Monday, December 4, 2017

Reflected in Glass: Q&A with violinist Tim Fain

Internationally renowned violinist Tim Fain has been featured on the soundtracks to the films Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, and Black Swan, where he also was seen on screen. He has appeared internationally as soloist with many of the world’s top orchestras and performed recitals at the world’s major music capitals. He collaborated with Google on a Virtual Reality music video for his composition, Resonance, which introduced its 360 stereoscopic VR capability for YouTube, and was recently shown at The Sundance Film Festival (watch here).

Reflected in Glass: Philip Glass and the Next Generation — Friday, December 8, 2017, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall —features Fain as soloist in Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons. Fain was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.

Philip Glass and Tim Fain. Photo by Brian Hall

American Composers Orchestra: Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons, was written as a companion piece to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, but doesn't indicate which movement corresponds to which season. Glass writes that this is “an opportunity, then, for the listener to make his/her own interpretation.” Do you have your own interpretation for which movement corresponds to which season? How has this open-ended aspect of the piece affected the way you approach it?

Tim Fain: If Antonio Vivaldi depicted scenes from the seasons as a portrait artist might capture a still life — a feast, or a storm approaching — Philip’s concerto is less about the seasons themselves but rather about our struggle against, or acquiescence to the elements.

The piece alternates between solo violin movements, which function similarly to a Greek chorus as a running commentary on the story, and larger orchestral movements. One begins to sense a lurking tumultuousness throughout those movements, waiting to grow at any moment. Spring begins gently at first, followed by a languorous and stunningly beautiful summer, a tempestuous fall, and an all-out battle against the winter elements, alluding to a larger battle we all face against time itself. From birth we are built for struggle, at first just to breathe, then later to love, and finally the struggle to die gracefully and in peace.

ACO: Reflected in Glass celebrates the monumental work of Philip Glass, as well as the influence he has had on generations of composers after him. Can you talk about the influence that Glass has had on your career, both as a performer and composer?

TF: To perform with Philip, as I have done so many times, is to open oneself up to a passion and spontaneity in his music, and I’m continuously inspired by him and his fluid and organic approach to his own music. As both a performer and composer now, Philip has always been extremely supportive of  my work; writing his Partita for me, having recently presented a theater piece (Club Diamond) for which I composed the music, at his Days and Nights Festival in Big Sur, CA, and even touring as a duo partner have all changed and enhanced not only my work but me as an artist and person.

ACO: You appear on the soundtracks for Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, and Black Swan (where you also appeared on screen), and your critically acclaimed multi-media program Portals has been selling out venues across the world. How did you first become involved in the film music world? Can you talk about the differences, or lack thereof, between performing music for film vs. music that has no visual component?

TF: I was fascinated with film music as a kid — growing up in LA I sang in a boys choir and performed in numerous soundtracks, including John Williams’ score to Empire of the Sun. As I’ve worked more in film and VR/AR, pretty much without exception, each project has unfolded in its own unique way. From creating the diegetic music for 12 Years a Slave, to producing and performing Portals, I’m fascinated with storytelling as connection between people, among artistic collaborators, and as the connection of our various senses into a fuller multi-sensory experience.

When I perform live I am aware of the audience not only as they listen, but as they watch and feel the music physically in their bodies. One is always aware of how the music will be experienced — a transaction of emotion and storytelling which travels not only from performer to listener but back from the audience to me on stage. In these moments the music is the predominant element of the story. Performing music for film I am also thinking about the moment it will be experienced, but insofar as how the music will interact with the image and perceived as part of a complete work.

As a composer, I do think about how my music will be heard, and in what context, but this does not affect my process of creating the music itself. I don’t work much differently in writing my upcoming Concerto for Violin Orchestra and VR experience, for example, as I would work in composing or arranging a cue for a feature film.


Hear Tim Fain in Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons — Friday, December 8, 2017, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Details & tickets

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Monday, November 6, 2017

40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Q&A with Artistic Director Derek Bermel

Grammy-nominated composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel has been hailed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity. An “eclectic with wide open ears” (Toronto Star), Bermel is acclaimed for music that is “intricate, witty, clear-spoken, tender, and extraordinarily beautiful [and] covers an amazing amount of ground” (San Francisco Chronicle). As a performer, “There doesn't seem to be anything that Bermel can't do with the clarinet” (The Boston Globe). Since 2013, Derek has brought his creative strength and engagement with myriad musical cultures to American Composers Orchestra as Artistic Director. 

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center - will feature Derek as soloist in Leonard Berstein’s Clarinet Sonata (orchestrated by Sid Ramin). Derek spoke to us about the piece, the program, and the broader picture of ACO.

Composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel. Photo by Richard Bowditch

American Composers Orchestra: Leonard Bernstein's Clarinet Sonata (later orchestrated as a concerto) is his first published work, written when he was just 25 years old. Can you talk about the piece and its character, and why it was chosen for the program?

