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.