This past week at Orchestra Hall, seven young composers gathered to participate in the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2008 Composer Institute. During the first part of the week, they attended concerts and seminars, learned the business side of being a composer and met with Osmo Vanska, orchestra musicians, Aaron Jay Kernis and each other to discuss composing and their compositions. As if that weren’t intense enough, on Thursday the orchestra began rehearsing their works for the “Future Classics” concert on Friday evening.
Rehearsals: Once again, I attended the first two rehearsals (the third is the dress rehearsal) to observe the orchestra and Osmo Vanska working on new music and with the composers. I had my conductor, Evan Quinn, and his composer friend, Owen te Kumara, on my mind. The hushed atmosphere in the hall contrasted with the bright lights and activity onstage. More observers than last year sat in the main floor seats after row 15 while the seven composers (5 men, 2 women) waited their turn to address the musicians. Most of them sat with oversized scores in front of them on black music stands. One fellow walked up and down the aisles, along one row after another of the seats, over to the side aisles and back, always in motion. Nervous energy.
Each composer introduced his or her piece to the orchestra before they worked on it. All expressed their excitement and gratitude for this opportunity. Then Osmo and the musicians dug in. With each piece, they played through it first. The longest was 13 minutes. Then came the detail work, clarification, changes from the composer who heard something he/she didn’t expect or didn’t hear something expected. The composer approached the stage, score open in their hands, looking up at Osmo. Their stance reminded me of religious paintings I’d seen in Europe of mere mortals beseeching God for something. Osmo Vanska would be the first to say he’s not God, but I don’t think anyone would dispute his position at that moment in each composer’s life. When Osmo responded to their call, usually he grabbed his score and squatted down or sat on the edge of the podium to consult with the composer. He was patient. He understands, being a composer himself. Occasionally, a musician took the opportunity to shout out a question for the composer. The energy was focused and intense. The orchestra’s muscles were flexing.
At breaks, the orchestra relaxed. Musicians left their chairs and the stage. Some remained to talk or to practice their parts. Osmo usually sat on his stool, looking around, available for questions. At the lunch break, the exodus off stage was nearly immediate. What amazes about this orchestra and this concert is this: they polish seven compositions of totally new music, some of which have never been heard before, and then perform them as if they were standard orchestral repertoire at the concert the next evening.
Future Classics Concert: People streamed into Orchestra Hall ‘s auditorium, older couples and 20-somethings, an audience mix surprising and wonderful in its eclecticism. They filled the hall to almost three-fourths full, far more people than the last two years. This was so cool. Plus the radio audience listening to MPR on their stereos or computers. Steve Seel got the ball rolling by introducing the president of the American Composers Forum, John Nuechterlein, who gave Osmo Vanska the “Champion of New Music” award. Wild applause, including the orchestra musicians. I think it is true that Vanska believes the credo that “all music was once new.”
Fred Childs, from MPR’s “Performance Today” program, took over the hosting duties, introducing each composer before his/her work. The concert began with a 10-minute sonic portrait of “urgency,” jagged and intense sonorities, shifting meters to give the feeling of tension. The next piece, inspired by the four seasons (and nary a quote of Vivaldi which was refreshing) smoothed out the previous tense music-muscles and played, danced, enchanted with landscapes of seasonal sounds, and one rad tuba solo “snowman.” The third work was an abstract sound painting of “conflict,” unique in its nearly constant tension and probably the loudest, at the end, that I’ve ever heard the orchestra play, at least fffff . Fortunately, that loud section was brief. However, it was interesting to see percussion players and other musicians insert earplugs into their ears before it. The last piece on the first half, another abstract portrait of ideas, was like rolling on an ocean of sound, tossed at times on the crest of a forte.
The second half began with frantic strings, gasping clarinets, caterwauling flutes and string bows tapping hard on instruments. This piece combined musical intervals from China with western sounds very effectively. The next work was a minimalist musical portrait of a machine as it begins to work, adding layers of mechanical workings in sound one after another. Incongruously, toward the end the strings burst forth in a section that was pure 19th-century Romanticism. Lovely incongruity. The last work echoed some of the emotion of the first on this half, its inspiration being an atrocity committed in El Salvador in 1980. During rehearsal I had thought of this music as “vampire music” before I learned of its backstory. A provocative way to end the concert.
At the Q&A session following the concert, the composers expressed gratitude and amazement about the audience, how many people had showed up to hear their music. But really, all music truly was new at one time.
Evan Quinn sat next to me during the rehearsals and the concert, mumbling about Owen te Kumara and the five-movement symphonic work he’d promised to compose in memory of a mutual friend. This year I think I really solidified in my mind how I want their relationship to play out over the course of the Perceval series. And how that five-movement symphony will sound. The Composer Institute inspires me…..