Derek Bermel: I've played Bernstein's Sonata since I was in high school; still have my copy that Lenny signed when I was a teenager ... I waited an hour to meet him backstage after a concert at Lincoln Center! It's a joyful, brilliant work for such a young composer. You can hear the strong influence of the composition teachers with whom he studied at Tanglewood; the first movement recalls the austere, academic lyricism of mid-century Hindemith, and the second movement echoes Copland in its embrace of Latin rhythms, but with a jazzy grace that presages Bernstein's emerging voice. The sonata contains that special sound which would become so personal in later works like Candide and the Serenade; you can hear them in this early work, adapted by Bernstein's long-time orchestrator Sid Ramin.

ACO: What about the other works on the program? Can you talk about why they were chosen to be a part of ACO’s 40th anniversary celebration?

DB: Everything in this concert relates to our 40th Anniversary and to ACO’s mission, which is to champion great American works and the creators of the future. We're celebrating our founder Francis Thorne, and so we're performing an imaginative work that Frannie wrote for ACO – Fanfare, Fugue, and Funk. ACO is also honoring long-time supporters James and Ellen Marcus, whose love of opera and the American Songbook leads naturally to Gershwin, Arlen, and Ellington. As a tribute to the Bernstein family, and in honor of Lenny’s 100th birthday this season, we're performing his orchestrated clarinet sonata. And in a tip of the hat to our co-founder Paul Dunkel, who relentlessly championed work by emerging composers, we've programmed an operatic excerpt by Paola Prestini and a U.S. premiere by Elizabeth Ogonek, showcasing ACO’s commitment to the music of our time and beyond. We're lucky to have our superb music director George Manahan AND our founding Music Director, the great Dennis Russell Davies, conducting this concert, as well as two rising-star singers, Mikaela Bennett and Jakub Józef Orliński, as soloists – an embarrassment of riches!

ACO: When did you first learn about the American Composers Orchestra? Do you remember any initial impressions you had about the group, and the path that led you to become Artistic Director in 2013?

DB: I've been lucky to be involved with ACO for more than two decades. Back in 1994, when I was still a masters student at the University of Michigan, I was lucky enough to be selected for the Underwood New Music Readings. The readings were a formative experience in my musical career – breathtaking in a way that was simultaneously traumatizing and deeply inspiring. Over the years, first serving as ACO’s Music Alive Composer-in-Residence (2006-2009), and later curating programs as ACO’s Creative Advisor (2009-13) and artistic director (2013-present), I've been fortunate to collaborate with so many wonderful composer colleagues, including Tania León, Robert Beaser, George Lewis, Anna Clyne and James Newton, to name a few. Some of the highlights were curating the 2011 and 2015 SONiC Festivals, which featured the work of more than 200 emerging composers; mentoring at the Underwood Readings and at EarShot orchestral readings across the U.S.; and helping design and implement JCOI (Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute), which launched in 2011 and continues to this day. Throughout these years, I have developed the deepest respect for the heart and soul of the ACO – the musicians of the orchestra – and for Maestro George Manahan. I can't emphasize enough what a special group of artists this is; we composers are lucky to have them as partners and inspirations.

ACO: In additional to being ACO’s Artistic Director (and your other esteemed positions) you are an accomplished composer and clarinetist. Can you talk about any specific instances when your work with ACO has influenced your composing and/or performing?

DB: ACO has had a lasting effect on my compositional output. In 1995, ACO offered me my first orchestral commission.  I had an idea to make the orchestra sound like voices – a huge conversation.  I had developed a rather complex system of notation to express my ideas, but I wondered how could I communicate all this to a big orchestra in a short rehearsal period? My solution was to write a concerto, devising a musical conversation between the orchestra and me that would help the musicians to intuitively interpret my notation. Plus, it was a great way to play as a soloist in Carnegie Hall (and without too much practice, practice, practice)! You can read more about it here.

ACO: What is your biggest hope for contemporary classical music in the US in the next few years, and for ACO?

DB: I'd like to see ACO continue to grow and serve the needs of composers in all genres and styles, partnering with a range of collaborators throughout the art world and beyond. There’s a great need for orchestral music and composers to connect with communities in all sorts of ways, and ACO can be a catalyst in making that happen. I'm excited to work alongside our new President Ed Yim, George Manahan, and the musicians as we begin writing a new chapter in ACO's story!


Hear Derek perform Berstein’s Clarinet Sonata (orchestrated by Sid Ramin), plus works by Prestini, Ogonek, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Composer Spotlight: Elizabeth Ogonek

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek strives to create music that is energetic, dramatic, vivid, and colorful. Often inspired by text, her work explores the transference of words and poetic imagery to music. The nature of her interests has led to several collaborations with emerging writers including Sophia Veltfort, Ghazal Mosadeq, and Jonathan Dubow.

Recent and upcoming commissions include works for the London Symphony Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and Fulcrum Point New Music Project for the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago. Born in 1989 in Anoka, Minnesota, and raised in New York City, Ogonek holds degrees from Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, and the University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music. In 2015, she completed doctoral studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She is currently Mead Composer in Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Assistant Professor of Composition at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center - will feature the US premiere of Sleep and Unremembrance. Elizabeth was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece.

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

American Composers Orchestra: Sleep and Unremembrance is inspired by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s While Sleeping, one of her last works, which reflects on the brevity of life. Your music often explores the transference of words and poetic imagery to music. Can you talk about how you discovered this process for writing music, and why it works well for you?

