets Symphony NH

A 21st Century Approach to 19th Century Music.

Fourth in a multi-part series.

The New Hampshire Concerto Competition

Just before 7:30 p.m. on November 8, 2023,  11 college students from across the state of New Hampshire filed into Keefe Auditorium in Nashua.  All music majors, they were the finalists chosen to represent their schools at an  “orchestra read session.”

The team from Keene State College (KSC) connected with me through Dr. Heather Gilligan, Professor of Music, and coordinator of composition, theory, and aural skills. An active composer and performer in her own right, she immediately saw the value for students in the KSC music department.

Senior Zach Keenan emerged as the student liaison for this Ink Link News, Arts and Culture project. He had just become the arts media editor for KSC’s school newspaper, the Equinox, and had begun to interview the other participating Keene music composition students.

The team from Keene engaged the whole student body, held a listening party, and packed their finalists off to the competition in style.

Symphony New Hampshire’s Concerto was meant to build bridges across the state and the team from Keene led the way.
When they arrived in Nashua, they were primed and ready… Check out this short video to see their energy:

A Composition Competition – Creating new music for orchestra

Imagine taking college level classes in musical composition or performance and getting offered the opportunity to create a piece for live orchestral performance. To start, create a 90 second excerpt – much like the way new music is found and promoted these days in the anonymity of the internet. This time, however, it is not going up on TikTok but will be heard and performed by a symphonic orchestra.

The top submissions got their composers (creators, in social media influencer speak) a chance to hear a live read (performance, in non-musician speak) with personal feedback from the conductor and orchestra. Each of the students who traveled to Nashua also received a professionally recorded digital copy of their excerpt with comments from the orchestra, conductor and judges.

Who else does this?

“Hey Zack, do you want accents in the oboe, bassoon?” Maestro Roger Kalia

Imagine hearing the orchestra, pause after the first play-through, and have musicians ask questions of the composer – make suggestions or comments as they notice a gap or to help flesh out the intentions of the composer.


Deanna Hoying, Executive Director of Symphony NH, wanted to create exactly this opportunity for NH undergrads. She wanted to do something for the college undergrads here in NH who don’t have that opportunity outside of a student group or a MIDI to really hear their work.

She says, “young composers, particularly now, hear everything in MIDI  and what you envision is very different than when you put it in the hands of a person and the timbre (tonal quality) changes. There are these subtleties that you might not get in (software programs) the same as a person playing that tangible wood or metal (instrument).”
There was no MIDI here – no machine-fed work -Just a human-to-human interaction. A mini mentoring opportunity and role play in real-time.

Meet The Team from Keene

From left, Alex Royce, Simon Furze, Miles Johnstone, Dr. Heather Gilligan, Zach Keenan

ZACHARY KEENAN – Keene State College Class of 2024. Senior. Music Tech, and Multimedia Director for the KSC Equinox.

Zach was the first person to reach out to me to participate and share with all of us what this experience is like – to be an undergrad – invited to write a short piece, perhaps a whole movement for a real orchestra –

Zachary Keenan Keene State College senior Keith Spiro Photo
Zach Keenan. Photo | Keith Spiro

How did you first get interested in music as a career?

My name is Zach Keenan and I got interested in music as a career through the hobby of writing and recording my own music which I then developed an interest in the field of music technology.

What was your first impression when you learned about your opportunity to participate at the reading in Nashua?

My first impression was “this is a cool opportunity to hear what I wrote played live”

What was it like to go through the reading with a live Orchestra?

It was very cool as I had only been able to listen to the piece on composition software before and hearing it with real people and real instruments injected life into the piece.

How did it feel to get real time feedback from musicians and Maestro Roger Kalia?

It was nice to get feedback from a complete outside source and get their honest reactions to what I had written.

Several people commented and compared the experience to the current practices of using MIDI. Thoughts you might want to share here?

As I said before, MIDI playback gives you certainly a rough estimate of what your piece sounds like, but nothing compares to the real thing and real people playing music together.

What are two highlights from the process that might change your approach going forward?

I had forgotten some accents on a part and when asked for clarification on what I wanted (I did want those accents) it completely changed how that bar flowed

I had forgotten some accents on a part and when asked for clarification on what I wanted (I did want those accents) it completely changed how that bar flowed so I suppose I would remember to make sure everything is consistent.

Another highlight was that I got to hear my fellow composers and see their works come to life too. It was a special moment that the 4 of us each got to experience each others works come to life and cheer each other on during the readings.

Zack went on to interview his fellow composition students.

