League Conference: New American Music Innovation Panel

Panel members: Patrick Castillo, Director of Artistic Planning, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; Delta David Gier, Music Director, South Dakota Symphony; Paul Gunther, Principal Librarian, Minnesota Orchestra; and Aaron Kernis, composer.

Aaron Kernis spoke first – he is the founder and leader of the Composers Institute in Minneapolis. A bit of history: he was part of a group of composers who were writing commissions for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1989, then he had the first composer residency, and then he was new music advisor for the Minneapolis Orchestra for ten years. They expanded the program into four or five states in the Midwest, and now it’s a week-long educational opportunity for composers on a national level. Music Director Osmo Vanska insisted on adding a public concert at the end of the institute week.

2011 marked the 11th year of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute; over the years they have presented 75 works by 74 composers. The public concert has 6 to 8 new works and is introduced by Fred Child of Minnesota Public Radio; it’s broadcast both locally and over the Internet.

The goals of the Institute are to support emerging composers, advance the creation of new orchestral repertoire, encourage public appreciation of new music, and build relationships between composers, audiences, musicians, staff, partners, and organizations. The Institute is a collaboration of the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Forum in cooperation with the American Music Center. Lilly Schwartz, Director of Pops and Special Projects at the MSO, helps make it happen.

Aaron described how his own career started with the public reading of one of his works when he was in his early 20s. Thus he feels very strongly about the need for such an institute for young composers.

Principal players of the MSO offer seminars on advanced instrumental writing and best practices (strings and percussion), and give detailed feedback on the composers’ pieces. Other musicians are invited to offer seminars on rehearsal protocol, licensing, copyrights, promotion, grant writing, music preparation, public speaking, and commissioning.

The Institute involves three MSO services; after rehearsing each work, the orchestra members complete a comprehensive survey form for each composer, evaluating specific aspects of the piece.

Paul Gunther, MSO Principal Librarian, described the creativity of the composers as “marvelous” but added that without American musicians there would be no American music performed.

During the Institute, Paul talks to the composers about the Finale and Sibelius computer programs, offering tips about page turns, note size, phrasings, etc., so that the music is legible for the musicians.

The public concert attracts about 1,000 attendees, is broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio, and features composer interviews before each piece and a post-concert discussion with the composers, Maestro Vanska, and Aaron Kernis.

The composers have gone on to have their compositions performed by/at the LA Phil, The Cleveland Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, American Composers Orchestra, and the MATA Festival, and have landed residencies in Albany, Cleveland, LA, Las Vegas, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Delta David Gier, Music Director of the South Dakota Symphony, described how, when he was a candidate for the position eight years ago, the local paper ran a story with the following headline: “Conductor says contemporary music is very important.” I’m dead, he thought.

But David feels strongly that contemporary music is the future of the art form. So he used a gimmick – he programmed composers who had won the Pulitzer Prize. For his first three seasons, he programmed one such piece on every concert. He felt it was important to present the best contemporary music he could find to the South Dakota audience because they had not been exposed to much good contemporary music.

He started very carefully. The first piece was Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances. At the end of the first season, the board unanimously voted to continue this program. And David found that for the husbands whose wives drag them to the symphony, this was their world – they like the rhythms, colors, and instrumentation.

In the second year, he programmed Stephen Stuckey’s Concerto for Orchestra and had Steven tear apart the piece in the middle of the concert.

After three seasons, David shifted the focus to Wendy Wagner’s Flute Concerto and Corigliano’s Second Symphony. He strives to keep contemporary music to around 20% of his programming, so the audience knows that 80% will be “tried and true.” He has received some complaints but if you have a consistent philosophy of why you’re programming what you’re programming, and then communicate this, people will be more likely to go with you on the journey.

His final words of advice: It’s important to have the backing of the organization; don’t go it alone as a Music Director.

The South Dakota Symphony also does concerts with a native American drumming group. “We treat their music on the same playing field as our own – it’s sophisticated music even though they don’t read music.” And now he’s moving into the Arab American community and has programmed an oud concerto that the Detroit Symphony performed.

Patrick Castillo, Director of Artistic Planning at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, talked about the SPCO’s tradition of championing new music. John Adams, Dennis Russell Davies and many others have held the Creative chair. (SPCO doesn’t have a Music Director but rather has a series of artistic partners.)

The SPCI commissions a new work every season. Each Artistic Partner has his/her own unique relationship with the audience, and each has an equal stake of ownership. But each uses a different model, and there can be pushback from the board, audience, others.

SPCO programming is very diverse. Patrick was asked if the audiences are different when they program Elliot Carter’s Oboe Concerto. “No, it’s the same.” What differs is that he tries not to come at it with the default setting of, “You’ll probably hate it and it’s my job to make you like it” to “You don’t know what this is and it’s my job to expose you to it.” Haydn and Mozart require the same advocacy in the general population as Eliot Carter does for the classical audience. There’s more power in taking the second approach.

David talked about the blog post he wrote for Polyphonic.org, where he described the people who want only a short contemporary piece but they’re the ones who write the checks. Other audience members didn’t grow up with classical music but seem to have a more open mind. Regarding talking from the stage – the first group doesn’t want to hear it and feel that he’s being condescending. “When you try new things you get push back. When I’m able to engage them about creating the next audience and ask them if they can help us, I’m teaching them to love Beethoven but also to love other music.”

Aaron was asked if he has to take on the role of advocate when talking to boards. He replied that the comments he hears are less pointed now than 20 years ago. He tries to speak to people about contemporary music in the least monolithic way possible – there are as many kinds of contemporary music as there are composers. He also encourages people to go to Q2 (WQXR2) and listen – the field is so wonderfully diverse.

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

Leave a Reply