Elizabeth Ogonek: I’ve always seen myself as being kind of bad with words. I find writing and speaking to be two of the most grueling tasks. Because of that, I’ve always admired those people for whom words are an expressive and freeing medium. I began reading a lot of poetry for that reason. It quickly became a lens through which I attempted to make sense of my work as a composer. Deep down, I think I was seeking that expressive freedom in my own work. I found myself turning to words and poetry specifically as a way of structuring my musical ideas or holding me accountable for the decisions I would eventually make. Calling on text as a creative constraint was one that was open ended enough to allow me to make my own choices but at the same time it provided a framework within which I had to work if I wanted any relationship to exist between a poetic idea and a musical one. About musical limitations, Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” I think about this a lot. 

ACO: A big part of ACO’s mission is providing composers the opportunity to work closely with an orchestra while they hone their orchestral writing skills. Can you describe the value in being able to work closely with the London Symphony Orchestra while writing Sleep and Unremembrance? How did it affect your compositional process?

EO: First of all, I’ll say that I think it’s absolutely crucial that young composers interested in writing for the orchestra have the opportunity to work with an orchestra. (So cheers to you, ACO!) In many ways, there is very little that is intuitive about writing orchestral music unless you’re immersed in it. By working one-on-one with the players, attending rehearsals, hearing the orchestra play contemporary music and the standard repertoire (for me, this really illuminated the LSO’s particular strengths) and by having the opportunity to workshop my own music, this issue of understanding how the orchestra works is one that I started to face. In doing so, I came to know the LSO as a very particular living, breathing community of musicians. I think the nuances of that community (for example, their impeccable precision, virtuosity and weightlessness, among other formidable characteristics) are what I tried to tap into while writing my piece.

I should also say that the LSO gave me the opportunity to fail and to learn from that failure, a gift not often bestowed upon composers outside of school. About eight months before the premiere, the orchestra workshopped the first half of my piece. I remember it sounding cumbersome, exceptionally dense and structurally ambiguous which resulted in a multitude of revisions. Most importantly, it informed the way I approached the second half of the piece which is much more transparent and delicately orchestrated. This new direction is one that has preoccupied my music since then.

ACO: Our season opener celebrates 40 years as the only orchestra in the world wholly dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promotion of music by American composers. Can you think of any American composers from past or present (or genres or movements of American music in general) that you especially feel should be reaching more listeners today?

EO: There are so many, but for the sake of brevity I’ll say Ruth Crawford-Seeger and Stephen Hartke. Crawford-Seeger because she was a badass who’s incredibly expressive music is thoroughly undervalued. And Hartke because there are new things to discover on every level of his music and his compositional wit, to me, is just thoroughly disarming.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at our 40th Birthday Concert & Gala? Are there any other pieces on the program that you are particularly excited to hear?

I’m excited about the whole program, but I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Paola Prestini’s piece and the Duke Ellington [Black, Brown, and Beige]. Most of all, I’m looking forward to celebrating an orchestra that has steadfastly provided orchestral opportunities for young composers.  


Hear the US premiere Elizabeth’s Sleep and Unremembrance, plus works by Prestini, Bernstein, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Composer Spotlight: Paola Prestini

Composer Paola Prestini is “the enterprising composer and impresario” (The New York Times) whose interdisciplinary vision is helping to shape the future of new music. Named one of Musical America’s “Top 30 Musical Innovators 2016” and one of the “Top 100 Composers in the World under 40” (NPR), her music has been commissioned by and performed at top orchestras and concert halls across the world.

She is the founding CEO and founding Artistic Director of National Sawdust, a nonprofit Brooklyn-based space for arts incubation and performance, and the “visionary-in-chief” (Time Out New York) of VisionIntoArt, the multimedia production company she co-founded in 1999 which has now merged with National Sawdust.

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center - features music from Paola’s 2016 opera production Gilgamesh, and will recognize Paola as a special honoree at the Gala celebration, which coincides with the concert.

Paola was kind enough answer a few questions about Gilgamesh, as well as her broader role in today’s contemporary classical world.

Composer Paola Prestini

American Composers Orchestra: Here at ACO, we are very excited about the momentum that contemporary opera is gaining, with more and more innovative and cutting-edge productions breaking through to new audiences every season, Gilgamesh included. What are your hopes for contemporary opera in the next few years? Do you think it has potential that purely instrumental contemporary classical music doesn’t?

Paola Prestini: I think that opera appeals to younger audiences in that it has many levels of interaction with the audience, so in many ways, it’s a less abstract art form. From the music, to costumes, sets, projection, design, there are different ways into the form. I also think that the entrepreneurial approach of composers and indie companies has made opera more accessible than ever, because you don't need to pay high prices as an audience member or be commissioned by large companies as an artist anymore to make grand, rich, statements.

ACO: Can you tell us a little bit about the different ways you have worked with ACO over the years?

PP: ACO was one of my first jobs when I graduated Juilliard! For a short while I worked as education director. I also was part of the reading series when I graduated Juilliard, and had a performance many many years ago on the Immigrant Voices series. But it wasn’t really until Ed came onboard that he brought me fully onboard as a composer for orchestra into the mix, which I truly appreciate! I wrote The Hotel That Time Forgot, about a hotel trapped in time on the Lebanese border for a performance this past May at Carnegie Hall. The video was by the Japanese artist Mami Kosemura. We had a great time making this work about invented memory, since neither of us had actually traveled there.