You can watch the interviews here and what follows is an excerpt of their Q & A

Simon Furze ‘24 – double major in music composition and music technology (senior) His work Mountains was selected as part of the NH Concerto
Alexander Royce ‘ 25 Music composition Major (junior)
Miles Johnstone ’25 Music composition Major (junior)

Dr. Gilligan reached out to most of the composition students – announcing a search for undergraduate students to write a piece – and perhaps get to work with an actual orchestra and hear their work played by an orchestra. Most had never written an orchestration before.

“An interesting journey for me” says Alexander Royce.

Process of writing the piece:

Furze: composition sometimes fighting a current but here “seamless work” Gets a basic idea down. Listening & hearing for him is a natural basis of writing.

For Royce: slow start. Had to write more vertically and longer lines – adding what helped him start was ‘imagery’ as a composer – looked up pictures of NH to give an image and a setting.

Johnstone: – at first daunting – had to write out for a whole number of instruments – but soon figured out a melody line and put it into an instrument and went from there.

Inspiration for the piece:

Furze: “It is an ode to Mt Monadnock. A composition that reflects the mountain’s towering beauty.” Representing stability, because, growing up, it has always been there for him.

Royce: Image setting is a train ride in the fall in Northern NH. The leaves are colorful, and you are constantly moving.

Johnstone: Inspiration is a ghost story out of Benton NH about Dr. Thomas Benton. The legend was that his fiancé died. He became odd and almost crazy. Then strange things happened to the town’s livestock and people went missing.

What influences your compositional voice?

Furze: Tries to be original for his compositions. Tries not to take ideas from other composers but rather he works with his authentic, self-originated ideas.

Royce: says it is good to get ideas listening to others performing or composition of peers. Finds it great to see how different their compositional voices are. But, then he reaches out of his own compositional bubble to try new things.

Johnstone: Is a big fan of movies, and TV soundtracks. Horror movies especially influence his voice. He wants to compose for TV and movies in the future. Finds himself really inspired by Peter Gundry.

What do you hope to do next?

Furze: finishing up his senior year. Then taking a gap year. He’s hoping to get into a master’s program in composition and work toward a doctorate and teaching at a university.

Royce: nobody knows what will happen next but he would like to start a piano studio and teach piano while hopefully getting some commissions. Composition for bands, personal artists, and film. Music scouts please note: Anything he can get his hands on, he is willing to do. He’s hungry to get out there and start.

Johnstone: wants to continue writing for large ensembles – once he got over it being overwhelming st its actually really fun. He is hoping to start a composition for big band jazz band next semester and hopefully a concert band semester after that. Then continue composition into grad school and go into the industry of TV and film composition.

Learn more about the team from Keene:

Dr. Heather Gilligan


“Gilligan has helped transform New Hampshire’s Keene State College into a magnetic sanctuary for concerts of new musical works and workshops with veteran composers.”

She guided and with Zach in the lead, they created a community around this team from Keene and the excitement and visibility showed in everything they did.


Miles Johnstone

Miles Johnstone image photo by Keith Spiro
Miles Johnstone following along on his piece, The Alchemist of Moosilauke. Photo | Keith Spiro


Simon Furze

cP Keene DSC7711 ©KeithSpiroPhoto
(L to R) KSC professor, Dr. Heather Gilligan, Conductor Roger Kalia, KSC student Simon Furze asking questions not yet knowing he’d be the one selected. Photo | Keith Spiro Hear his interview with Zach at KSC Equinox after being notified he was selected for the Concerto.

The New Hampshire Concerto premieres April 20, 2024

The New Hampshire Concerto premieres at Symphony New Hampshire’s New World Concert, April 20, 2024 The concert opens with the NH Concerto and introduces work by Simon Furze (KSC), Grace Chen (Dartmouth), Wesley Coffin (UNH) and Tyler Nadeau (Plymouth State).

The concert ends with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World.” Inspired by the spirit of African-American spirituals and Native American music that he heard during his travels in America, the work is a fitting tribute to New Hampshire, the spirit of the people who have come before, and those that will come after us.

Read the 3 earlier installments of this multi-part series of A 21st Century approach to 19th Century Music:

Jude Morris New Voice Classic Performance

The lads of UNH  Wesley Coffin, Kyle Cook and Michael Crowley

Grace Chen – The One from Dartmouth College

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About this Author

Keith Spiro

Advisor & ContributorInk Link News, Arts & Culture

Business Strategist, Community Builder with a keen interest in working with high-impact startups and other organizations that can make a difference in community and health.