Research can sometimes take me to wonderful places. One such is Orchestra Hall during the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, which they present each year with partners the American Composers Forum, the American Music Center and the University of Minnesota School of Music.
Why’s a writer hanging out with a bunch of new music people?
Conductor Evan Quinn, the main character of the Perceval novels, meets a composer, Owen te Kumara, in book 1 (Perceval). I thought Owen would be a peripheral character, but then I kept hearing snippets of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and it would not leave my head. A few months later, I stumbled onto the Composer Institute section of the Minnesota Orchestra’s website (on blogroll), and felt that eerie “clear as a bell” sensation that I needed to pay attention. A month later, it all came together when I decided to attend my first Composer Institute reading rehearsals last year at the end of November. Bartok wrote his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943 under commission from the Koussevitsky Music Foundation which was established by conductor Serge Koussevitsky (music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra 1924-49), a staunch supporter of contemporary composers. Koussevitsky and Bartok. A conductor and a composer. Evan and Owen. It would be several more months before I figured out exactly what their relationship would be over the five books in the series, but I realized that attending the reading rehearsals last year might give me a wealth of material in support of my writing their relationship. The big question at the time was how do conductors and composers work together?
This year, I had no big questions. I decided to attend one day of reading rehearsals to double-check the conclusions I’d made last year. So, this past Thursday, October 25, I spent the day at Orchestra Hall, observing the rehearsals. Warm salmon pink dominates the auditorium’s decor. Wood paneling covers the walls left and right of the stage while the back wall is an ice blue with white cubes of varying sizes sticking out like rocks in cement. The acoustics in the hall are superb. Osmo Vanska, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Music Director, walks onstage but waits in the first violin section until the introduction of the first composer is complete. He wears black jeans and a black T-shirt. The orchestra musicians wear street clothes and are relaxed but attentive and ready to work.
I watch the composers closely during the next hours. A group of four is clustered behind a score on a music stand about four rows in front of me. The other three composers sit each alone in other areas on the main floor. During the rehearsals, they move around, listening to the music in different areas of the hall, listening for balance, or for something that’s not standing out and should. For each work, its composer sticks close to the stage initially to field any questions from the musicians or Mr. Vanska, and there are questions. At times, Mr. Vanska grabs the score, squats at the edge of the stage and talks to the composer. I know from the Institute’s agenda that each composer has already had a meeting with Mr. Vanska about his or her score earlier in the week. Now come the actual sounds and refining them. The music challenges in tempos, rhythms, dynamics. Vanska clarifies, counting out bars for percussion, for brass. He works on the articulation of the sound at times. And then there’s the volume, also. “Can you hear the strings here?” “Is the drum too loud?” The composer is never far away. Listening. Following his/her score. During a break, I spot a clarinetist homing in on a composer on the main floor to ask her a question about his part.
Despite breaks and lunch, by the end of the second rehearsal I’m exhausted. I’ve filled pages in my notebook with observations, impressions and comments on the music. I hear that one of the composers, Jacob Cooper, is writing a blog about the Composer Institute experience at www.newmusicbox.org. I know from last year’s composer blog there that it will be an interesting read. Then I hear that the Minnesota Orchestra website will have video of this year’s Institute also. Excellent. From my perspective, all wonderful ways to spark my memory, in addition to my notes, which I will type up and flesh out with fuller descriptions, and any ideas for further work.
Last night, I attended the Composer Institute concert, called “Future Classics!” performed by the Minnesota Orchestra and conducted by Mr. Vanska. Melissa Ousley and Steve Seel from Minnesota Public Radio hosted. And wow. This was a peak experience. The end result of the hours of hard rehearsal work on Thursday (and again Friday morning) was brilliant. I love new music. I love being in on the beginning, hearing these sounds performed in concert for the first time. Each composer spoke with Ousley before his/her work was performed, talking about inspirations, titles, insights into the creative process. Only one composer had used literature as inspiration — a character, Odradek, from Franz Kafka’s short story “The Cares of a Family Man.”
Toward the end of the first half, I began thinking of Evan and Owen, what their rehearsals and concert will be like in book 5. There will be at least one rehearsal, most likely the first rehearsal, but I don’t know yet how much of the concert I’ll write. But I know that my experiences observing the Composer Institute reading rehearsals last year and this past week, and attending the concert, will inform Evan’s and Owen’s experiences working together in the novels.
Although I believe my research in this area, conductor working with composer, is finished, I still look forward to next year’s Composer Institute and more new music at Orchestra Hall.