New Music Comes Alive Through Innovative Orchestral Composer Residencies
These young composers have got the write stuff
Composer Dan Coleman
Photo by Tim Fuller
IF ORCHESTRAS ARE FAMILIES and concert halls are their homes, then living composers are too often strangers who show up briefly just before everyone's ready to dig into a meaty meal of Brahms. A few composers are like distant relatives who never appear in person, but send some hard, indigestible musical fruitcake at which everybody dutifully hacks away for a week. Most composers, though, wouldn't mind dropping by and settling in for a little while, and few musicians would turn down a chance to spend time with someone new who has something potentially interesting to say.
More composers can come knocking now through the Music Alive program administered by Meet the Composer and the American Symphony Orchestra League. Music Alive supports orchestral residencies, although they're short enough that perhaps we should think of the composers less as residents than as houseguests–the sort who come in and shake up the household for a couple of weeks, leaving everyone tired but excited and wanting to do it again.
Jonathan Spitz, principal cellist of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, found himself providing a classical foil to a solo pipa, the plucked Chinese instrument, in the concerto Song of the Pipa, which Bun-Ching Lam wrote during his Music Alive residency in New Jersey. And it's not just the composers who do the composing. When Derek Bermel descended upon the Albany Symphony Orchestra, violinist Elizabeth Silver wrote and performed with one of her students a duet inspired by Cape Breton fiddling, while bassist Luke Baker collaborated with one of his students on a large work that riffed on both Bach and the theme from Star Wars.
"There's a tendency for people to think of new music as a generic, monolithic body of work, which it is not," says Jesse Rosen, chief program officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "So this gives orchestras, their staffs, their trustees, and their audiences a much more immediate, direct sense of a particular composer and that person's music, so they can all talk to each other about new music more effectively."
Music Alive is about more than showcasing an individual composer's work. That's one component, of course, often with composers writing pieces to be premiered during their residencies. But they also advise music directors on programming works by other living composers, and venture into the community to get students and nonmusicians more involved with contemporary music.
Drawing on an annual budget of about $150,000, Music Alive funds residencies nationwide with orchestras large and small for two to eight weeks. Composers receive $2,500 a week, and orchestras get $1,000 per residency week, which can be used for anything from hiring extra musicians to buying newspaper ads. The program pays for the composers' travel and hotel costs and provides a per diem. It also pays for the composers and each orchestra's residency director (often the music director, but sometimes an administrative staffer) to attend a group planning and orientation session in New York City.
"Because of that big orientation meeting, we think of this less as a grant-based program and more as access to a network," says Heather Hitchens, president of Meet the Composer. "People talk to each other about what they're doing in their orchestras, and at the end of the day they wind up with more ideas than they came with, and more contacts in the field."
Some of the past residencies have paired Michael Abels with the Richmond Symphony, Osvaldo Golijov with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Michael Daugherty with the Colorado Symphony, Adolphus Hailstork with the Albany Symphony, Tod Machover and P.Q. Phan with the American Composers Orchestra, Robert Sierra with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Tomas Svoboda with the Helena Symphony.
This season—the program's third—finds ten American composers matched to seven orchestras, ranging from the Greater Twin Cities Youth Orchestra in Minnesota to the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C. Composers include old hands like Ingram Marshall and Tobias Picker, but also such newcomers as John Mackey and Jeremy Gill. Six of the composers are 35 or younger, but there's no campaign to phase out the gray eminences.
"Meet the Composer is about the widest spectrum aesthetically and age-wise," says Hitchens. "We say (to the Music Alive selection panel), 'Vote with your heart, and if we don't have the proper diversity we'll go back and take another look,' and it just so happens that these are the composers we've wound up with. These proposals had the best hope for doing something new and different."
Music Alive does not match composers to orchestras; the participants come already paired. Dan Coleman, for example, was well acquainted with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra when his Music Alive residency was approved. Coleman, born in 1972, is an adjunct professor of composition at the University of Arizona. A Juilliard alum who has studied with such composers as Stephen Albert, Robert Beaser, George Crumb, and William Bolcom, Coleman writes music that is accessible but not pops-pandering. More than once, his style has been compared to that of Benjamin Britten, and he has enjoyed a surprising number of performances and commissions for somebody who is barely 30.
"When I was finishing graduate school, I joined the roster of a kind of boutique management/concert presenter called Young Concert Artists," Coleman says. "I was their first composer, and the association did a lot to identify me with chamber music." He received three commissions in 1995–96 through Young Concert Artists, and has created works for the likes of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Ahn Trio, the Cypress String Quartet, and the Seattle Chamber Music Society. Since 1994, he has also been composer-in-association with the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has had work performed by the Dallas Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra, and a number of regional orchestras.
