Thursday, May 18, 2017

ACO Parables: Q&A with guitarist Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin is a multiple GRAMMY Award-winning classical guitarist, hailed as “the preeminent guitarist of our time” by Boston Magazine and “The Monet of the classical guitar ... a master colorist” by Atlanta Journal. She has appeared as soloist with over 170 orchestras and in many of the world’s finest concert halls, created and served as artistic director/soloist of several esteemed festivals, and has been profiled on television throughout the world, including CBS Sunday Morning and A&E. Among other career highlights, she performed in concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Obama in November 2009, and was the only classical artist to perform in the 2010 GRAMMY Awards. Her latest recording, Alma Espanola with opera star Isabel Leonard, will be released this July. The all-Spanish album is the first of it’s kind in 40 years and includes twelve world premiere arrangements by Sharon.

Sharon is credited with expanding the guitar repertoire with some of the finest new works of the century. She has commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Among these commissioned works is John Corigliano's Troubadours, which the Academy Award-winning composer wrote for Sharon in 1992/93.

Sharon was kind enough to speak with us about her upcoming performance of Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space.

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin

American Composers Orchestra: John Corigliano has said that when you first approached him about writing a guitar concerto, he was “decidedly lukewarm about the idea.” Most performers would have shied away at the first sign of “lukewarmness” from a composer. Why was it important for you to be persistent, and what did it take to eventually convince Corigliano to write Troubadours?

Sharon Isbin: When I first met John, he had little knowledge of classical guitar, its technique, repertoire or capabilities. We met by chance at a New Year’s Eve party in New York, and two weeks later, ran into each other standing in line at the post office. It was a long line. So we chatted, and I asked if he would consider writing a guitar concerto for me. He said, “what an interesting idea, please call me about it.” I did, he again expressed interest, but said he was really busy and to call him in a year. Next year, it was the same story. Undaunted – because I loved his music and believed he would write a beautiful concerto – I pursued this annual ritual for eight years. Finally, I asked his publisher at G. Schirmer, Mary Lou Humphrey, how could I convince him? She suggested I propose an unusual programmatic concept. I woke up the next morning thinking about the colorful and romantic tradition of the 13th century French troubadours, and wrote John a letter suggesting the idea. He loved it because it wasn’t Spanish, no one had ever written a guitar concerto based on this period of history, and it offered him a rich artistic tapestry to explore.

ACO: What makes Troubadours different than the other concertos in your repertoire? Corigliano mentions that its type of virtuosity is different than his other concertos. Can you talk a little bit about the virtuosity asked of you?

SI: Shortly after ghostly sonic evocations of time travel to the past that begin the concerto, I play the longest fastest scale I’ve ever encountered. Following that, I land in the 12th century playing a sensuous, lyrical song inspired by a fragment of  “A Chantar” penned by a famous female troubadour composer, the Countess Beatriz de Dia. The journey becomes ever more colorful, including rhythmically improvisatory musical interactions with an offstage dance band, and finally a return to the theme cast at the end in a sad minor key to evoke the loss of innocence, and in the case of the once celebrated troubadours, persecution, exile and death.

ACO: You have commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Why has it been important for you to bring new repertoire for classical guitar into the world? What do you most enjoy about the process of commissioning and premiering a new work?

SI: I love the creative process of working with a brilliant composer like John, and nurturing the music to life. It’s challenging, unpredictable, sometimes torturous, but ultimately exhilarating and fulfilling! More importantly, it builds the guitar literature and leaves behind a valuable musical legacy for others to perform and enjoy.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Troubadours with ACO and conductor Rossen Milanov?

I look forward to performing with the outstanding conductor and orchestra for the first time, and sharing with them and the audience this beautiful, evocative work. For those who like to come prepared, you can listen in advance here.

And to learn more about my collaboration with John Corigliano and other composers, enjoy the documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which has aired throughout the U.S. on PBS and which won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award.

Sharon will perform Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. (Use discount code ACO15 at checkout to save 15%.)

Learn more about Sharon Isbin at
Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter

Monday, May 15, 2017

ACO Parables: Composer Spotlight - John Corigliano

John Corigliano is one of the most celebrated composers of the last 40 years. He won the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for his Symphony No. 1, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, three Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award for his score for François Girard’s 1998 film The Red Violin. Corigliano’s extensive body of work—including three symphonies and eight concerti among more than 100 chamber, vocal, choral, and orchestral works—have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber musicians in the world.

One of the few living composers to have a string quartet named for him, Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, which has established a scholarship in his name.

At ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space – American Composers Orchestra will perform Corigliano's Troubadours: Variations for Guitar & Orchestra featuring star guitarist Sharon Isbin, for whom the piece was written. 

Corigliano was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece.

Composer John Corigliano

American Composers Orchestra: You write that when Sharon Isbin first approached you about writing a guitar concerto, you felt that the instrument was one you didn't fully understand. Can you talk about your process for coming to understand the instrument better? Were you surprised by anything you learned about it?

John Corigliano: Actually, Sharon approached me many years before I wrote her my guitar concerto. There were three things that put me off writing for guitar:
  1. I knew nothing about how to write for this highly idiomatic instrument.
  2. It is such a soft instrument that I could not conceive writing a virtuoso piece that could balance the soloist with an orchestra (even if the guitar was amplified).
  3. Because of the tuning, everything strummed on the instrument took on a Spanish flavor, and I did not want to write yet another “Spanish” guitar concerto. 
To solve “1” I found a fine classical guitarist who was also a composer. He wanted to study composition with me, and so we exchanged lessons for a summer. I helped him work on an opera, and he was my “living guitar.” Every time I wrote something I thought was idiomatic, it turned out to be awkward, and we fixed it. The entire concerto was written and corrected before Sharon ever saw it. In fact, she said it was the first piece written by a non-guitarist that she didn’t have to alter in any way. But I still don’t know how to write for guitar ...

ACO: You write that the virtuosity in Troubadours is quite different from that of your other concertos. Can you talk about this difference? What kind of virtuosity is asked of the guitarist in Troubadours?

JC: To solve “2” I had to re-think what virtuosity a guitar can provide. All my other concerti were for instruments that could compete with a full orchestra when necessary. This instrument had to have a miniature but exciting kind of energy. The entire orchestra had to be reduced, and often instruments played offstage so that the soloist was in the forefront of the ensemble.

ACO: Other than, obviously, asking you to write a guitar concerto and presenting you with troubadours as an inspiration for the piece, what role did Sharon have in your compositional process?

JC: Sharon saw the concerto when it was finished. She did, however, inspire the work.

My reluctance to write a concerto had to do with the kind of “Spanish” sound that the guitar inevitably makes. I resisted writing a concerto for that reason for many years. Then Sharon, who knew of my resistance, came to me with the idea of writing a piece about the troubadours who sang and accompanied themselves with a guitar. This took place well hundreds of years before the instrument was co-opted by the Spanish (to very good effect). The lute tuning in a guitar tunes the lowest tone down a step, and the melodies that have been notated in medieval manuscripts are quite beautiful. Not only that, but there was a famous female troubadour, La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia, who wrote a beautiful melody that so inspired me that I incorporated it (A chantar) into my concerto.

