When Mark Berger had to test his musical mettle this summer he thought of his 6-year-old daughter, spinning, joyously, on tip-toes.
It worked so well that Berger, an adjunct professor of music who teaches violin and viola at UMass Lowell, is one of five finalists whose brief works will converge early next year in Atlanta where a Rapido! Composition Contest champion will be crowned. The winner earns $20,000 in prizes, including a commission from a major symphony orchestra.
His composition, “Dream Dances,” topped two others in a Boston regional final Sept. 28. Written to specific guidelines within a 14-day period in June, and performed by Boston Musica Viva, the short chamber piece was a personal challenge to Berger, one of 367 composers from 41 states to enter.
“It’s a very strange thing, speed writing,” says Berger, 35. “It’s a really good exercise.”
He first entered the Rapido! competition last year “as a way to generate some material.” Berger had already landed a standing commission with the Worcester Chamber Music Society and “if I didn’t win, it was a way to get something I could expend for that.” He didn’t win, but the six-minute work that grew from the competition, “Bloom,” premiered last April in Worcester.
A Marlborough resident who began taking violin lessons at age 3 (“I was disruptive during my sister’s piano lesson,” he confesses) he plays violin and viola and is a freelance musician who has played with a vast array of groups.
In June, he received an email from contest organizers with guidelines – the original short composition must be written for oboe, violin, cello and piano and must be in some way related to dance.
Berger did the job in half of the two weeks allotted.
“I’ve always been sort of a fast worker anyway,” he says. “My 6-year-old daughter is very involved with ballet and I thought of her happily spinning away in an endless pirouette.”
He built the feeling into a chamber piece. “It’s part of the craft of composing,” he says. “It’s a temporal art form, where you create and then build up and release tension over time. It’s what we all struggle with as composers, filling up time with material.”
The finals in Atlanta are set for Jan. 20, 2013.