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