ACO: ACO President Ed Yim has said that honoring you at the gala was a necessity and a pleasure given all you have done for new music and american composers in NYC, especially since the opening of National Sawdust. How has your vision for National Sawdust evolved since the opening? Also, why do you think organizations like National Sawdust, ACO, and others seem to be finding it easier to work together and collaboratively now? Do you think that always was the case?

PP: I think companies are less territorial, and that everyone wants to assert their brand and identity while still getting the art done. Working together ensures a stronger product by allowing companies with different strengths to come together to help bring to life commissions, collaborations, and new ways of thinking. I think this is a product of the last 20 years and it is an exciting time to be creating and leading in. As far as my own role in this, I knew 20 years ago that my road as a woman composer who wanted to do rich multimedia work out of the box would be complex. And so in the words of my mentor Paul Soros, I made more pie, I didn't divide it. The challenge has always been how to exist as multiple roles in my life-composer, mother, partner, leader, etc. But balance is difficult for every human being, and I try not to lose sight of the fact that I designed my own challenges and that in many way they reflect a complex spirit and desire.

ACO: Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński will perform the Prelude and first Greensnake Aria from your opera Gilgamesh. Can you describe a little bit about what's going on in the story during these two pieces?

PP: Gilgamesh, with librettist Cerise Jacobs, is the story of Ming, the son of Madame White Snake, half demon-half man who was abandoned during his mother’s epic battle with the Abbot. He is identified with the protagonist of the Sumerian Epic, “Gilgamesh”, who was two-thirds god and one-third man. When the White Snake suddenly sends for him on his thirtieth birthday, he finds her in the form of a beautiful woman imprisoned in the Abbot’s alms bowl. The White Snake reveals his birthright and his power to control the waters. Ming tests his powers and brings the world to the brink of another devastating flood. The Abbot appears and sows the seeds of doubt about his mother. When Ming goes back to see her again, he sees a white snake in the alms bowl. Ming returns home to find that his wife, Ku, has just given birth to a white, iridescent baby girl who resembles her grandmother. He gives the baby to the green snake, Xiao Qing, who had taken him as a baby away from the floodwaters. He returns to the monastery. There is no one there. A robe and empty alms bowl are left. Ming dons the robe, takes the alms bowl and leaves.

The prologue which we are going to hear, and Green Snake’s (Xiao Qing’s) aria, introduce the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and feature Jakub Józef Orliński as Xiao Qing, who introduces the story above.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at our 40th Birthday Concert & Gala? Are there any other pieces on the program that you are particularly excited to hear?

PP: I'm excited to hear Elizabeth [Ogonek]’s work, and super excited to hear Jozef sing! I adore his voice and vibe. It’s always a joy to hear the classics too. And Bernstein is gold standard for all he initiated in our time. He was an excellent composer, educator, visionary, conductor, and human.


Hear Paola’s music, plus works by Ogonek, Bernstein, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Martin Kennedy

Martin Kennedy (b. 1978) received his B.M. and M.M. at Indiana University before earning a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Juilliard School where he was a C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellow. Kennedy’s music has been performed internationally by numerous artists and ensembles, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestra Teatro Comunale di Bologna, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Philharmonic, Bloomington Camerata, Symphony in C, and Tuscaloosa Symphony. He is the recipient of several prestigious prizes, including the ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize, the ‘2 Agosto’ International Composition Prize, a BMI Student Composer Award, an Aaron Copland Award, and many others. Kennedy’s music is available on the Ancalagon, Anbardy, Azica, Centaur, and Riax labels and is published by Theodore Presser Company and G. Schirmer Inc.  Previously a member of the academic faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, he is currently the Director of Composition and Theory at Central Washington University in Washington State.

Martin’s piece Siren, blind was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Martin spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer and pianist Martin Kennedy

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Martin Kennedy: It was of course a great honor to be selected as a participant in this year’s Underwood New Music Readings. I was previously a part of this program in 2003 while a student at The Juilliard School, and the experience proved invaluable to my educational and professional career. I look back on that experience fondly and carry with me to this day lessons learned during that marvelous experience.

ACO: Your program notes offer three poignant quotes - from Homer’s The Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Kafka’s The Silence of the Sirens - describing the terrifying seduction of Sirens. Why did you choose this subject as the basis for your piece? Does the orchestra take on the role of a “siren,” seducing and luring the listener, or of the siren’s victim, or both, or something else entirely?

MK: A constant refrain in both my teaching and my own composing is the crucial importance of the dramatic and visual arts as a stimulus for new explorations in musical form and narrative. With Siren, blind, I took particular inspiration from the genre of dramatic works built around minor literary characters — Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, for example — to gain a new perspective on otherwise familiar tales. The Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey famously seduced sailors to their death (or ecstasy, depending upon your reading of the tale), but my mind can’t help but wander to those passengers in the background who travel far from those fatal rocks and aren't even worth a mention. As time progresses and my own journeys unfold, I find myself far more interested in those souls who are not even given the chance of temptation. And that is, in essence, what Siren, blind is about.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for Siren, blind? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

MK: My process varies from day to day, measure by measure. Sometimes there is a short score, sometimes I write straight into the score, most often it is a combination of both. Much is dependent on the initial concept and architecture. Upon commissioning this work, Nikolas Caoile, conductor of the Central Washington University Symphony Orchestra, placed two small conditions upon me: that my piece contain both highly detailed string divisi and musical quotations. With those directives, my musical and dramatic processes ran along parallel lines, with the music offering shape to the narrative and the narrative framing the musical material. And as the work grew, yet another narrative emerged, populated with a more personal cast of characters (who deserve the right to remain unseen themselves)

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece? What do you hope to gain from the readings?

