One orchestra, three weeks, four living composers | Teddy Niedermaier
Teddy Niedermaier, composer, pianist, educator, professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago
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One orchestra, three weeks, four living composers

In September 2017, the Colorado Symphony opened its season by featuring four living composers in a span of three consecutive weeks. This was a bold and auspicious move for Brett Mitchell, the orchestra’s new Music Director. It’s also welcome news for composers and musicians alike who would like to see more contemporary offerings on symphony programs. Here’s what they played:

 

Sept. 9 (concert featuring Renée Fleming): Peter Boyer, New Beginnings (2000)

Sept. 15-17 (official opening weekend): Kevin Puts, Millennium Canons (2001)

Mason Bates, The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra (2009) (The composer participated in these performances)

Sept. 22-24: Missy Mazzoli, These Worlds in Us (2006)

 

This appears to be more than a flash in the pan: the orchestra performed John Williams’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (1996) a few weeks ago, and will premiere a brand new work by bassist Edgar Meyer on November 11. In early February 2018, you can hear Brett Mitchell conduct Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Five Images After Sappho (1999). On February 24, associate concertmaster Claude Sim will be the soloist in music from John Corigliano’s Red Violin. In March, the orchestra will perform Orawa (1988) by the late Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013), alongside the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) of his elder countryman Witold Lutoslawski. The April 13-14 weekend brings the regional premiere of Béla Fleck’s Concerto no. 3 for Banjo and Orchestra. A special program on May 17, entitled “Musique Nouveau–The Current Voice,” will feature recent music by Vivian Fung, Owen Pallett, Andrew Norman, Mason Bates, and others. The season closes on May 25-27 with concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams in a modern classic: Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), a five-movement violin concerto completed in 1954.

 

The 2016-2017 Colorado Symphony season also brought significant new works to the stage: to name a few, Nico Muhly’s Viola Concerto (2014), performed by new-music phenom Nadia Sirota; and the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg’s violin concerto “Rising Phoenix” (2016), composed for and premiered by Yumi Hwang-Williams.

 

 

Boettcher Concert Hall, home of the Colorado Symphony, nestled in the Denver Performing Arts Center

 

 

Can orchestras do “new”?

 

Such programming flies in the face of recent statistics showing that major American orchestras devote relatively little time to newer compositions. A survey of 22 large American orchestras in 2014-2015 showed that only 11.4% of programmed pieces were by living composers that season, and in 2015-2016 that number remained essentially constant at 12% (although the 2015-2016 survey featured a much broader pool of 89 American orchestras). Some composers such as Mason Bates have taken an optimistic view: “To be sure, while I believe the [11.4 percent number] should be much higher, it is not dismal in a field that is built around 19th-century warhorses” (although one should note that, in 2014-2015, Bates was the second-most performed living composer in the survey at 30 performances, behind John Adams with 35 performances).

 

Other composers have expressed a more pessimistic stance on the issue. In a 2014 interview with TED, Chicago-based composer Dan Visconti was asked, “Why is classical music so calcified in its ways?” Now that’s definitely a leading question, but this is how Visconti responded:

 

“A lot of it has to do with concert venues. They tend to be conservative organizations, they have boards—they’re slow to change. They can’t react as quickly as, say, a gallery can. They have to program years in advance. So there’s an inherent asymmetry in terms of the ability to be nimble, to deal with new problems and to react to new social phenomena. I think that one of the things that we can do as composers is be those people that are more reactive, that notice what needs to happen before the big organizations do.

 

“So in some ways, people who are like me—working around inherent conservatism and tradition, while also finding ways to respect tradition and use it as an inspiration—are kind of guerrillas on the ground. We’re working with and sometimes within the systems, but also secretly against them. We love them, but we also want them to change.”

 

Some composers have flatly pronounced the “death” of the orchestra as a viable means of modern expression. The orchestra is a relic of the 19th century, the argument goes, something that composer Ted Hearne refers to as “museum music.” In this view, orchestral musicians are “specialists,” highly trained yet limited in their artistic scope to a time period spanning the 18th and 19th centuries. Hearne explains further:

 

“Meeting awesome people who are willing to try new things in music helps me as a composer; it helps me try new things. The thing that I do not want to be is someone who writes music for a set idea of what music has to be. That’s the reason why the orchestra is kind of dead. Not that there isn’t awesome music you can do in an orchestra but I think a lot of orchestral ensembles are run in a way where all of the musicians have this thing that they know how to plug in and do. They are used to playing music from the nineteenth century. A lot of people who write orchestral music write it in this way where they are sure it’s going to sound good. “Good” meaning: people will be able to understand it easily. But I don’t think that’s that admirable. There is a lot of great music out there already, and that’s an old fashioned idea. The idea that you can just write music that gives people the least amount of resistance, giving the players the least amount of resistance, where they are most comfortable, the proportions are “correct,” and everything is “correctly done,” or orchestrated “well,” that’s really boring to me.”

 

 

“A lot of great art…in 21st-century America”

 

The evidence suggests, however, that the American orchestra is neither dead nor calcified; if anything, it’s alive and kicking, finding new footing through new initiatives, commissions, consortia, residencies, and awards. Take for example recent Grammy wins by the Seattle Symphony for their recordings of John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean (2014) and of works by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) with violin soloist Augustin Hadelich. One could easily point to the prolific efforts of the American Composers Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), and the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series, curated by its Mead Composers-in-Residence Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams. Check out BMOP’s dazzling, virtuosic recording of Andrew Norman’s Play (2013), which snagged the prestigious Grawemeyer Award from the University of Louisville in 2017. 