So Coleman is hardly a beginner, and he easily impressed Tucson Symphony music director George Hanson with a batch of his scores and CDs—particularly his Chamber Symphony, which Hanson performed in February. "It struck me as a work that was very sincere," Hanson says, "and for me that's the key to a truly gifted composer—somebody who is not just a craftsman, somebody who knows how to put together the structure and how to utilize the instruments. The kind of composer I enjoy working with is someone who has something to express and knows how to express it."
And expresses it in a way that the Tucson Symphony can handle. This is a solid orchestra that has acquitted itself well in recent seasons with such works as John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 and Stephen Paulus' Violin Concerto. The orchestra has no experience, though, with the oppressively difficult scores of composers like Milton Babbitt, who has brought even Philadelphia Orchestra string players to their knees. According to Meet the Composer's Hitchens, the Music Alive panel would nix a partnership it felt was unbalanced in terms of technique.
Once Coleman and the Tucson Symphony proved to be a good fit and got the go-ahead late last year, the residency's details gradually started coming together. The first act was to get Coleman started on two commissions: Focoso, a concert opener to be played this November, and The Swing of Things, designed to fit into a program swirling around a waltz theme. Coleman says both works should be easily exportable, but he is writing them with the Tucson Symphony specifically in mind.
"I certainly learned a lot from working with them on my Chamber Symphony, and I have their sound in my ear," he says. He felt free to incorporate jazz and swing elements into The Swing of Things, for example, because of his friendship with one of the orchestra's percussionists and the expertise some of the principals have shown in jazz playing. And he calls Focoso, which means "fire," a "desert overture" written during Tucson's summer, which would have been hot enough already even without the region's huge wildfires.
A Direct Benefit
Jesse Rosen of the American Symphony Orchestra League says these residencies offer a direct benefit to an orchestra's rank-and-file musicians. He recalls the relationship Osvaldo Golijov established with the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At a luncheon for the composer and musicians, according to Rosen, "Players came up to him and said they were glad they got to know who he was and what the piece meant to him; they said, 'We can play your music better now because we know what it means to you.' And I suspect in one form or another that happens throughout these residencies."
Working on subscription concerts will just be the most public side of Coleman's scattered three-week Tucson Symphony residency. "I want to show I can not just write music that will be useful to the orchestra, but I also want to be useful behind the scenes," he says. Coleman and the orchestra's outreach and education director are devising ways he can serve as the orchestra's ambassador to the community. That means going to local schools to talk about composing and playing music, "generating interest in classical music at a grassroots level and introducing students to the idea that this is something they can aspire to and participate in," he says. He's also helping middle- and high-school students through the orchestra's already-established young composers program, which culminates in the orchestra reading the kids' original scores.
He'll probably also accompany the orchestra's string quartet on visits to schools, where he hopes to "speak with some authority and real impact about music as a world of ideas. As a composer I've got some practical experience in a concert context as well as an academic background that allows me to speak about music in cultural and contemporary and historical contexts. As music education becomes more and more devalued, it helps for students and their teachers to be reminded that classical music has a long intellectual history, and it can amplify a lot of areas of study in history and literature and visual arts."
Coleman may also get involved in a wine-and-cheese gathering for adult audience members who can chat with him, members of the orchestra, and possibly guest artists and local intellectuals about the concert's music and its context.
Mix and Mingle
Mingling with current subscribers, though, is a fairly small part of these residencies. Many composers are working hard to help diversify classical music's audience. Coleman, who still looks like a college student, is reaching out to young people. Osvaldo Golijov made significant inroads into Los Angeles' Latino sector, and Robert Sierra spent much of his time cultivating Philadelphia's Puerto Rican community—and reminding the Philadelphia Orchestra administration that it would have to adjust some of its policies, including ticket pricing, to get these people into the concert hall on a regular basis. During his stay with the New Jersey Symphony, Bun-Ching Lam gave a lecture and demonstration on the pipa to about 120 children and their parents at the New Jersey Chinese Language School. Bright Sheng and Zhou Long helped shape the Seattle Symphony's existing Pacific Rim Festival, swimming with styles and performers far from the European classical mainstream.