MK: The majority of adjustments regarding balance, dynamics, etc. were made to the piece during the rehearsals running up to its premiere this past December. Our university orchestra is outstanding both in their musical proficiency and intelligence, and their hard work allowed me the luxury of re-working passages during the rehearsal process. Now the ACO readings will provide me with yet another priceless opportunity to work with yet a group of amazing musicians who I have no doubt will further advance my craft.

More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to studying and learning from the work of my colleagues, all of whom are brilliant composers, possessing both fantastic ideas and sterling technique. It is a supremely talented group and I’m eagerly awaiting learning as much as I can from the orchestra members, composers, and lecturers at the ACO Underwood Readings.

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Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: James Diaz

New York-based composer James Diaz (b. 1990) is the winner of the 2015 National Prize of Music in Composition by the Ministry of Culture of Colombia for his Concerto for Percussion Trio and Orchestra, Saturn Lights. As winner of the 2014 Prize of Music in Composition for the reopening of the Teatro Colón, his orchestral piece Eclosion was premiered by conductor Claudio Cruz and the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia and recently has been recorded by the conductor Cecilia Espinosa and the EAFIT Symphony Orchestra for the upcoming album, New Colombian Music for Orchestra. Diaz has also won several competitions for his chamber and wind ensemble music, including the 2015 Coral and Symphony Composition Award by the Bogotá Philharmonic, the 2013 Composition Prize of the International Winter Festival of Campos do Jordão for his string quartet Dynamics of Meteorite and the XV National Award for Musical Composition City of Bogotá by the Bogotá Philharmonic for his work Iron Curtains. Diaz studied composition with Moisés Bertrán, Harold Vázquez and Gustavo Parra at the National Conservatory of Music, where he received his B.M. in Composition in 2015. He was a two-time Composition Fellow at the International Winter Festival of Campos do Jordao, Brazil; and is currently pursuing an M.M. in Composition at the Manhattan School of Music, where he is studying composition with Reiko Fueting.

James’ piece From Infinity was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. James spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer James Diaz

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

James Diaz: I remember that I was in class when my wife emailed me that someone from the American Composers Orchestra had called, suddenly my hands started to shake. As soon as I finished my class I called back and I was informed that I had been selected, I thought I was in the middle of a dream, but it was very real. Being selected in this program is a huge honor for any young composer, it is a reward for many days and nights of time I invested.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for From Infinity? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

JD: I always need to have the whole form of the piece in my mind, or at least the overall concept of the form. I worked on From Infinity for nearly one year. The main ideas were created while I was in Bogotá but right after I moved to NYC I reordered the structure and also I reorchestrated some parts, particularly the end and the center.

For me it's impossible to consider the composition and the orchestration as different aspects. I usually compose directly to the full score because many of principal ideas are essentially colors and gestures, for that reason the orchestration is always in my mind during the process of composition.

ACO: You biography states that you are considered one of the most representative young composers from Colombia. What do you think makes your music distinctively Colombian?

JD: Honestly, I do not know. However, I strongly believe that everything around us defines us. Colombia is well-known for its ecological, geographical and biological diversity and also for its very different sorts of cultures, etc. In others words, as a Colombian I have been exposed to many contrasting factors, which have or have not impacted my musical language and artistic interests.

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

I try to be very rigorous with every single detail in the score. On the other hand, this is going to be the first time I am going to hear my piece live. Also, considering that generally I incorporate Indeterminacy in my music, there are some sections that will be new even for me, so I do know that I'll change some things after the readings.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

As I mentioned before I have been imagining this piece for a long time, but my imagination has some limits. Although theoretically I can imagine what could happen, I am not 100% certain of the real sonic impact. For that reason this opportunity is so important for me – the contributions are unlimited, not only for the all-musical experience that we will gain but also because meeting the teachers, the orchestra and the staff is an incredible privilege. They all will play an important part in our compositional learning. Their life and professional experience, their music background and knowledge, definitely will impact on our lives as young artists. I am very much looking forward to this adventure!

Learn more about James at
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Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Alexander Timofeev

Composer and pianist Alexander Timofeev (b. 1983) has performed his compositions at the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Moldova, Thailand International Composition Festival, Hariclea Darclee Festival and Voice Competition (Romania), Oxford Piano Festival (UK), Novye Imena (Russia), and Northern Lights Festival (USA). He is the winner of the 2016 Richard Weerts Composition Competition, and a finalist of the 2016 Thailand International Composition Festival, among many other awards. In 2008, Timofeev founded the International Society of Pianists and Composers, a non-profit organization that promotes contemporary music written for piano. Started as a creative circle of composing and performing alumni of the Eastman School of Music, it now represents a growing network of musicians from over 20 countries. Alexander Timofeev completed his D.M.A. at the University of Maryland, College Park. He holds an M.M. from the Eastman School of Music and a B.M. from Rowan University. He studied composition with Lawrence Moss, Harold Oliver and Zlata Tkach. Timofeev currently resides in Philadelphia and is an Artist-in-Residence at Rowan University.