Listen to A chantar m'er de so by La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia:

ACO: Your incredible body of work spans more than four decades. Can you talk about any particular influences, techniques or styles that were especially important for you while writing Troubadours?

JC: I have always been fascinated by spatial music in the concert hall. Earphones or stereo speakers cannot capture the beauty of music that comes from unexpected places. In Troubadours, two French horns are backstage on one side, while a “Shawm” (early music oboe or bassoon) band and percussion are on the other side. I also used a chamber orchestra to give the soloist a better chance with the balance.

ACO: What do you hope the audience will feel during Sharon's performance of Troubadours at ACO Parables, and what do you hope they will take away from it?

JC: I hope they will hear the piece as a journey to the past (and a return to the present.)

ACO and guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Corigliano's Troubadours at ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. Book now!

Learn more about John Corigliano at

Friday, April 21, 2017

Q&A with Alan Pierson, conductor for Wall to Wall Steve Reich

Alan Pierson has been praised as “a dynamic conductor and musical visionary” by The New York Times, “a young conductor of monstrous skill” by Newsday, “gifted and electrifying” by The Boston Globe, and “one of the most exciting figures in new music today” by Fanfare. He is the Artistic Director and conductor of the acclaimed ensemble Alarm Will Sound and served as Artistic Director and conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic for three years. He is Principal Conductor of the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble, co-director of the Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble, and has appeared as guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the London Sinfonietta, the Steve Reich Ensemble, and The Silk Road Project, among many other ensembles.

On April 30, 2017, Alan will lead the American Composers Orchestra in Steve Reich's The Desert Music. The performance is part of Symphony Space’s free marathon event Wall to Wall Steve Reich, featuring Steve Reich himself in conversation, as well as a program spanning more than four decades of his work, culminating in ACO’s performance.

Alan was kind enough to speak with us about The Desert Music and his upcoming performance with ACO.

Conductor Alan Pierson. Photo by Michael Rubenstein

American Composers Orchestra: The first album by Alarm Will Sound – “the vital, omnivorous” (The New York Times) chamber group you co-founded and for which you are artistic director – is Steve Reich, featuring his Tehillim and The Desert Music. It's considered one of the best recordings of these pieces by many (and by Steve himself!). What drew you to tackle these works for your first AWS album?

Alan Pierson: Tehillim was the first piece of contemporary music that I fell in love with. I have a visceral memory of hearing it in in a class (led by Michael Pisaro) at a Northwestern University summer program when I was 18, and then dashing out to the nearest record store to buy the CD. (I've since gotten rid of nearly all of my CDs, but I've kept that one even though it's scratched well beyond any possibility of actually playing.) The following fall, I found the Tehillim score in the MIT music library and became obsessed with the idea of performing it. Tehillim was one of the first pieces I conducted. It was well beyond my abilities at the time, but I loved the music so much that I had to do it anyway. I had developed a vision for how Tehillim should go that I felt very strongly about and that was very different from either of the recordings that existed, so I really wanted to get it out there. Then in 1999, when I was grad student at Eastman, Steve came to hear me conduct Tehillim. He came away very enthusiastic about the performance, and that helped open doors to make the album happen. So Tehillim is a piece that's I'm very deeply connected to.

I came to The Desert Music in a very different way. I had listened to the Nonesuch recording (which is of the original full orchestra version) after falling in love with Tehillim, but never really got into the piece. I knew that it was building on the same sorts of musical ideas that I'd loved in other works of Steve's, but The Desert Music wasn't doing it for me. Then when I came down to New York City in 1999 to watch my teacher (Brad Lubman) conduct Reich's The Cave as part of a series of Reich concerts that Lincoln Center Festival was doing that summer, I happened also to catch a performance of the smaller chamber version of The Desert Music. And suddenly I glimpsed what the piece could be. I've always felt that Reich was more a composer of chamber music than orchestral music; and reimagined as a massive chamber piece, I saw all kinds of possibilities for The Desert Music that I hadn't envisioned before. With just one player on a part, the piece suddenly felt much closer to those earlier works of Steve's that I'd fallen in love with—pieces like Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim. One of the orchestra members had given me a score for The Desert Music to follow along with during rehearsals, and I poured over that score all summer and began imagining what I wanted to do with the piece. I started envisioning a realization of the piece that would be very different from the Nonesuch recording, and that I really wanted the world to hear. So that was it. I knew that that had to be the album.

ACO: And what did it take, from you and the ensemble, to capture a great recording of The Desert Music?

AP: It was a huge process! We spent over 30 hours rehearsing The Desert Music, and while we had absolutely no skill at the time with recording or working in a studio, we had an obsession about making the recording absolutely what we wanted. And we didn't let up. Gavin Chuck (now Alarm Will Sound's managing director) and I hid out under the desk in the Eastman School's computer music lab after hours so that we could spend every possible hour editing and mixing that album. I was 26 at the time and most of the singers and players were probably even younger. It was the kind of process I could only imagine happening at that point in life.

ACO: You and the ACO will perform the 2001 version of Steve Reich's The Desert Music, for 10 amplified voices and reduced orchestra, with your brass arrangement. Can you talk about what it was like working with Steve on this version? Besides reducing the size of the ensemble, what goals did you have for the new arrangement?

AP: Well, I didn't work with him as much as persuade him. I was thrilled by the possibilities that the chamber version of The Desert Music offered, but I really missed one thing from the orchestral version: the brass. Reich had replaced all of the brass with synthesizers for his chamber version, and I felt that this robbed the piece of one of its crucial colors. I knew the original 12-piece orchestral brass section would overwhelm such a small ensemble, but I pitched Steve the idea of a reduced brass orchestration that would mix live players with synthesizers in order to cover all the thick brass harmonies and give the flavor of acoustic brass without having so many players. He was very skeptical! So I got a bunch of students together who volunteered to play through my imagined brass orchestration. We recorded the session and sent it to Steve. Once he heard it, he was sold, and that was it. That became the official way to do the piece.

The smaller instrumentation really transforms The Desert Music in a brilliant way. There's much greater rhythmic clarity, which is so crucial for Reich's music. Tempos can be faster. And those thick, juicy jazz harmonies that he wrote speak much more clearly. 

ACO: We hope you don't mind us quoting Twitter, but you recently said, if you're going to listen to just one track of The Desert Music, it has to be the middle movement. Is this your favorite movement? Or do you say this because, given that the piece is structured in an arc form A-B-C-B-A, the middle movement is best suited to stand alone?

