[Editor’s Note: This is the first of what is hoped will be a series of articles hightlighting unique, noteworthy, original, creative, and/ or successful educational programs of ICSOM orchestras. Readers are invited and encouraged to make submissions.]
“Wonderful new stuff, all of it.”
—David Hawley (Review of Future Classics! concert in Saint Paul Pioneer Press)
“Hot damn, there’s some good music going on here.”
— Jacob Cooper (On his NewMusicBox.org blog)
At the end of October the Minnesota Orchestra hosted its weeklong Composer Institute, beginning early Saturday and lasting through to the following Saturday. Seven emerging composers were treated to an intensive series of workshops, presentations, mentoring sessions, interviews, seminars, meetings, and rehearsals, all designed to help pave their way along their compositional path. For the second time, the week culminated with a concert dubbed Future Classics!
A full year earlier, composers began submitting scores to the Composer Institute judges. This year’s panelists were composers Lisa Bielawa, David Dzubay, Aaron Jay Kernis and Roberto Sierra, and Minnesota Orchestra Associate Conductor Mischa Santora. From the 166 eligible submissions, the judges selected seven finalists to be participants based on their works: Daniel Bradshaw, Chaconne; Jacob Cooper, Odradek; Trevor Gureckis, Very Large Array; Wes Matthews, Terraces; Elliott Miles McKinley, Four Moments for Grand Orchestra: A “Pocket” Symphony; Stephen Wilcox, Cho-Han; and Xi Wang, Above Light: A Conversation with Toru Takemitsu.
There are a few rules everyone must adhere to:
- Applicants must be U.S. resident composers at early stages of their professional careers, and previous Composer Institute participants may not reapply.
- Only one work per composer may be submitted, and works may be not be resubmitted unless they were awarded Alternate or Honorable Mention status when previously entered.
- Submitted works may not have received a performance or a reading by a major orchestra (over $3 million annual budget), with preference given to unperformed works.
- Works may be up to 15 minutes in length (sections of longer works will be considered). Concertos, choral works, and works for strings, winds, or brass only are not eligible.
- Instrumentation must not exceed 4 flute (1 doubling piccolo), 4 oboe (1 doubling English horn), 4 clarinet (1 doubling bass clarinet), 4 bassoon (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horn, 4 trumpet, 3 trombone, 1 tuba, 1 timpani, 3 percussion, harp, piano/celesta (no organ), strings. [Editor’s Note: Apologies to Paul for my expansion of this instrumentation list, which he gave in the standard format any good librarian would. This was done with great trepidation, solely to help readers not familiar with the standard notation.]
Although the Minnesota Orchestra has presented new music reading sessions for over a decade, the structured and in-depth program that has become the Composer Institute is going into its eighth year of continuing evolution. Last year’s Institute was the first to present the compositions in a concert performance, rather than in the informal daytime reading sessions they had been previously. This year’s performance was the first to be broadcast live on public radio.
Co-directing the Institute are the Minnesota Orchestra’s new Music Advisor Aaron Jay Kernis and Artistic Planning Associate Beth Cowart. In the program notes for this year’s Future Classics! concert, Cowart and Kernis have this to say about the Composer Institute:
This combination of public performance and the breadth of the training program is utterly unique, the only program of its kind. Our seven visiting composers will expand their understanding of orchestral writing as their works come alive through the artistry of the Orchestra’s musicians. Intensive workshops with musicians, one-on-one mentoring sessions, meetings with [Minnesota Orchestra Music Director] Osmo Vänskä and seminars with leaders in the music business will advance the composers’ awareness of their own music.
Many composers who have taken part in the program in previous years have gone on to receive major commissions, composition prizes and grants, and they tell us repeatedly that the Institute has played a crucial role in their professional education. It also makes a difference for the Minnesota Orchestra. Two works from the premiere Future Classics! concert last year were included on Sommerfest and subscription programs. And for the last five years, a composer participating in the Institute has written a new work annually for the Orchestra’s Young People’s concerts.
Music Director Vänskä is firmly committed to the importance and success of the program. As he did also for last year’s Institute, this year in addition to scheduling and conducting the rehearsals and concert, he met individually with each composer to discuss their work before the first rehearsal, and again after the final rehearsal.
