The Oneota Valley Community Orchestra (OVCO) continues its sixth season with a program of works by Rossini, Beethoven, Hippen and Tchaikovksy Sunday, Feb. 23, at 3 p.m. in the Decorah High School Auditorium.

This performance is an opportunity for the orchestra to present American Nocturne by Decorah composer and songwriter, Ben Hippen. OVCO Music Director Matthew Cody will conduct the orchestra, and it will be the first time the work is presented live in the United States.

About the artist
Hippen grew up playing music in Decorah and went on to study music at Harvard University.

Some of his major compositions include Virunga, a large piano piece inspired by his time working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the score to the feature film “The Darkness in the Light.” He also has a background in music technology, having worked with the original development team of the Finale software, which has been a global industry standard for music notation for over 30 years.

In 2019, he released Songs for Cello and Piano, a collaboration with cellist and improvisor Craig Hultgren. Last summer, Hippen’s composition Refugee’s Hymn was performed by the OVCO string players during the Iowa Composer’s Forum Festival at Luther College. Currently, Hippen performs throughout the Driftless Area as a member of the musical duo Eggen & Hippen – whose debut EP Time Never Passes, featuring five of his original songs, is available on all major music streaming platforms.

“The Darkness in the Light” was the first feature film made in the Tigrinya language of the northeastern African country of Eritrea. During the course of working on the film, Hippen became immersed in Eritrean culture and language. Soon afterwards, he moved to Asmara, Eritrea, where he taught music, studied Tigrinya, learned traditional songs and rode out waves of political change that eventually led to the outbreak of the Eritrean-Ethiopean War.

Eventually the capital came under air attack, and he left the country in a military evacuation conducted by the U.S. Marines during a break in the air raids.

These experiences left Hippen with a calling to acquire skills that would be relevant to international relief efforts. Soon after, he entered medical school and completed his residency in emergency medicine. He practiced as an emergency physician in the San Francisco Bay Area, and during the course of his medical career, he served in various capacities in Mexico, Ghana, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Hippen recently moved back to Decorah, where he has been active as a composer, songwriter and recording artist. He has released three full albums of original music, has composed works for ensembles ranging from solo instruments to full orchestra, and has written dozens of songs.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Ben and learn more about his life’s journey from music to medicine and back.

ER: What inspired you to compose American Nocturne?

BH: There was a feeling to the piece that guided me as I was writing it. American Nocturne was composed in 2018 at a time of widespread insecurity and uncertainty about the direction of America and its politics. The work engages this uncertainty and uses references to various musical styles that have historically characterized the American symphonic repertoire.

ER: How did you arrange for the piece to be played in Ukraine with the Lviv Philharmonic Orchestra?

BH: Like any large-scale work of art, American Nocturne is a collaborative effort. My long-standing friends and colleagues, Jay Harrington and Benjamin Loeb, commissioned and advocated for the orchestral work to be presented in the Ukraine with the Lviv Philharmonic Orchestra. The first performance was Aug. 26, 2018, and was conducted by Benjamin Loeb. Since then, it has already had two performances in Europe, and I’m very excited about its premiere in the United States with the Oneota Valley Community Orchestra.

ER: How would you describe American Nocturne?

BH: Like many music compositions, there are four movements in the piece, but it’s not program music or, as they refer to it in music appreciation courses, music that tells a story. Rather, the piece is meant to evoke moods and refer to certain aspects of the American experience.

ER: Can you describe each movement in further detail?

BH: The first movement’s title, “In Order to Form,” is a quote taken from the American Constitution and is meant as a reference to order coming out of chaos, and the challenge to maintain lasting order in society. The second movement, “The Silver Age,” seeks the lost days of a mutually-informed dialog between concert music and popular music styles, conjuring a glimpse of a bygone (or imagined) era of glittering optimism. The third movement, “The Unhealed Wound,” is the emotional core of the piece expressing pain prompted by the original sin of American history: slavery and its legacy of racism. Finally there’s the more direct, vernacular style of the fourth movement, also called “American Nocturne,” that evokes a hushed, expectant mood that might be either optimistic or pessimistic, depending on the listener.

ER: Was it hard leaving medicine to return to a career in music?

BH: In many ways, definitely. I miss medicine. It’s an incredible privilege to be a physician, but it’s not what I can do at this stage in my life. I know that I’ve finished my journey in medicine and realize that I haven’t finished my journey with music. So, that’s what I’m doing.