AP: Yeah, I think that central movement is where it's at. Steve is a canon guy, and that middle movement has the only vocal canons in the whole piece, and they're fantastic. And in between the canon sections, he does this other thing (another technique he's developed over decades) where he takes a theme and stretches it out, making it longer and longer. And while he's doing this, he's got the harmonies restlessly beneath the tunes. It's some of my favorite of Reich's vocal writing. His typical vocal instrumentation is four voices, and there's no other piece where he writes vocal harmonies as thick as in The Desert Music. And in this section as he's stretching out those melodies, there are these fantastically crunchy tight jazz harmonies. Plus, the whole sections just barrels. It's got tremendous energy. I love it. I have other favorite spots—the luminescent first vocal entrance in movement V, the hockets in movements II and IV, the flute solos, etc...—but if you're gonna listen to one movement, the central one is where to go.

ACO: What new perspectives do you hope the marathon can offer on Steve Reich's incredible body of work? And what are you looking forward to about the marathon and your performance of The Desert Music with ACO? Why is it important that the marathon includes that piece? 

AP: I've gotten more joy from Steve's music than from anyone else's. Performing his music is pretty much always a joyful experience for me, and I hope to give some of that experience to the audience. And I've never before performed so many of his pieces on a single show, so it's really exciting to be a part of a performance that brings so broad an encounter with his music. The Desert Music is a marvelous piece of Reich's that's so seldom heard—I don't think it's been performed in New York since I conducted it here 16 years ago. For me personally, there's something special about revisiting a piece that was so important to the beginning of my life in music and that I haven't conducted since I was a student. So this is a particularly meaningful performance to me. And even after having Steve in my life for years, it continually amazes me that someone who's music has meant so much to so many of us is a an actual human being who's in the world and who you can relate to. So having Steve at this show and on stage talking with me is a very special thing.

Learn more about Wall to Wall Steve Reich, a free marathon event at Symphony Space on April 30, 2017.

Follow Alan on Twitter

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Past Forward: Composer Spotlight - Steve Reich

Steve Reich has been called “America’s greatest living composer” (Village Voice), “the most original musical thinker of our time” (The New Yorker), and “among the great composers of the century” (The New York Times). His music, spanning a vibrant career that started in 1960s, is a staple of contemporary classical repertoire and has influenced composers and mainstream musicians all over the world. Music for 18 Musicians and Different Trains have earned him two Grammy Awards, and in 2009, his Double Sextet won the Pulitzer Prize. 

Tehillim, composed in 1981, is a work for four female singers and chamber orchestra that Reich says is quite different from his earlier works. He writes in his program note, “There is no fixed meter or metric pattern in Tehillim as there is in my earlier music. The rhythm of the music here comes directly from the rhythm of the Hebrew text.” The word “Tehillim” is the Hebrew name of the biblical Book of Psalms, from which the piece takes its text. Reich also writes that the work “may well suggest renewed interest in Classical or, more accurately, Baroque and earlier Western musical practice.”

The 2016–2017 season marks Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, with over 400 performances in more than 20 countries across the globe celebrating his music and legacy. American Composers Orchestra is proud to be a part of this celebration, and performs Tehillim with sopranos Elizabeth Bates, Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall

Steve Reich was kind enough to speak with us about the piece and his relationship with ACO’s Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording in 1981. This interview is transcribed from our phone conversation.

Composer Steve Reich. Photo by Jeffrey Herman

American Composers Orchestra: We wanted to start by talking about your relationship with ACO's Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording for ECM Records in 1981. Can you talk about how you came to work with him and what it was like?

Steve Reich: My ensemble never had a conductor for anything until 1981 when I wrote Tehillim. We felt we might be able to do it without one but it sure would be better if we had one. James Preiss, one of the main percussionists in my ensemble, was teaching at Manhattan School of Music and knew George, who was at MSM also, and said to us, I think I have the ideal guy to be a conductor. George had the same kind of mind set so we decided to try it. George came down to my studio on Warren Street near City Hall and it was just like hand in glove. We said, this is the guy! George completely mastered the changing meters which are [laughs] well, I would never write anything with such large measures the way I did in Tehillim unless it wasn’t necessary – it accurately reflects the vocal line – but it’s a difficult piece to conduct. I think Michael Tilson Thomas said to me at some point afterwards, “Musicians like downbeats!” [laughs]

Anyway, George did a great job during rehearsals. We then took the piece to Europe and he conducted on tour with us. We all lived together, worked together, performed together. It was just a delight. Back in The States we did the American premiere at the Rothko Chapel out in Houston and the NY premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the 20th century galleries. George did all of that and then finally we went back to Europe to do the recording in Stuttgart. It was very intense. There were a lot of people and we recorded live. There were lots of re-dos. Everybody’s in the room. I think it’s a remarkable recording. George is absolutely first rate and a pleasure to work with, and to top it off we both have the same birthday! [laughs]

George Manahan conducting the premiere recording of Tehillim with Steve Reich and Musicians in Stuttgart, 1981. Photos by Deborah Reingold courtesy of the Paul Sacher Foundation

ACO: Thinking about this first recording of Tehillim vs. the many subsequent recordings that have been made, can you identify anything about George Manahan's approach to performing Tehillim that is different to other conductors?

SR: I think George was at home with this kind of musical language – the subdivisions of twos and threes – and he was familiar with a lot of 20th Century music. I would say for me, that recording and the Alarm Will Sound recording are the two outstanding recordings that come to mind. The Steve Reich and Musicians recording had [laughs] I don’t know 50 or 60 cuts. And Alan [Pierson, Music Director of Alarm Will Sound] sent me a lot of the in progress mixes. So as cohesive as it is musically, this is a testament to how correct Glenn Gould was when he recorded and re-recorded so many multiple takes.

ACO: Tehillim has been performed numerous times around the world since its premiere in 1981. Its initial reception was not as severe as say Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

SR: No no no [laughs] Tehillim was appreciated right away. It was pretty obvious that in general people were, and still are, attracted to Tehillim more than Four Organs. I enjoy it more. They are very different types of pieces.

ACO: Do you think audiences’ responses to these works have changed over the years?

SR: Of course! Four Organs created a riot in Carnegie Hall in 1973 – it’s been noted many times – but Michael Tilson Thomas did it in San Francisco in 1996 and … well, people recognized it and really liked it. There was a lot of resistance in the late 1960s and early 1970s to what I was doing and now that has changed enormously. I’m in Los Angeles right now – the LA Phil New Music Group just did Tehillim with conductor Jeffrey Milarsky. It was a great performance and received a wonderful standing ovation.

ACO: Do you think it is important for listeners to know the origins and meaning of the text in Tehillim?

SR: Yes, the text is the Psalms and, like any concert with vocal music, the text certainly should be printed in the program. They’re not that long since they’re really parts of the Psalms. The answer to your question is this: when you first heard Bob Dylan you said, “What … I can’t understand a word.” But there was something magnetic about the music. When you listen to Handel’s Messiah you don’t get all the words, but the music magnetizes you and you want to listen to it. You got some of it, got the gist of it, but later on you might say, “What exactly were they singing?”