The program is supported in many other ways. The Institute is “Presented by the Minnesota Orchestra and American Composers Forum, in cooperation with the American Music Center and University of Minnesota School of Music.” These organizations assist further by providing seminar faculty for the Institute. Funding derives from several sources, including the Aaron Copland Fund, Amphion Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and the ASCAP and BMI Foundations, as well as many individual donors. This year’s concert performance was hosted and broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio.
The composers take part in a full schedule of seminars offering subject matter they are unlikely to encounter in any music school classroom. Minnesota Orchestra musicians offer specific instrumental seminars focusing on compositional techniques for strings, horn, percussion and harp. After one of the instrumental seminars, Jacob Cooper, a composer-participant this year, posted this on his NewMusicBox.org blog:
The seminar lasted an hour longer than scheduled. Every event today ran long, actually. But for the first time in my life, it was reassuring to be behind. It meant that these musicians care dearly about our work, so much so that they’d give up their own free time to ensure the performance is as successful as possible. You know your music is in good hands when you’re ready to call a session quits, but the performers, who in the end have much less reason to care about the piece than you do, force every drop of energy out of you.
Other practical seminars cover grant writing, self-publishing, computer engraving, and multiple aspects of the business of composing, including licensing, copyright, commissioning contracts, publishing contracts, negotiating, marketing and promotion, and legal issues.
At the same time all this is happening—over the space of a week for ten to twelve hours daily—as the composers become exposed to these practical aspects of composing, they find themselves inspired with further refinements for their scores and parts. (Librarian’s aside: although by this point in time the parts have been “ready” for weeks, such last-minute changes would be precisely the sort to drive an orchestra librarian wild—except that it is just so darn gratifying and downright fun to witness the composers’ eagerness and excitement over all that is happening here. But I digress.)
Finally, if that weren’t enough, there is the daunting actuality of rehearsals with the music director, culminating in a concert before a real, live audience, and a broadcast to an untold number of listeners, with each composer interviewed briefly onstage before his or her work is performed.
Unsurprisingly, the audience for this concert is noticeably different from that for the usual pops or subscription presentation. For what it’s worth, and from my purely subjective viewpoint, they are perhaps overall a bit younger and perhaps a bit hipper—but that’s hard to tell, because Minneapolis is already fairly high on the hip meter. I certainly witnessed an audience that was extraordinarily receptive to this experience as well as quite vociferous in expressing their acceptance of the music and their pleasure to be part of this event.
The day before this year’s concert, Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Larry Fuchsberg, in his article entitled “Their Professional Pairing Is Priceless,” related an anecdote from Aaron Kernis:
Asked about the institute’s impact on previous participants, Kernis cited Missy Mazzoli, an alumna of last year’s program. “She’d had no experience with a professional orchestra, and thought the medium was outdated,” he said. “It was moving to watch her transformation. Meeting the musicians, working with a conductor who has a real commitment to communication and a rich emotional connection to the music—it turned her around.”
Kernis was recalling what Mazzoli wrote in her blog after last year’s Institute: “Participating in this Institute was the single most important thing I have ever done as a composer, not only for the performance but also for the long love affair with the orchestra this week has inspired. Now the real work begins.”
The overall success of the Composer Institute as a program can be measured in many ways: by the continuing fruitful mentoring offered to former participants; by the continuing success of numerous individual participants through the years, in terms of commissions, performances and awards; by the passionate audience and critical reception for the concert performance; by the high-profile seminar presenters from all over the country; by recognition in national media, including articles in the New York Times and American Record Guide; and by the unprecedented three consecutive annual ASCAP Bernstein Awards for Education. Mostly, the success can be witnessed in the eyes and demeanors of the participating composers. Despite their exhaustion at the week’s end, every one seemed elated by this experience, brimming with enthusiasm for the future and for their futures in composing.
Paul Gunther is a current member of the ICSOM Governing Board and the Principal Librarian of the Minnesota Orchestra. He was a founding member in 1983 of MOLA (Major Orchestra Librarians Association) and served two terms as president of that organization. In the Minnesota Orchestra, he has served several terms on the members committee, including as co-chair, and twice on the musicians’ contract negotiation committee.