 

 

Concert program from the Colorado Symphony’s performances, Sept. 22-24, 2017

 

 

By all indications, orchestra music in the United States in 2017 is a living, breathing thing, with a stunning array of voices, interpreters, and messages. In the Colorado Symphony’s 2017-2018 season brochure, Brett Mitchell writes, “The opening weekend of our Classics series pairs Beethoven’s immortal Fifth Symphony with two contemporary American works I think you’ll really love.” In this pairing, Mitchell’s inclusion of new music goes far beyond tokenism–or the idea that orchestras play new music here and there merely out of “obligation” or to maintain the appearance of being modern and relevant. For Mitchell, the Puts-Bates-Beethoven lineup bore specific, meaningful connections: the driving rhythms in Bates’s B-sides evoked the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, whereas the fanfares in Puts’s Millennium Canons echoed its triumphant finale.

 

Bates’s B-sides, a five-movement, 23-minute commission from the San Francisco Symphony, is a major work modeled after Schoenberg’s iconic Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16. This inclusion too bucks a trend which states that new compositions must be relegated to “overture” status–ancillary, peripheral exercises to be wrapped up before the main “meat” of an orchestral program. In interviews played during the live Colorado Public Radio broadcast of the Sept. 15 opener, Mitchell again emphasized the interconnectedness of the Puts, Bates, and Beethoven works, placing the composers on equal footing as if they were musical colleagues having a conversation. These connections resonated with Jeffrey Nytch in his review titled “A New Beginning at the Colorado Symphony”:

 

“This program, pairing Beethoven’s Fifth with a first half of works by Kevin Puts and Mason Bates, presents a coherent package. Puts and Bates complemented the Beethoven – just as Beethoven retroactively complemented Puts and Bates. This wasn’t cynical programming; this was thoughtful programming that gave every piece on the docket an equal role in service to the whole.

 

“The vision behind this was that of the Colorado Symphony’s new Music Director, Brett Mitchell, and it’s a vision that plays out over the course of the entire season. In concert after concert we see not just a mix of canonical standards with lesser-known classics (or a refreshing number of new works), but a pairing of old and new that illuminates both. Such is certainly the case in this opening concert, where the vibrance of Kevin Puts’ Millennial Canons foreshadows the brass fanfares of the Beethoven finale, and where the pulsing rhythms of Mason Bates’ The B sides set us up for the insistent drive of that famous 4-note motive that not only opens the Fifth but spins its way through the entire symphony like a 19th-century version of a techno beat.”

 

 

Conductor Brett Mitchell and the Colorado Symphony accept applause following their performance on Sept. 23, 2017.

 

 

The following week in Denver brought Missy Mazzoli’s These Worlds in Us, winner of the 2007 ASCAP Young Composer Award, paired with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Tchaikovsky’s epic Fifth Symphony. While this program more neatly fits the typical overture-concerto-symphony format, Mitchell addressed the audience from the podium to reinforce his belief in the importance of new music. “There’s a lot of great art being created in 21st-century America, and we hope to share some of that with you,” he said, adding that he hoped to “pique your interest” and “pique your curiosity” throughout the season. And here too there were thoughtful musical connections, as the haunting lyricism and E tonality of the Mazzoli foreshadowed the dark E minor opening of the Tchaikovsky.

 

 

A Broad Landscape

 

As an American composer myself, there’s something deeply dissatisfying to the assertion that orchestral music is merely a 19th-century tradition, because American music isn’t part of that 19th-century canon. There wasn’t a robust, established school of American orchestral composers during the era of Beethoven, Wagner, Schumann, and Brahms. The so-called “American symphonists” all date from the mid-20th century: Copland, Bernstein, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Peter Mennin, Walter Piston, and others. To say that orchestral music belongs only to the 19th century is to argue that American voices have virtually no place in the orchestral repertoire. And it’s equally unacceptable to assert that the American orchestral sound somehow ceased to exist after the 1960s.

 

The programming of new music by American orchestras should reflect the broad, diverse musical landscape of contemporary composition in the United States. And by playing the four composers listed above, the Colorado Symphony has begun to paint a vivid picture of that diversity. Composer Peter Boyer, whose New Beginnings was commissioned by the Kalamazoo Symphony, has achieved considerable success in the arenas of concert music and film music. Kevin Puts, a St. Louis native, is now the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute, a crucial training ground for emerging orchestral composers. Missy Mazzoli has already forged her reputation as an important voice in American opera with the successful premiere of Breaking the Waves in Philadelphia last year. And Mason Bates, former composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony, is a DJ who has incorporated electronica into many of his large orchestral works; he too has broken into opera this year with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs for the Santa Fe Opera.

 

In these four composers alone we glimpse an exciting cross-section of sounds, styles, and genres. While it’s not a complete picture, we can take the Colorado Symphony’s recent programming as a healthy sign that 21st-century orchestral music is vibrant, diverse, relevant, and deserving of a prominent place in American concert halls.

 

 

Outside the box office of Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver, peering west towards the Rocky Mountains

 

 

 

copyright 2017 Edward (Teddy) Niedermaier

no reproduction or reuse without permission

 

 

 

 

 

 

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