Tehillim is of course set in the original Hebrew, which means that you’re not going to understand it by listening, so you’re either going to go to the libretto or you’re not. I think most people do end up going to the libretto and they understand it, they get it. Everybody especially understands “Hallelujah,” so the last movement is crystal clear and that may help gel a lot of the other parts. But for most people, if you’re just a casual listener, it has to work just as music. That’s a must for any composer. If you say, well, they’ve got to understand this and that and another thing, that’s just a crutch, that’s an excuse. I don’t accept it. If music is going to work it has to have legs and either it does or it doesn’t.

Now, if you’re attracted to the music and you’re interested in it, then you might listen to a recording before the performance or bring the text with you, and I think you will get more out of it, because Tehillim is definitely a setting of the text in the classical sense of that term. The meaning of the words counts and you want to capture that as best you can. So sure, the text matters, but the music comes first and then if you’re really interested you can go to the score and say, “How’d he do this?” [laughs]

ACO: You have said that you don't believe in movements, that when the music stops, it stops. Is Tehillim an exception? If so, why did you make an exception for Tehillim?

SR: It’s an interesting question because it was the first piece of mine to have a movement break, but certainly not the last. I have a lot of other pieces now with movement breaks. You Are Variations comes to mind immediately, which is very much related to Tehillim. You Are Variations is one of my best pieces, but because of four pianos and a chorus it’s performed less than I wish it was.

But to answer your question, writing Tehillim with movement breaks was basically a gut decision. I had finished the first half and I remember being in the car with Péter Eötvös, the Hungarian composer-performer-conductor, who at the time was the conductor of the Ensemble InterContemporain and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart [Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra]. I had finished the first half and we were going to perform it as a work-in-progress. We were driving from Paris to Stuttgart. His English was not very good and my German was non-existent, so was my Hungarian, but he said to me at one point, “So you’ll go on like before? Same tempo?” [laughs] It hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, wow, what a good question. And really, what his comment ignited was the realization that I needed a slow movement. I hadn’t yet written a consciously slow movement at a different tempo. So that introduced the idea of taking a pause. Also, a lot of concentration is needed in the first half of Tehillim – it’s a very long section. A little break to catch your breath is very much in order in a purely practical sense, and the slow movement serves that purpose very well.

Having movement breaks or no breaks is not according to some theory or principle. If Péter Eötvös hadn’t said that, I probably would have gone with the same solution, but I do remember that moment with him in the car and thinking about it. The slow movement is the most chromatic music I have written to date – after my student years anyway – and I think it’s very successful. It was really exciting for me because I had never written anything that moved that slowly. It opened up a whole world which I pursued quite a bit going forward.

ACO: As you may already know, ACO is dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation and promulgation of music by American composers, and is involved in many programs to commission and premiere works by young American composers. Can you talk about any similar organizations or programs that contributed to your success as a young composer? 

SR: To be perfectly candid, I really wasn’t interested in the orchestra. I’m working on a piece now called 20 Soloists and Orchestra, which is a concerto grosso using the first chair people and a few soloists, but basically this is a large chamber work, which I’m always doing anyway, with a sort of backup band with brass and the remainder of the strings. So I have been writing chamber music all my life. Tehillim is a large chamber piece in that it’s one to a part. Is isn’t chamber music in the sense in which that it’s conducted, but I think playing it requires having to listen to each other much like you need to with all chamber music.

When I was getting started, no, there was no organization of any sort that I relied on to establish myself. The most overwhelming important thing for getting started was founding my own ensemble back in 1966. It started with three musicians, which grew to five, including Philip Glass and James Tenney. With Drumming I think it grew to 12, and then in 1976 it grew to 18. And there it more or less stayed until 2006, when I just felt I really couldn’t have the energy to do what was necessary to keep it going. Even though I had people to help out – I had managers and so on – there was an irreducible minimum that I had to do which I felt I really couldn’t.

My ensemble was the vehicle for my music, including Tehillim and of course Drumming and Music for Eighteen Musicians and other pieces. At a certain point I began writing for other ensembles and whether or not my ensemble could do it was sort of gravy or not, depending on the piece.

On the other hand, there was and still is an organization I was a part of, which I hope benefited others, and which I felt reflected my interest in the idea of the composer performing and getting involved in the performance of his or her own work. That is Meet the Composer. Myself, Fran Richard, and John Duffy were really the very center, the core of Meet the Composer. It was an organization that I really felt was worthwhile and of course it grew and grew and grew and now has turned into New Music USA by merging with American Music Center. I think it’s a very worthwhile mission. Supporting young composers by giving them money [laughs] and commissioning works is a great thing to do. ACO came along much later in my professional life, but it’s a great addition and something I’ve been connected with from time to time.

I should say in passing that the loss of Steven Stucky was just a total shock that completely left a hole in the American musical world. I think that should be noted.

ACO: Can you talk about the vocal style needed from the four female singers in Tehillim? Should their voices sound as similar in timbre as possible? Or can different vocal timbres create a richer texture in performance?

SR: Well, first of all, singers are human beings. I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear that [laughs]. Their vocal cavities necessitate, as a rule of biology and physics, that their timbral quality will in fact vary. What is essential is not that the timbre of the voices be the same, but that the vocal style be uniform. So, if you’ve got one singer who thinks that they’re going to belt it out like Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the other three are singing early music style, which is what it should be, then that doesn’t work.

The vocal style of Tehillim is definitely related to Renaissance and Medieval music, but it can also be related to Ella Fitzgerald. Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, a great singer who is now in the Midwest, was putting together singers for the early versions of Tehillim. They would ask her, “What kind of vocal style do you want?” and she would say, “Similar to Joni Mitchell and he’ll love it.” Believe it or not, I hadn’t even heard anything by Joni Mitchell and only heard her about 10 years ago – I was completely floored, she’s absolutely amazing – but I think Cheryl had it right. Basically, singers are a good fit for Tehillim if they can sing with no vibrato, sing in a small voice, are at ease with a microphone, and are experienced with early music. They need to be agile and they need to have really good rhythmic qualities, which singers in the operatic world may not have as markedly as the people I’m talking about. So – early music, good with a microphone, at ease with different styles of non-operatic music – that is a necessity. Of course the timbre is going to vary from singer to singer, but if they’re all in the same stylistic world it’s going to work just fine.

ACO: Tehillim is especially intriguing in the way it doesn’t frequently display obvious tension then resolution, dissonance then consonance, whereas this is a basic tool used in a lot of music (especially Romantic and Classical) to create drama. How is it that Tehillim creates drama? 

SR: Tehillim obviously belongs in the tradition of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music – singers who regularly sing Bach cantatas will be right at home in Tehillim – and you could say a lot of music from those periods don’t use, to quote you, “frequent tension and release.” Bach seems to be doing pretty good [laughs] and does he have that kind of Romantic tension and release? Well, yes and no.

I would say that in Tehillim there are parts of the slow movement that have dissonances that resolve, albeit in a small and understated way. The Hallelujah at the end, to me, is ecstatic. I think it’s some of the best music I’ve ever written. If you can pull off a good Hallelujah in D Major then [laughs] that’s what it’s all about. So it does create strong emotional responses which surely vary throughout the piece. The mood of the slow movement is drastically different than the Hallelujah that follows it. The first two movements are similar, but in the first movement the voices are constantly doubled by the B-flat clarinet, then right on a dime at the beginning of the second movement, the voices are doubled by oboe and English horn. It almost feels like new singers – the timbre of the singers changes drastically.

