Keeping Her Composure: Composer Esther Ollivier ’18


Caty Szeto

Walking through the Norton Simon Museum, Esther Ollivier ’18 stopped at a painting of a ballerina massaging her foot while sitting in a dimly lit room. Ollivier scanned the painting as ideas of how to transform the piece of art into her next musical composition raced through her mind.

She began composing music in middle school after taking classes in music theory and composition.

Her compositional work was first recognized in 2014, when she was awarded the Honorable Mention of the Music Teachers National Association composition competition in California. A year later, her original work placed first within the state.

Since then, Ollivier has been accepted into the Young Musicians Foundation Composers’ Program and has had her work performed in several live instrumental concerts, including the Harvard-Westlake Upper School Symphony Spring Concert in 2016.

Most notable is Ollivier’s recent membership in the LA Philharmonic’s Nancy and Barry Sanders Composer Fellowship Program.

The program is a unique opportunity for high school composers to gain exposure to the LA Phil’s music community.

Students are guided by LA Phil musicians and guest artists who focus on the process and production of concert music. At the end of the program, students have the opportunity to see and hear their original compositions performed by the LA Phil as well as other various chamber groups and orchestras.

The assignment given to students in the first semester of the 2017-2018 class was to select a piece of visual art in Los Angeles to use as inspiration for their next composition. For her piece, Ollivier chose a painting called “Waiting,” from French impressionist Edgar Degas’ ballerina series.

Having dedicated a number of years to ballet training herself, she said she was drawn to this particular painting because it highlighted the reality of ballerinas behind the curtain.

“It has a lot of depth to it,” Ollivier said. “You can really see the toll that being a ballerina has on someone and what it means to be a ballerina offstage, not just onstage.”

In her piece, Ollivier aimed to embody the contrast between the light ballerina and the dark environment surrounding her.

She worked with program director Andrew Norman and composer Sarah Gibson on translating Degas’ message into music.

“They were really helpful in giving us feedback and examples to help walk us through the process,” Ollivier recalled. “They help you solidify what works and re-develop what doesn’t to help shape all the music into what it is now.”

Two weeks ago, Ollivier was able to hear her composition come to life for the first time. The LA Phil Orchestra performed her piece at Disney Concert Hall for radio show “From the Top” which will air on NPR May 27.

“There was a full audience, which was kind of terrifying, but it was also amazing because I put so much work into the piece and to see it be recognized on such a large scale is just great,” Ollivier said.

Ollivier said she looks forward to hearing her piece played again at the end of the month during the Toyota Symphonies for Youth Concerts, a performance that will showcase all compositions from students in the program. She is also excited to work on a new piece for the second semester of the fellowship and make further connections with LA Phil composers and musicians, Ollivier said.