Wednesday, October 3, 2018

EarShot Grand Rapids Symphony - Mentor Composer: Margaret Brouwer

Last week, the EarShot New Music Readings in Grand Rapids, MI, brought together four emerging composers; three mentor composers; and conductor Jacomo Bairos and the Grand Rapids Symphony for four days of rehearsals, feedback sessions, and recorded readings.

Emerging composers Emmanuel Berrido, Tyler Eschendal, Jiyoung Ko, and Daniel Leo were selected for the readings, and worked with mentor composers Bright Sheng, David Biedenbender, and Margaret Brouwer to fine tune their works and learn about the process of working with a professional orchestra as a composer.

We spoke to Margaret Brouwer about her experience during the program. Brouwer is an award-winning composer whose music has been performed by orchestras such as the Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2008, ACO commissioned and premiered Brouwer's orchestral piece Breakdown!

Composer Margaret Brouwer. Photo by Christian Steiner
American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about your general reaction to the readings? We'd love to know your thoughts on the four selected works, any moments that stood out, and how you thought the orchestra and the audience reacted to them.

Margaret Brouwer: My reaction to the readings was very positive.  The Grand Rapids Symphony and Jacomo Bairos were not only excellent but completely enthusiastic about all of the music.  The four selected works each had its own personality, between them covering a range from expressive to broad cluster sounds to rhythmic and driving.  There were a total of 9 concerts!  Each was about 30 minutes in length.  There was a full house for each of the 9 concerts and the audience was completely engaged in the music and gave hearty applause for each work.

ACO: What kind of advice did you give the four selected composers? Was there anything that stood out to you as a particularly good teaching moment?

MB: Much of the advice that we gave the four selected emerging composers was technical advice about how to make each instrument sound its best.  Writing for orchestra effectively takes experience and these were the first orchestral works for them.  For overall advice, we talked with them about not using all of the instruments all of time.  There is such a wide range of colors available in the orchestra that it is good to feature different colors at different times.  When everyone plays at once, one does not hear the color differences.  We also advised them to limit the different ideas that they put into one short piece.  This is always a difficult thing for young composers to learn.  They love everything they write and sometimes leave unrelated motives in a short piece that should not be there.

Left to right: mentor composers David Biedenbender, Bright Sheng, and Margaret Brouwer; and participating composers Jiyoung Ko, Tyler Eschendal, Daniel Leo, and Emmanuel Berrido.

ACO: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with learning to write for orchestra and getting your orchestral music performed? In what ways were these readings different than the opportunities you had as an emerging composer?

MB: It would have been wonderful for me as an emerging composer to have the ACO Earshot experience!  I learned about how to write for the orchestra mainly by the experience of hearing early works of mine played by student orchestras.  Also, I believe I had a great advantage because I began my money-earning career as an orchestral violinist.  Every day I heard all the sounds the orchestra can make.  Sometimes I would say to my stand partner – “Didn’t that sound great with those two instruments combined?”  She would look at me as if she didn’t know what I was talking about!  I had been composing since high school, but as a young person had planned on the violin (which I also loved) as career choice.  However more and more, I wanted to spend all my time on composition, so eventually I decided to give up making my living as a violinist and went back to school to get a DMA in composition. My first position after graduating was teaching at Washington and Lee University.  While in Virginia, I was very lucky to be asked to be the Composer in Residence with the Roanoke Symphony – a position I held for 7 years.  So I gained more experience writing for orchestra during those years, and other orchestras began to program my orchestra music as well.  As Composer in Residence there, I started a listening group for the symphony board members.  We met once a month at 5PM – had a happy hour, and I played recordings of new works and talked a little about them.  These people became part of the selection process for picking the new works that the symphony performed on each concert.  It was terrific to see them become invested in the new works.

ACO: Was there anything that you learned as a composer during to the course of the readings?

MB: More than anything, what I learned last week at the ACO Earshot readings is that new music is alive and well.  It is exciting to see how many young people wish to become composers!   It is also exciting to experience a terrific conductor, Jacomo Barios, who took on 9 new works to prepare and was completely in control and knowledgeable about each one.  And it was so impressive to see the enthusiasm of the Grand Rapids Symphony in rehearsing and perfecting all of these works!  Even during 6 concerts on the final day, they never lost their vitality, enthusiasm and expert playing.

ACO: What was your experience with the artistic community of Grand Rapids? How did it tie into the EarShot residency?

MB: It was extremely inspiring to experience the vibrant music and visual arts scene in Grand Rapids.  The involvement of the community, and the expertise of the Grand Rapids Symphony is all very impressive.  This was another reminder of how many excellent musicians there are in our country.   And it was so impressive to see how the Earshot program has developed, and to experience the expertise of the people running it!

Learn more about ACO's opportunities for composers and orchestras at www.americancomposers.org

Learn more about Margaret Brouwer at www.margaretbrouwer.com