Now, of course this is something Bach did too, changing the doubling of the woodwinds that are supporting the voices. These are all old tricks that go back to Bach and before, and this is part of the reason that I think the music is satisfying. For people who have listened to a lot of classical music from various periods – who relate to anything of Bach and before, and from Stravinsky onwards, and for that matter who like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell or lots of people who are singing today – it seems to satisfy them and give emotional variety, which I think is really the essence of what you are asking.

You can learn more about Steve Reich and upcoming performances of his music at

ACO performs Tehillim with sopranos Elizabeth Bates, Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. More information and tickets here.

ACO also performs The Desert Music at Symphony Space’s free marathon concert “Wall to Wall Steve Reich” on Sunday, April 30, 2017. More information here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Past Forward: Composer Spotlight - David Hertzberg

David Hertzberg is currently Composer-in-Residence with Opera Philadelphia and Music Theatre Group and has been honored with the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two ASCAP Morton Gould Awards, the Fromm Commission from Harvard University, and the Aaron Copland Award from Copland House. Past residencies include Tanglewood, Yaddo, IC Hong Kong, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and Young Concert Artists.

David's Spectre of the Spheres was selected for our 2015 Underwood New Music Readings, where it earned him the $15,000 Underwood Commission to write a new orchestral work. David's Chamber Symphony is this new work, and will be premiered by Maestro George Manahan and the American Composers Orchestra at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 7:30pm in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. David was kind enough to talk with us about the piece.

Composer David Hertzberg

American Composers Orchestra: Your description of Chamber Symphony, which is very poetic, says, "voices speak to one other across vistas, from different sides of time, finding resonances both sympathetic and volatile." Can you expand upon this? What do you mean by these "voices," "different sides of time," and "resonances both sympathetic and volatile"?

David Hertzberg: When I was awarded the Underwood Commission I knew that I wanted to write something for Maestro Manahan and the ACO that was different from, more rhetorically involved than my other orchestra pieces. I had this vague idea that I wanted it to be a symphony of sorts, whatever that means. The orchestra pieces that I have written up to this point all have flowing, organic forms, in which listeners are brought into a space in which they coexist with a musical organism, breathing and acting of its own accord. My Chamber Symphony, I think, shares this quality, but I feel there is more rhetorical depth in its argument, a gradual unraveling and coalescing of musical dualities - maybe that’s what made me feel the need to call it a symphony.

ACO: Chamber Symphony is your Underwood Commission which you won after participating in the Underwood New Music Readings and Workshops in 2015. Can you talk about anything you learned in the readings and workshops that you applied when composing your commission?

DH: The Underwood readings and the opportunity to work with Mo. Manahan and the ACO have served as an invaluable tool for me as an orchestral composer. In addition to the more pragmatic insights about instrumentation and the orchestra world, hearing them interpret my Spectre of the Spheres in 2015 helped me arrive at the musical conclusions described above, to dig deeper into my own orchestral ethos, and to find the place there wherein a more dynamic musical grammar can blossom.

David at the 2015 Underwood New Music Readings, rehearsing his piece Spectre of the Spheres with Maestro Manahan and the ACO

ACO: Can you talk about your composing process for Chamber Symphony? How long have you been working on it? What have been the milestones and challenges throughout the process?

DH: I generally compose by letting the music gestate internally for a long (or not so long) time. When ideas start to congeal, the actual writing part comes quickly, as was the case with this piece, though I had been living with the material for quite some time. I also feel this piece bears the influence of an opera I was (and still am) writing for Opera Philadelphia, freely inspired by the work of the British occultist Aleister Crowley, as well as the poetry of Wallace Stevens, whose deeply human voice has always been a wellspring of inspiration for me. 

ACO: How do you hope the audience will feel, and what do you hope they'll notice while listening to Chamber Symphony at its premiere?

DH: It is my hope that listeners will let themselves live in the metaphysical space of this music, and perhaps, feel a certain wholeness, oneness, in the arc of its form.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at the premiere?

DH: Hearing these notes and sounds that I’ve dreamed up in these past months come to life, and be interpreted in the hands of such sensitive and intrepid (!) artists.

Follow David on Twitter and Soundcloud

Hear the world premiere of David’s Chamber Symphony at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 7:30pm in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Past Forward: Composer Spotlight - Trevor Weston

Trevor Weston is a composer of choral, opera and orchestral music, with esteemed commissions for The Boston Children’s Chorus, The Washington Chorus, Trilogy: An Opera Company, Manhattan Choral Ensemble, and Boston Landmarks Orchestra. His honors include the George Ladd Prix de Paris from the University of California, Berkeley, a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony. 

Trevor’s musical education began at the prestigious St. Thomas Choir school in NYC at the age of 10. He received his B.A. from Tufts University and continued his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Music Composition.

Flying Fish, co-commissioned by American Composers Orchesta and Carnegie Hall, honors Trevor’s Barbadian heritage, and will be premiered at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 7:30pm in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Trevor was kind enough to talk with us about the piece.

Composer Trevor Weston

American Composers Orchestra: Choral music has featured prominently in your education and career, with several prestigious choral works to your name. Can you talk about the influence choral music had when it came to composing Flying Fish, which is a purely instrumental work for orchestra?

Trevor Weston: In many ways, Flying Fish brings together my experiences writing instrumental and choral music. Singing Psalms in the Anglican choral tradition has been an important part of my musical development. I remember singing these chants in my home church in New Jersey with my family from the age of six. Later, when I became a choirboy at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, Anglican Chants were performed for every service. As I grew older, I became more aware of the cultural significance of these chants with my parents and their Barbadian friends. In fact, I know many Bajans (Barbadians) who can sing chant tunes from memory when the psalm number is given. For this reason, I decided to begin the last movement of Flying Fish, “Chapel Street” with Anglican Chant-like chords that eventually become a Soca dance. Soca music (Soul + Calypso) is an important popular musical genre in Barbados. There are hints of Soca music in the first movement that are eventually realized in a more full-throated dance in the last movement. In some ways, I wanted Flying Fish to highlight the cultural influences of both Africa and Europe in Bajan culture. I also thought that it would be appropriate to include my experience with psalms on a concert honoring Steve Reich’s seminal work using psalms, Tehillim.

ACO: You write that Flying Fish honors the African roots of Barbadian culture and African diasporic expression, with the flying fish as a prominent symbol of Barbados' culture and your own childhood memories. Can you talk about how the flying fish is represented in your piece and how it resonates with the African roots you describe?

