Place matters. The environments we interact with, where we come from, all influence how we see the world and how we define ourselves. Reno native Sean Shepherd has returned to his hometown as the first-ever composer in residence of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra, where he will present a premiere of his Nevada-themed composition “Desert Garden” at Welcome Home, the RPO’s season-opener the first week in October.
Laura Jackson, music director for the RPO, selected Shepherd to be the first composer in residence in her newly created program. The residency is a two-part endeavor, the first being the presentation of Shepherd’s composition “Silvery Rills,” the title of which is taken from the Nevada state song, which premiered in February with the RPO.
Shepherd grew up in Nevada and attended Reed High School. Both of his parents were from central Nevada, and he spent much of his time there. After graduating from high school, Shepherd went on to receive degrees in composition from Indiana University and a Master’s Degree from The Juilliard School. He currently lives in New York City.
“One of the things I was really interested in with doing this residency, anxious to explore, were the young composers who are in our midst,” Shepherd says.
Since becoming composer-in-residence, Shepherd has been mentoring local eighth grader Paul Novak. Novak attends the Davidson Academy, and he has composed a piece, “There Exists a Light in Spring,” that will be performed at the RPO’s Family Show on Oct. 1.
“Paul has so much energy and talent,” says Shepherd. “He’s very fresh and wide-eyed. It gives me a lot of enthusiasm to work with him. There’s a huge amount of imagination that takes place.”
Novak says working with Shepherd has been a great opportunity. He has composed pieces for ensembles but this will be his first large-scale performance.
“This is the first piece I’ve done that is this long. Composing for an entire orchestra was a new experience, very different. Sean was a lot of help,” says Novak. “What really inspired me was thinking about writing a composition based on an emotion.”
Working with the RPO and the various schools and youth programs has been an enjoyable experience for Shepherd. He has found the community to be very receptive and enthusiastic, and the experience has been an opportunity for him to take his work in new directions.
Shepherd considers his residency a sort of homecoming. Since leaving Nevada after high school, he hadn’t spent much time in his home state. The residency has allowed Shepherd time for reflecting on his homeland, which serves as the inspiration for his piece “Desert Garden.”
“[That] piece comes from my relationship to my homeland,” explains Shepherd. “What was the environment of my incubation and of the first 18 years of my life?”
The piece is part homage, not only to specific people in Shepherd’s family, but to a way of life. Having experienced firsthand the hardships, sacrifices, and wonders of life in Nevada, Shepherd has an internal relationship with this place.
“It’s a beautiful and very difficult way of life that is in danger,” says Shepherd, referring to making a home in the often inhospitable desert and the history of living in this state. “There’s something about the folly of living here. We know life is difficult here, but something about that draws us to it.”
In this way, Shepherd also considers the piece a sort of elegy. The title, “Desert Garden,” is slightly oxymoronic.
“The garden may not last, but the desert certainly will,” Shepherd adds. “The desert starts us off and is what remains and brings us back.”