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A Celebration of the Composer with the American Composers Orchestra

by Robert Leeper

George Manahan Conducting
George Manahan, Photo Credit: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Organizations that further the careers of young composers are plentiful these days, but the American Composers Orchestra takes its support a step further with its Underwood New Music Readings, offering a rare peek behind the curtain of what it takes to bring a new orchestral work to the stage. Seven new works - chosen from hundreds of entries - received a run-through last Thursday evening at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, with George Manahan conducting the ACO.

Sitting just in front of the seven composers were several “mentor composers,” including ACO artistic director Derek Bermel, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Kevin Puts. Despite casual dress from the orchestra and the educational setting, much was at stake: one of the composers was to be awarded a $15,000 commission to write a work for the ACO, to be performed next season.

This being a working read through after just one rehearsal, the performances were far from polished. That said, there were certainly some noticeable trends - most notably, the lack of dense, serial music à la Schoenberg or Pierre Boulez. Despite the occasional odd rhythmic turn or timbral innovation, the works leaned heavily toward late Romanticism and Impressionism.

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Coffee Conversation: Kronos Quartet's David Harrington

David Harrington, Big Ears FestivalFor anyone who cares at all about the living art of music, there is no more vital institution than the Kronos Quartet. Since their founding 41 years ago, this indefatigable quartet has commissioned more than 850 works and has performed more than 8,000 concerts around the globe. 

Kronos is in NYC this week for a pair of shows, including Mary Koyoumdjian's Silent Cranes at Roulette tomorrow (5/12) - part of their Under 30 project - and a collaboration with the students of Face the Music - including a world premiere triple quartet by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen - at the Queens New Music Festival on Wednesday (5/13).

Somewhere in between the Kronos Quartet's seven performances at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville back in March, I had the chance to grab founder and artistic director David Harrington to talk a bit about Kronos' legacy, as well as some of the exciting things on the horizon. Chief among these is their ambitious Fifty for the Future project for Carnegie Hall, in which they will commission no fewer than fifty new works over the next five seasons. Excerpts from our conversation below.

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Julia Wolfe Wins the Pulitzer Prize for "Anthracite Fields"

Julia Wolfe and John Adams, New World Symphony
Somehow, I missed last week's announcement that Julia Wolfe, co-founder of Bang on a Can, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for her oratorio Anthracite Fields, inspired by the coal miners near where she grew up Pennsylvania. With this award, Julia becomes the second of the three BOAC founders (after David Lang), as well as the second woman in three years, to win the Pulitzer. And, with last year's winning composition, John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, having been released on BOAC's Canteloupe Music label, there seems to be little question that the award has completed its shift away from the academic stranglehold it once suffered under. 

In speaking with NPR's Tom Huizenga, Wolfe conveys the significance of the Pulitzer, both for her and for musicians:

"I've always been someone who challenges the system and tries to reach for something beyond the status quo, not do business as usual. This idea that you go your own route is very strong inside of me and so when you get recognition, the thing that is gratifying is that somebody says, 'Hey that's great. We appreciate what you're striving for.' This is one of those moments where the light shines on that so I would hope it supports that, supports reaching for something outside of the box."

A brief preview of Anthracite Fields and an excerpt below. 

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Duke @116

10071-DEL-ICON-flatDuke Ellington, who was born this day in 1899, was by any measure the greatest composer this country has ever produced. Over a career that spanned more than half of a century, Ellington composed more than 1,000 works, many of which belonged more in concert halls than jazz clubs (which is where they ended up; see below.) In an era when jazz wasn't considered "real" music, Ellington, through his charm and sheer productivtity, proved otherwise. (Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 but no award was given; he was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer in 1999.)

Since the day I launched this site, I've had a quote from Duke at the top of the page which sums up our general approach: "There are two kinds of music: good music...and the other kind." Eight years on, I believe that more than ever. 

In case some of you out there might still need convincing, check our this concert by the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1958. As good as it gets.