TW: I grew up in a Caribbean American household in Plainfield, NJ. Flying fish appear in the logo to the pub/restaurant my cousin owns in Barbados, The Fisherman’s Pub. This pub was owned by my grandparents and mother worked with her parents in the pub when she was young. I can’t remember a time when I did not see images of flying fish. These animals have always conjured up ideas of magic and mythology. In 1996, I saw flying fish in nature for the first time when a family friend took me out in a boat off the coast of Barbados. Whizzing through the air just above the water, the fish made a high-pitched fluttering sound. In my composition, I use metallic percussion instruments and woodwinds to represent the shiny silvery fish zipping through the air. The fish leap out of the water to avoid predators. The music of Flying Fish also quickly changes direction as if avoiding being caught by predictable developments. 

Like all islands in the Caribbean, Barbados is populated with people of African descent who brought their culture with them during the Atlantic slave trade. West African approaches to creating music can be heard in the music of the Caribbean and the US. Olly Wilson, a wonderful mentor composer-scholar, taught me that the connection between West African Music and Music of the African Diaspora is heard in their shared approaches to creating music. These shared approaches include using call and response structures, performing in a percussive manner, and creating rhythmic clashes in music. Steel Pan music and Soca music reflect these approaches to music creation. Specifically, in Flying Fish, I make musical references to Tuk Band music, an indigenous Barbadian folk music comprised of a small instrumental ensemble: snare drum, bass drum and piccolo/fife. The drummers play rhythmically clashing music to accompany the folk melody on the fife. This music has always sounded African to me. I transcribed rhythms from Tuk Band recordings and used these rhythmic cells in the first and third movements of Flying Fish.

Example of Tuk Band music:

ACO: Can you talk about your composing process for Flying Fish? How long have you been working on it? What have been the milestones and challenges throughout the process?

TW: Flying Fish began as a personal challenge: Compose a first movement with constant forward motion and energy like Stravinsky’s Les Noces. I wanted to compose music that forced me to take risks. I started compiling sketches of rhythmic (Tuk Band rhythms) and melodic material in 2016. This is my normal first step in the compositional process. All of my sketches were influenced by images and videos of flying fish. In some photos, the fish create intriguing repetitive patterns in the water. I decided that repeating patterns should help guide melodic, rhythmic, and formal material. When Derek Bermel and I first discussed the piece last year, he mentioned a theme of identity for the March 24 concert. I chose flying fish because they have been an ever present image in my life and a very personal one. In addition to referencing my Bajan background, I wanted to use rhythmic patterns I have been beating, as a nervous percussive, my whole life (rhythmic patterns that I often create during down time) but rarely use in my music. With the overall concept in place – a shiny magical animal, elusive motion and direction, Bajan identity, personal music patterns, and rhythmic and pitch material that embodied these ideas – I conceived of an overall form and dramatic development of the work. Combining all of these elements, in the end, was both a milestone and challenge. When I started composing the work, I was not sure if I could effectively combine all of the personal elements listed above. That doubt persisted throughout the composition process, making the completed work a significant milestone. 

ACO: How do you hope the audience will feel, and what do you hope they'll notice while listening to Flying Fish at its premiere?

TW: I hope that Flying Fish is intriguing to the audience. I like blending familiar and unfamiliar material to create music that resonates with listeners while at the same time challenging them.   

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at the premiere?

TW: Listening to live music brings communities together. After spending months with Flying Fish in my head, I look forward to the experience of hearing the work with an audience. 

Learn more about Trevor Weston at

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Past Forward: Composer Spotlight - Paola Prestini

Paola Prestini is an “enterprising composer and impresario” (The New York Times), named one of Musical America’s “Top 30 Musical Innovators 2016” and one of NPR’s “Top 100 Composers in the World under 40.” Her works includes commissions by Carnegie Hall, the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, New York City Opera, and Kronos Quartet. 

Paola is the Creative and Executive Director of National Sawdust, a nonprofit Brooklyn-based space for arts incubation, performance, and recording, and serves as “visionary-in-chief” (Time Out New York) of VisionIntoArt, the non-profit multimedia production company she co-founded as a student in 1999. 

Incorporating powerful visual and dramatic components, Paola’s multimedia creations address such extra-musical issues as conservation, astrophysics, and politics. 

We spoke to her about her new piece, The Hotel That Time Forgot, an ACO commission with support from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which will be premiered at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 7:30pm in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel HallThe Hotel That Time Forgot features visuals by Mami Kosemura.

Composer Paola Prestini

American Composers Orchestra: You write that in The Hotel That Time Forgot, you wanted to create a sonic orchestral world to relive the memories of The Grand Hotel Palmyra, a hotel in Lebanon across the border from Syria that has not closed its doors since opening in 1894, even as war has raged just outside its doors. Can you talk about these memories and how they are represented in the piece?

Paola Prestini: The memories are observed through flashes in the video [by Mami Kosemura], which is distilled through a keyhole. A mother pouring water to wash oneself in a basin, a suspended chandelier crystal, a child playing, shadows. Everyday action is presented motivically throughout the work and is then deconstructed. Slides in the music are meant to dissolve memories and to mimic the distortion in the film.

Watch the short documentary on The Grand Hotel Palmyra that inspired Paola to write this piece:

ACO: The passing of time seems to be a major theme in your subject material, and also the visuals by Mami Kosemura – you write that "a pendulum gives the viewer the sense of loss of time, and blurred memories." Can you talk about how time, maybe more specifically this pendulum, is represented in the music?

PP: The Pendulum swings in 45 second installments, and this became a defining structural pillar of the piece. The vibraphone is used as time “hits” to give the sense of a clock striking on the hour. The pendulum lends a certain static quality to the work – I wanted to give the viewer a keyhole look into the joy, anxieties, and subtleties of everyday life, with no apex in the music. The actions continue, time never stands still, and even though memories distort and blur and fade, the pendulum of time continues. The irony and tragedy is that Hotel Palmyra will most likely not continue forever, as it is in a warn torn zone. I had hoped to one day visit, but for now, the stills I’ve seen and film specials on the beauty of the hotel are what I had to go on.

ACO: Can you talk about your composing process for The Hotel That Time Forgot? How long have you been working on it? What have been the milestones and challenges throughout the process?

PP: I have been working on the piece for several months – with Mami conceptually first, and then, as a response to the work. I had a language that I created away from the film, and once I had written that out on the piano, I then worked with the film in mind, orchestrating and fleshing out the music, while keying into specific moments and key points I wanted to emphasize in the visuals.

ACO: How do you hope the audience will feel, and what do you hope they'll notice while listening to The Hotel That Time Forgot at its premiere?

PP: I feel like this piece, unlike other works of mine, does not have a distinct feeling I want people to feel – not joy, or sadness, or nostalgia. It slides in and out of indistinct memories that have no specific urgency or clear emotion. I want the feeling of the piece to be more of a haze, one that you enter, and that leaves you wanting to keep looking in, hoping to see more, notice more, until the keyhole closes after ten minutes.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at the premiere?

PP: The chance to hear an amazing orchestra play my work! I’ve been working in multimedia structures for the past twenty years, but don’t often get to work with orchestral tapestries, and I am thrilled to do so under the new tenure of ACO’s new president Ed Yim, and with my brilliant collaborator, Mami Kosemura.

