Mathias Alten arguably is the most important artist Grand Rapids ever has produced, and his work has inspired composer Jeremy Crosmer, not once, but twice.
Alten, though born in Germany, came to Grand Rapids with his family in 1889 at age 17. Over the next 49 years, his body of more than 2,500 works was collected widely and exhibited in major galleries in the United States and abroad. By the time of his death in 1938 in Grand Rapids, he was referred to as the “dean of Michigan painters.”
Grand Valley State University’s George H. and Barbara Gordon Gallery has the largest collection of work by Alten in the world, which is where composer Jeremy Crosmer discovered Alten’ painting, “Gathering Pumpkins at Sunset.”
The 1907 painting of farmers harvesting crops, late in the evening, was the inspiration for Crosmer to compose a new work for the Grand Rapids Symphony that will be premiered Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18-19, in DeVos Performance Hall.
Crosmer gave his work a slightly different title – “Gathering Sunset.”
“It doesn’t have much to do with pumpkins,” Crosmer said with a laugh.
Alten in his maturity was an impressionist, and Crosmer takes a similar approach in his 7-minute overture. It’s not about concrete melodies and formal structure but about his impressions of the scene.
“It’s more about generating the feeling and the warmth – being in that location at that time,” Crosmer said.
Though the painting depicts farmers working the land, “Gathering Pumpkins at Sunset” isn’t about agriculture. It’s really about the colors in the landscape.
“This one really stood out to me,” said Crosmer, a cellist with the Grand Rapids Symphony. “And the piece really evolved from that.”
“For me, the idea of impressionism is appealing to just the emotions,” he said.
A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Crosmer studied cello, music theory and composition at the University of Michigan, earning his doctoral degree there. He joined the Grand Rapid Symphony as assistant principal cellist at age 24 in 2012.
Playing cello is his profession. Though he’s been composing since he was 10 years old, it’s more of an avocation.
“I’ve lost enough compositions contests that I know I don’t like to compose under pressure,” he said. “I can pick what I choose.”
“Gathering Sunset” is the third work Crosmer has composed for the Grand Rapids Symphony as well as the second inspired by Alten. Last year, he participated in a project with two other composers to write a “Mathias Alten Triptych” with Alexander Miller, assistant principal oboist of the Grand Rapids Symphony, and Bill Ryan, professor of music at Grand Valley State University, to write a three-movement work inspired by the art of Alten.
Entered in ArtPrize 2015 as a musical work, it won the St. Cecilia Music Center Prize for Best Classical Music Composition in ArtPrize Seven.
“That’s how I met the Gordons,” Crosmer said.
Today, George and Barbara Gordon underwrite the assistant principal cellist’s chair he occupies with the Grand Rapids Symphony, and the couple commissioned Crosmer to write another work for the Grand Rapids Symphony, inspired by Alten’s work.
Crosmer explored more of the artist’s work at GVSU and selected “Gathering Pumpkins at Sunset” as his inspiration.
“George Gordon said it was one of his favorites, too,” Crosmer said.
Working on the piece has motivated him in more ways than one.
“It’s inspired me to go out and view the sunset,” he said with a laugh.