Alexander’s piece Fantasme was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Alexander spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer and pianist Alexander Timofeev

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Alexander Timofeev: One day in February I received a call from the ACO. It was a big surprise for me to find out that my piece has been selected for the readings. I knew that many talented, emerging composers apply every year and that the competition is very rigorous. Writing an orchestral piece is a big effort on the part of the composer; the work on such a composition can last for many months. The fact that this year ACO readings had over 250 applications not only speaks about the number of young American composers who are writing music on a very high level, but it is also shows that UNMR is among the central events for emerging composers in this country.

ACO: What was the inspiration for Fantasme? How did your compositional process adjust to the task of writing an orchestral piece?

AT: I believe that in order for a new composition to appear, first there must be a source of inspiration. For me, the flow of music is very much like the flow of a river; such rivers, big and small, usually start with at a tiny rill. The composer’s job is first to discover this source and then to grow the music from there. I found the source of inspiration for Fantasme in the first few measures of my favorite Mozart sonata. In my piece, the original motive receives an immediate transformation and the music goes into new territory.

Writing an orchestral composition is a great experience; it requires a lot of patience and willingness to devote more time to editing the music, something that young composers don’t always have patience for. It is very possible that the time I spent editing the full score and the parts for Fantasme by far exceeded the time I spent on writing music for this piece. Of course, the content, character and emotion is most important in a composition, but a proper framework for the musical idea can really help the performers understand the composer’s intentions for the piece.

Fantasme offered me the challenge of exploring the problem of continuity in music and the opportunity of working on a subject that I really love; it helped broaden my understanding of the relationships between the instrumental groups, find a new way of using the technical possibilities of each orchestral instrument, and finally, it allowed me to experience all the steps on the way to completing a big project.  

ACO: You are the founder of the International Society of Pianists and Composers, a non-profit organization promoting contemporary piano music. Why do you believe organizations like ISPC and ACO are important for the health of the classical music world? Besides the obvious motivation of being an accomplished pianist yourself, is there any reason you believe new works for piano are especially important to advocate for?

My involvement with the International Society of Pianists and Composers helped me realize the importance of collaboration between composers, performers and the audience. I noticed that most composers, including myself, tend to focus on themselves a lot, and learn how to live and compose with minimal interaction with the outside world. And when it comes to finding opportunities for performance, composers often discover that they cannot find musicians interested in performing their piece. This is especially true with new piano music; while there are many pianists around us, there is also such an abundance of great masterpieces from the past centuries that, unless the composer has a prior arrangement with the performer, a new work can rest on the shelf for a long time. 

Because of my experience also as a concert pianist, I believe that advocating for new piano music should start in the studio of a college piano artist-teacher. If the teacher keeps a performing schedule and includes in his/her recitals works by living composers, commissions such new works, collaborates with local as well as with established composers, his/her students will also follow this skill of collaboration in their future careers. This requires a lot more effort and responsibility on the part of the performer but it is also very rewarding as one may realize that his/her premiere performance of a new work is unique and much more important for the continuation of music as a living art form. It is an unstoppable process - the pieces that make it into the repertoire are losing their musical freshness and value and become fuel for new works, or in performers’ terms - teaching material. 

In this light, it is not a surprise than concert institutions often talk about the lack of attendance for classical music recitals, chamber or orchestra concerts and the fact that young people are slow in connecting with classical music. How can anyone expect 100+ years old music to resonate with the modern audience? It is great to perform the masterpieces as a tribute to the old masters, we will always be indebted to them for their work but, in my view, the longest accent in concert programs should be on the new works. ACO is the first orchestra in the US that started to lead in a new direction and continues to pave the path for the future of all American orchestras.
ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

AT: I have sent to ACO the printed full scores and orchestra parts last month, so, even if I wanted - at this time there is nothing I can change… I am trying to get back to running and exercising, perhaps, this will not prepare me better for the readings, but, at least it is good for my health.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

AT: The discussion, suggestions and feedback on our pieces from ACO musicians and the audience will be very helpful for our future work. I can’t wait to hear Fantasme and I am very interested in knowing more about my colleagues’ pieces; the music that will be performed during the readings will feature various strengths and stylistic directions. I am looking forward to meeting the composers and musicians that will be there.

Learn more about Alexander at
Follow him on YouTube and Soundcloud

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Monday, June 19, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Yucong (Zoe) Wang

Yucong (Zoe) Wang (b. 1993) began studying piano at age six and composition at age 11. She entered the Shanghai Conservatory as the top-ranked student in 2011, studying composition with Professor Gang Chen and Professor Huang Lv. In 2013, she entered the Eastman School of Music to pursue a B.M. in composition. Zoe’s compositions have been performed in Shanghai, the Eastman School of Music, George Eastman House, Strong National Museum, and University of Oregon. Composition awards include second prize in the Confucius Award Composition Competition (2009) for her Chinese instrumental trio, Yi, and first prize in the Young Promise Composition Competition (2011) for her mixed quintet, The Reverse of 12 Hours. She also received the Eastman School’s Belle Gitleman Award in 2016 for her chamber pieces, Five Wright Songs and The Ecstasy of Six Persian Poems.