Stills from Mami Kosemura’s visuals:

Mami Kosemura, Installation of Pendulum at Dillon + Lee Gallery, HD video, 20 min, color, silent, 2016. Courtesy Dillion + Lee Gallery.

Mami Kosemura, Installation of Pendulum at Dillon + Lee Gallery, HD video, 20 min, color, silent, 2016. Courtesy Dillion + Lee Gallery.

Mami Kosemura, Video Stills from Pendulum, HD video, 20 min, color, silent, 2016. Courtesy Dillion + Lee Gallery.

Follow Paola on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

See the world premiere of Paola’s The Hotel The Time Forgot at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at 7:30pm in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

Q&A with composer Julia Adolphe, 2015 Toulmin Commission Winner

Julia Adolphe’s music has been described as “alive with invention” by The New Yorker, “colorful, mercurial, deftly orchestrated” by The New York Times, and displaying “a remarkable gift for sustaining a compelling musical narrative” by Musical America. Julia’s works have been performed across the U.S. and abroad by renowned ensembles and orchestras. Her awards include a 2016 Lincoln Center Emerging Artists Award, a 2016 OPERA America Discovery Grant, and a 2015 Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Julia participated in ACO's EarShot New Music Readings in 2014 at the New York Philharmonic and subsequently won the League of American Orchestras’ Women Composers Commission in 2015, administered by ACO and supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. Her commission, a new concerto Unearth, Release for viola and orchestra, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic and principal violist Cynthia Phelps on November 17-19, 2016.

Julia is a native New Yorker living in Los Angeles. She was kind enough to answer these questions about her experience.

Composer Julia Adolphe

American Composers Orchestra: What was it like to receive a world premiere at the New York Philharmonic? What surprised you about the rehearsal process? What did you think of the performance?

Julia Adolphe: It was a shocking, humbling, inspiring, and invigorating experience to hear the New York Philharmonic bring to life music that I have lived with intimately. Composing is such a personal, emotional process and to hear your musical dreams realized by one of the greatest orchestras in the world is incredibly surreal. What surprised me the most about the rehearsals and the performances was how relaxed I felt. I knew that I was in the most capable hands and had complete faith in the orchestra, Maestro Jaap Van Zweden, and violist Cynthia Phelps. Even though I worked closely with Cynthia for over a year, she still brought new expressivity and a deeper interpretation to my music with each performance she gave, and that was really special. It was also amazing to hear Van Zweden shape the piece in ways that I found new and exciting. To hear a piece that you know backwards and forwards sound fresh is a great gift. 

ACO: What opportunities and experiences do you think helped lead to such a momentous moment in your career?

JA: I am so grateful to ACO’s annual EarShot New Music Readings, a competition where selected works are read and performed by some of the country’s leading orchestras. I just happened to apply during the cycle where ACO partnered with the New York Philharmonic as part of the inaugural NY Phil Biennial. As one of three winners, I received my first New York Philharmonic premiere in 2014 when Alan Gilbert conducted Dark Sand, Sifting Light. A short viola solo intrigued principal violist Cynthia Phelps and she introduced herself to me following the concert. A few months later, I heard more good news from ACO’s President Michael Geller: the New York Philharmonic and League of American Orchestras, with support from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, would co-commission a viola concerto for Cynthia Phelps. 

While the EarShot readings were the most direct opportunity that connected me with the New York Philharmonic, I know that many that other experiences led to this moment. My teachers Steven Stucky and Stephen Hartke inspired and encouraged me constantly and taught me a tremendous amount about orchestration. I also think that the process of writing my chamber opera, Sylvia, which premiered in 2013, gave me experience in writing on a bigger scale with larger forms. I learned to think about my music in terms of an overarching narrative, movement, and drama. All of these techniques are important when writing for the orchestra.

Listen to an excerpt of Julia's Dark Sand, Shifting Light:

ACO: What opportunities and experiences do you think best prepared you for writing this viola concerto and working with the New York Philharmonic?

JA: The greatest preparation came from the New York Philharmonic itself. As early as January 2015, I was working with Cynthia Phelps and studying what makes her sound unique. I asked her many questions, such as: What are your favorite concertos and why? Which concertos do you hate and why? If you could choose any instrument to play a duet with, which would it be? I even asked her what she wanted to express and communicate to her audience through the concerto. Cynthia was amazingly generous and available to me whenever I wanted to hear her play through a passage. Before our first preview concert in May, I had heard Cynthia play through every single note and we discussed fingerings and bowings for the more difficult phrases. I am lucky that Cynthia was honest with me about what passages were challenging because they were virtuosic and required time to master, and which passages were not idiomatic and needed slight adjustments.

Then, there were the preview concerts that the New York Philharmonic so generously arranged. The first preview was in May 2016. Cynthia played through my recently completed concerto with a piano reduction for an audience in Los Angeles. To hear the piece from start to finish and feel the response in the room informed my subsequent revisions. Knowing that the piece was not yet “set in stone” freed my writing and allowed me to experiment with my language. In July, Gerard Schwartz premiered the concerto with the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina. I made revisions to the orchestration, thinning out textures where the viola was overpowered and adding clarity to some of the tutti lines. More cleaning, more proofreading, and finally, I submitted the final score to Van Zweden in August. There was one last preview concert in October with Don Crockett conducting the USC Thornton Symphony. By the first rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic, all potential questions had been answered and the piece was ready to go! This is why I was so relaxed at the premiere!

ACO: What's next for you?

JA: I am currently writing a twelve-minute work for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, scored for 20 musicians, to be premiered by Jeffrey Kahane. The commission is part of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment program, where patrons contribute to a new work and in exchange, gain exposure to the composer’s creative process. Speaking publicly about my music while in the midst of composing the work has proven clarifying, and I was able to hear a few of LACO’s musicians read-through excerpts of my music. I know I will not always have the luxury of hearing my music before the premiere, but I hope it becomes more and more a part of the commissioning process as it leads to incredible growth for both the artist and the composition itself. 

Follow Julia on Facebook and Twitter

Monday, October 24, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Q&A with soprano Nancy Allen Lundy

Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy has enjoyed a varied career with an emphasis on contemporary music. Last season, she and pianist, Stephen Gosling, celebrated David Del Tredici’s birthday at Barge Music after her earlier performance of Dracula at Merkin Hall with American Modern Ensemble. A favorite of Tan Dun, she has originated and performed his leading ladies around the world, including Vancouver Opera, Netherlands Opera, NHK (Tokyo), BAM, and Royal Symphony Stockholm. This season she reprises the role of Zina in Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart directed by Simon McBurney with Netherlands Opera, a role she earlier premiered in Amsterdam with subsequent performances at ENO (London), La Scala (Milan), and Opera de Lyon.

Nancy was kind enough to answer a few questions about her role in the upcoming performance of David Del Tredici's Dracula — a 20-minute setting of Alfred Corn's poem, “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count,” which retells the famous gothic tale from the point of view of a woman living next door to the Count — at ACO’s 40th Season Opener, “Contempo-Scary Music,” on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. The New York Times has called the piece a “gloriously giddy melodrama.”