In Seattle, living composers are hardly a novelty, so Music Alive has amplified their usual involvement in the orchestra and community. "The difference with this residency," says Seattle Symphony executive director Deborah Card, "is that it gave us funding to be able to have a longer-term and deeper relationship with a composer. I think that they've done a good job of creating a program that isn't just, 'Here's some money, go do what you like with it.' These composers have been able to come in around specific programming, young-composer training, and very targeted education programs, and have a higher, more visible impact during their time here."
In contrast, one of Stephen Paulus' biggest challenges at the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra was to persuade the board that living composers are not dangerous exotic animals.
"Annapolis had done very little new music before, and they had major issues on the board about this," says Meet the Composer's Hitchens. "So one of their goals was for Stephen to meet with the board, talk about new music, and bust some of the myths about what new music was; they thought it would all be hard and sound the same way. Stephen really changed their perception of what new music can be, and at the end of the residency these same board members were traveling to Carnegie Hall to hear Stephen Paulus pieces, and they were saying, 'Wow, who's our next composer going to be?'"
What Paulus seems proudest of, though, is his collaboration with seven kids from the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra. Paulus initially resisted a suggestion that he have youngsters assist him in writing a new work. "I thought, how are we gonna do that? This is my piece," Paulus says.
He did organize some sessions with nine- to 16-year-olds working on their own pieces, though, and liked what he heard so much that he eventually incorporated one theme by each participant into his commissioned work Dialogues. "I called it that because we were talking to each other musically, and part of my business there was to have conversations with people about what the music is about and what we should be doing with it," he explains. "So this piece was able to be genuinely my music and my style, but it had these other things worked in there more or less seamlessly."
At the end of his residency, Paulus organized an afternoon salon in which orchestra musicians played and discussed the students' original compositions, and then at the premiere of Dialogues he had the kids come up on stage and take a bow with him. "After all, in a way, it was their piece, too," he says.
Resident composers have also helped orchestras bond with other organizations in their communities. In Annapolis, when Paulus wasn't sweet-talking the board, says ASOL's Rosen, "He seems to have connected with every group in the city: a local dance company and a dance school, and with music students in the public schools. He seemed to be just about everywhere.
"In Los Angeles, one of the things Golijov did was participate in a public seminar on Latino artists in America. An actor, an opera singer, and another artist participated in a community dialog where maybe 200 people attended. It was organized by the L.A. Philharmonic in partnership with the Latin American Museum, so it really opened up a relationship between the Philharmonic and the Latin-American community."
Taking it to a New Level
Meanwhile, back at the concert hall, Music Alive composers aren't just sitting back while their orchestras play one or two of their new pieces. Most offer advice on programming new music in general; Dan Coleman managed to get a piece by George Tsontakis, one of his former teachers, onto this season's Tucson Symphony schedule. Derek Bermel cocurated a Dutch-American festival for Dogs of Desire, the Albany Symphony's 18-piece, new-music ensemble; the program commissioned works from eight composers.
Bermel had a particularly hectic five-week residency in Albany, broken into three stints. He soloed in his own clarinet concerto, organized a clarinet summit for 75 high school players, ran a workshop for third-graders who made and played their own Brazilian shakers called caxixis, and created the "Dynamic Duos" program, in which orchestra members collaborated with students on composing and performing new duets.
"I love this idea," Bemal says. "It used what already existed within the ensemble to generate a terrific concert and new pieces and perhaps new composers. Sometimes it's difficult for a teacher who has an outstandingly creative student to figure out what to do with them next; this is the type of thing that brings that teacher-student relationship to a new level."
Although he's an experienced composer, Bermel was something of a residency novice. "This is like baptism by fire, but I learned a whole lot about how to do a residency with an orchestra," he says. "I worked with just about every age group possible, I worked with members of the orchestra on creative projects, I worked with the conductor, I worked with the whole management side of the orchestra, I played as a soloist, I was involved in curating, commissioning . . . I went through the wringer with this residency."
"I wish that the residency could be a bit longer so there would be some more breathing room, more time to follow through, and to really get to know the musicians," says Bun-Ching Lam of his New Jersey experience. "However, I think we accomplished what we set out to do quite adequately."
So it's grueling, but can a brief residency leave a lasting impression? "That's something we have to track; how far that contribution extends only time will tell," admits Meet the Composer's Hitchens. "A lot of orchestras have used this as their first-time involvement with a composer, so we'll have to see what happens next."
Composer Derek Bermel certainly has no complaints. "It's great when you can get the energy that exists already in a group, and harness it to bring forth something unexpected and wonderful like this," he says of his experience. "It's a wonderful combination of education, creation of new material, performance, and community."