Zoe’s piece Blackbird: II. Aggregation was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Zoe spoke to us about the readings and her piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer/pianist Zoe Wang

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Zoe Wang: To be honest, I did not expect anything from my submission of Blackbird to the Underwood New Music Readings. Blackbird is my very first orchestral piece and during the time of submission, I was going through a period of time when I was seriously debating whether I should continue my music career as a composer. I was so surprised to receive an email from ACO telling me that my piece was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings. I am so thankful and this opportunity is a great encouragement to me as a young composer.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for Blackbird? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

ZW: I wrote Blackbird in 2016 during my junior year at Eastman School of Music. After I finished taking the orchestration class, I came up with an idea to write a piece for a large orchestra to challenge myself to write for as many instruments as I can. I was eager to hear what my musical vision for a large orchestral could sound like. Then I started to look for a topic that would fit the sound of a big orchestra and was reminded of a French documentary, Winged Migration, directed by Jacques Perrin. I remember that when I was watching it, I was fascinated by its depiction of the movements of birds, and struck by the power of nature that dominates all creatures. I then decided to write two contrasting movements: the first one “Migration” with smooth musical gesture in relatively slow tempo. The second one called “Aggregation,” which I submitted to the reading. “Aggregation” is more lively and energetic; my inspiration for this movement originally came from the film and the futurist painting Swifts, Paths of Movement by American artist Giacomo Balla. I started some sketches on the piano when I composed both two movements, and then orchestrated those sketches. The piece, especially the second movement, has some jazz influences. This influence comes from taking a jazz piano class and lessons with Professor Caramia and Dr. Terefenko at Eastman, and the skills I learned heavily affected the way I composed this piece. I only realized this when looking back after having finished Blackbird, and wasn’t aware of it during the writing process itself.

Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences (1913)
by Giacomo Balla:

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

I remember that ACO Artistic Director, Derek Bermel, called me and gave me a long list of suggestions in detail for revising “Aggregation.” The phone call lasted almost an hour. I appreciate Mr. Bremel spending his time to give me a lesson on my piece. After talking with him, I changed the grouping of the rhythm, and the notation for many instruments to make the score even more “readable” for the reading. Also, after having written more orchestral music this past year, I slightly changed the orchestration in the opening and the ending sections.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

I am curious to see what my piece will sound like being read by an excellent, professional orchestra. I am also hoping to receive a lot of feedback and suggestions from other composers, conductor George Manahan, all the ACO performers, and my colleagues. The experience of participating in the rehearsal of Blackbird would be helpful for me to think of revisions for the piece afterwards, and encourage me to write more orchestral music in the future. I am also looking forward to hearing the other five composers’ music and listen to them sharing the concepts and processes of their works, as well as getting to know them and their musical ideas.

Follow Zoe on Soundcloud

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Friday, June 16, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Hilary Purrington

Hilary Purrington (b. 1990) is a New England-based composer whose music has been performed by many distinguished ensembles, including the Peabody Modern Orchestra, the Yale Philharmonia, the American Modern Ensemble, and the ChoralArt Camerata. Most recently, she was featured in the 2016 NY PHIL BIENNIAL. Commissions include new works for the Chicago Harp Quartet, the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble, and the Melodia Women’s Choir of NYC, and upcoming projects include commissions from Washington Square Winds, inFLUX, and the New York Youth Symphony. Purrington holds degrees from The Juilliard School and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. She is currently pursuing a Master of Musical Arts at the Yale School of Music.

Hilary's piece Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings, where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Hilary spoke to us about the readings and her piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer Hilary Purrington

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Hilary Purrington: I was thrilled! So many fantastic composers have been invited to participate, and it’s an honor to be one of them. 

ACO: Your selected work is named after a poem by William Meredith, which comments on, as you say in your program note, "our natural fear of randomness and our instinctive desire to find or create meaningful patterns." Can you talk about how your piece addresses this fear?

Poet William Meredith (1919 - 2007)
HP: I wouldn’t say that the piece is about fear. I’ve always been fascinated by our natural human tendency to organize randomness and find patterns where none may actually exist. Identifying and naming constellations, as described in Meredith’s poem, is an excellent example of this. The opening of my piece is sparse and unpredictable; gradually, by imposing regular patterns, I allow these fragmented materials coalesce into something identifiable and familiar.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

HP: The opening texture was the first thing I imagined, and much of the work grew out of that. The piece in its current form is so different from early drafts - at first, it was very sectional and episodic. Some of that remains, but it's much more continuous.

In this piece, the melodic and harmonic materials rely on their orchestrations. So, I made my orchestrational decisions very early in the process!

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

HP: I made several small notational changes to clarify some things for the performers. The music has largely remained the same, though!

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

HP: Every rehearsal process and subsequent performance is a learning experience. Everything that I learn from the readings, whether practical or artistic/creative, will definitely influence how I approach future works. 

Learn more about Hilary at
Follow Hilary on Instagram and Soundcloud

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Nick DiBerardino

Composer Nick DiBerardino (b. 1989) is a Rhodes Scholar, called a “bright young star” and a “first-rate talent” by the Portland Press Herald, with awards from Portland Chamber Music Festival Composition Competition, soundSCAPE, and Connecticut’s Westport Arts Advisory Committee. Nick’s orchestral music has been programmed by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and Minnesota Orchestra, and he is currently composer-in-residence at Luzerne Music Center. Nick has studied at Princeton University, University of Oxford, Yale School of Music, and is currently pursuing a Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he teaches at the Young Artist Summer Program.

Nick's piece Mercury-Redstone 3 was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings, where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Nick spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer Nick DiBerardino

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Nick DiBerardino: Well I was certainly excited. Even when you think you’ve written a good piece, you know going into an application process like this that your odds are very slim. This piece is for triple winds, as well, meaning it calls for a slightly larger orchestra than is typical—that by itself had already narrowed down my chances of hearing the piece again. So I’m very appreciative to have been selected for UNMR!

ACO: Your selected piece Mercury-Redstone 3 is based on the somewhat under-celebrated NASA mission that first sent an American astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space. Can you talk about the narrative arc that's painted in your piece? What musical themes or gestures have you created to represent this story?

Alan Shepard in the Freedom 7 capsule before launch
ND: Sure. You know, some sense of narrative always tends to crop up in my music. It’s something that used to happen kind of automatically, but as I’ve matured as a composer I’ve actively embraced that side of my voice. I find that composing with a clear extramusical concept helps me to sharpen and refine my musical ideas. When you know your piece is about a rocket ship, for example, that significantly reduces the otherwise infinite number of sound worlds you might choose to create. I’m not usually working in a way where I’m trying to directly encode narrative ideas into sound, so you won’t find things like leitmotifs in Mercury-Redstone 3. What you will hear is that this piece weaves itself through an almost audaciously active set of musical textures, full of overlapping trills, propulsive rhythms, and whooshing scalar gestures. That all relates closely to my interest in the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, and the intense activity and excitement in this music responds directly to my inner sense of wonder about the audacity of human spaceflight. For me, there is a moment in the piece where I feel like the rocket actually takes off, but you’ll have to tell me what you think when you hear it for yourself!

ACO: In addition to being a composer, you are a committed teacher. You co-founded and were director of “Back in Tune,” a wonderfully successful arts initiative which helped an underserved school in Bridgeport, Connecticut gain status as a performing arts institution and receive state funding. Can you talk about any ways in which these roles have influenced your voice, techniques, or priorities as a composer?

ND: The process of composing music necessarily involves a fair amount of solitude. I wouldn’t trade that – I’m not sure I could produce quality music any other way. That said, I’ve always been drawn to the inherently social side of music making. To realize any piece of music, it takes tremendous energies of collaborative engagement on the part of performers and audiences alike. I imagine that the power music has in our daily lives is intimately related to the way we experience it collectively, as a community. Even if we’re just listening by ourselves on our headphones, we know on some level that the music we’re receiving is a message from another person, and—as long as we like what we’re hearing, anyway—we probably enjoy that sense of human connection. I suppose that’s part of the reason I compose in the first place; I feel I have something meaningful to say, and I hope my music will speak on some level to its listeners. It’s probably that social view of music that motivates me to share my passion for our art directly in my teaching, my curatorial projects, and through the community engagement work I’ve done with Back in Tune and other organizations. That philosophy surely has an important effect on my compositions, as well, though it’s harder for me to pin down exactly how that manifests. I do always craft my pieces around the idea that I’d like someone to be listening attentively, that I’d like a performer to be playing in a live setting, as comfortably as possible, and that no matter how challenging the musical material may be, everyone involved might be rewarded with a satisfying sonic journey.

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

ND: I did recently prepare for UNMR by returning to my score and reorchestrating several passages that weren’t quite speaking right. That’s a regular part of my process with orchestral music, since I always find lots of little details that can be fine-tuned during the rehearsal process. In fact, I think that may be an integral part of any orchestral premiere—even Mahler made edits to his scores in rehearsal, and he was a longtime conductor! Luckily, I had the amazing good fortune of working on Mercury-Redstone 3 with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, and they have to be one of the finest student orchestras in the world. I spent a significant amount of time with my score and Curtis’ rendition of it leading up to UNMR. Mostly I was trying to rework the balance of foreground and background in the piece, rebalancing the several layers of activity that alternately vie for attention and settle into supporting roles throughout.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

ND: From everything I hear, ACO does a fantastic job making the Underwood readings into a broadly useful learning experience. I’m sure the workshops on engraving, branding, copyright, and programming will be informative—it’s always good to double-down on the nuts and bolts of the business side of things. More than anything else, though, I’m looking forward to learning from the formidable combined experience of George Manahan, Derek Bermel, Libby Larsen, David Rakowski, Trevor Weston, and the musicians of the ACO. You don’t often get a chance to workshop your music with so many seasoned professionals! I’m looking forward to hearing as much feedback as I can get over the course of the readings, and I’m sure I’ll learn a whole lot that I’ll carry with me into my future orchestral work.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Learn more about Nick DiBerardino at
Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud

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