Soprano Lundy performed Del Tredici's Dracula
with the American Modern Ensemble in 2014

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about your character in David Del Tredici’s Dracula?

Nancy Allen Lundy: I am the neighbor lady of Dracula and have been friends with his parents. Over the years, I imagine we shared dinners, watching as the young boy grew to adulthood. I find myself strangely attracted to this young man whose physical traits are somehow altered from what I remember. He seems to be quite fond of me as well. He pays me “visits”, sending me gifts in the interims. As the narrative progresses, I question why he seems no longer interested in me. Realizing I am indeed hooked, I find my whole life’s meaning is tied to the whims of this odd creature with “an electric tic active at the corner of the mouth”.

ACO: The piece asks for an uncommonly theatrical performance from an orchestra-accompanied soprano. Can you talk about the moments in your role that might surprise (or scare?) an unsuspecting audience member?

NAL: I doubt that anything will be frightening, even for young people. I believe the effect is more comical; an indulgent, hyper-dramatic reading of a person losing her grasp and falling victim to an unusual addiction; the addiction to human blood by which the average, run-of-the-mill vampire is afflicted. And I wouldn’t want to give anything away, now, would I…. [insert scary laugh] ??!!

ACO: In his program note, David says “Nervous giggles and startled gasps would not be unwelcome here,” but he also explains the works deeper meaning: “the listener confronts the more ominous world of addiction, betrayal, and obsession. And inevitably, there comes the ultimate degradation—a Faustian bargain with a devilish price: devolution into the living dead.” Can you talk about the ways in which you try to convey these themes?

NAL: It isn’t in my best interest to try to convey themes or morals. I read the lines and play the scenes and let the audience take what it gleans from it. I feel the ache in my eye teeth as they start to lengthen, I feel the thirst, the hunger for Dracula’s visits, the crushing devastation of a jilted lover. I feel the madness of obsession, the grotesque, itching convulsing as life is leaving and the undead is being born within my flesh.

ACO: You have performed Dracula before with the American Modern Ensemble and last March you celebrated David’s birthday with a recital of his music at Barge Music with pianist Stephen Gosling. Can you talk about your relationship with Del Tredici’s music?

NAL: I have been an admirer of the work of David Del Tredici since I was a music student at college in Northern Minnesota, the same school where Phyllis Bryn-Julson went. Her recording of Alice was there in the library, and I familiarized myself with it in equal measure to Beethoven, Mozart, and all the rest which was unknown to me. It was the greatest treat to meet him finally in his NYC apartment to sing through Dracula. His music mirrors his own thoughtful humanity, flare for the dramatic, aching poignancy and youthful wonder. If I were more of a music theorist, I would say that his music is logically constructed and balanced in symmetry. But my main interest in his music is that it moves me to sing about all that he sees is human, dramatic, poignant and wondrous. And funny, too!

Watch Nancy Allen Lundy's performance of 
Dracula with the American Modern Ensemble:

Hear soprano Nancy Allen Lundy in David Del Tredici's Dracula at Contempo-Scary Music, ACO's 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Composer Spotlight - Paul Moravec

Paul Moravec, recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is a composer of numerous orchestral, chamber, choral, operatic, and lyric pieces. His music has earned many distinctions, including the Rome Prize Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Paul’s The Overlook Hotel Suite is a brand new orchestral suite that takes musical material from his highly praised opera The Shining, which is based on the well-known Stephen King novel and premiered in a sold-out run by Minnesota Opera this past May. Musical America called the opera a “chilling artistic triumph,” reporting, “This operatic treatment of Stephen King’s breakthrough horror-thriller (1977) manages not only to distill the narrative intensity of the original but—its most significant achievement—transforms The Shining into valid operatic terms that transcend the thriller trappings.” 

Commissioned by ACO, Paul has created a piece that uses the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the Overlook—the infamous hotel at the center of the story’s gory plot. The Overlook Hotel Suite will be premiered at ACO’s 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece and his compositional process for SoundAdvice.

Composer Paul Moravec

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the sections or themes in your opera The Shining that The Overlook Hotel Suite draws from, and your process for choosing this musical material?

Paul Moravec: The Overlook Hotel Suite is more than a medley from the opera: it’s an independent composition re-imagining and re-arranging the opera’s musical material involving the character of the hotel and its ghosts from every part of the show, without regard to dramatic sequence. It’s a kind of time-less fantasy on leitmotifs associated with the never-ending masked ball, ghosts such as Delbert Grady and his two daughters, and Mark Torrance, Jack’s abusive father.

ACO: MPR News writes that your music in The Shining is “a rich, multi-layered soundscape that breathes life into the Overlook Hotel, which is both the setting and the villain of the piece.” In The Overlook Hotel Suite, you are using the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the infamous hotel. Can you give a few examples of what the instruments are depicting? Given that the Overlook might be considered the opera’s “villain,” are you depicting more than just physical setting?

PM: I definitely consider the Overlook Hotel a leading persona in the opera, and so its character and physical attributes are indissolubly one.  For instance, to convey the evil power of the hotel in its most concentrated form, one has to feel the infamous room 217 — where little Danny is attacked by the dead lady in the bathtub — as a real, malicious presence, more than just a physical setting. I use a lot of spooky special effects in the orchestration — such as tremolo ponticello strings and nasty, muted brass — but sometimes the most disquieting effects can be created by a counterintuitively normal-sounding orchestra playing totally creepy music. Sometimes less really is more.

ACO: You have talked about how Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining possesses three themes that are essential for creating a compelling opera: love, death and power. Are these themes also present in The Overlook Hotel Suite?

PM: Among other things, King’s novel is a deeply emotional story about love in the Torrance family: between husband and wife and between parents and child. So love itself is not so much a factor in this suite, since it focuses on the ghosts, not the Torrances. As for power, that is reflected principally in the evil force-field surrounding the hotel itself. And as in so many ghost stories, death especially violent death — plays a crucial role in this suite. Regarding the masked gala in the grand ballroom, this suite is more about after-death than death per se.

ACO: Can you talk about the differences in your approach to writing opera compared to orchestral music?

PM: Composing an opera is more complex than writing an orchestra piece, in part because the opera composer must also be the principal dramatist, for all the contributions of the librettist and director and everyone else involved. Opera, of course, is music drama. The challenge is that as an art-form, drama naturally follows its own logic while music follows its own peculiar logic and somehow these two willful, independent thoroughbreds have to be made at all times to move in the exact same direction, in precise synchrony. The composer must combine the music, words, character, plot, et al. into a seemingly effortless and compelling narrative much greater than the sum of its parts. And beyond all that, the composer must overcome the inherent artifice of this irrational art-form so that the audience will be so absorbed as to forget that they are watching an opera.

Hear the world premiere of Paul Moravec’s The Overlook Hotel Suite at Contempo-Scary Music, ACO's 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall.