Undercover at Underwood

Symphony reports on the ACO’s readings for young composers

Reporting on the American Composers Orchestra’s readings for young composers

by Ian VanderMeulen

(also see: Underwood Day 2)

How do young orchestral composers know how their music will sound, when they have few opportunities to work with an orchestra? Even for those adept with such music composition software as Sibelius and Finale, computer-generated MIDI sounds are a mere shadow of real orchestral sounds played by human beings. How can the young composer account for the technical demands of the instrument? What insights do musicians have to offer? What’s the conductor’s perspective on dealing with a new score? These are difficult questions to answer, but the American Composers Orchestra hopes to make it a little easier for emerging composers. It’s one of the few such programs nationwide.

This Tuesday and Wednesday (May 6th and 7th) I decided to check out the ACO’s 17th annual Underwood New Music Readings.

The orchestra chose what it felt to be six of the nation’s most promising composers—Ruby Fulton, Takuma Itoh, Andrew McKenna Lee, Leanna Primiani, Conrad Winslow, and Roger Zare—to have their works read in a public venue. In addition, the six composers have the opportunity to give feedback to the orchestra regarding things like balance, phrasing, and tempos, and participate in feedback sessions after their pieces are read, receiving constructive criticism from five mentor composers: ACO Artistic Director Robert Beaser; ACO Music Alive composer in residence Derek Bermel; Christopher Rouse; Christopher Theofanidis; and Chen Yi. The sessions also include feedback from conductors Brad Lubman and Anne Manson, and the second of the two sessions includes feedback from the orchestra’s musicians.

(Left to right: American Composers Orchestra Artistic Director and mentor composer Robert Beaser, ACO Board Chairman Paul Underwood, and mentor composer Christopher Rouse in the Skirball Center during the Underwood New Music Readings. Photo: American Composers Orchestra) 

Tuesday, May 6

When I arrive at New York University’s Skirball Auditorium—the location for the readings—the feel is somewhat informal: ACO musicians are dressed in every-day wear and instrument cases are strewn across the stage, but from the outset it’s clear that they are ready to offer intense and dynamically varied readings. The audience, a mix of young and old, is sparse, but people continue to trickle in throughout the readings. Beaser, Theofanidis, and Yi hold court at a makeshift table about ten rows back from the stage. Rouse and Bermel sit nearby. All five mentor composers take notes throughout the readings and subsequent rehearsals.

Andrew McKenna Lee: For Dear Life
Anne Manson, conductor

Opening: a flurry of notes from the strings and woodwinds builds until joined by the brass, which falls away to leave the violins on a tense spiccato (quickly bouncing bow) chord. … Overall, very eerie string writing—much use of quarter tones and sliding. Wide textural scope with an almost cinematic feel at lower volumes. Louder sections are distinguished by changing rhythmic feels and much call-and-response between different sections in the orchestra.

The piece wraps up; applause. Composer Andrew McKenna Lee makes several minor suggestions but says he is pleased with overall balance. Conductor Anne Manson goes back to the top of piece to rehearse. Along the way Lee asks for longer quarter notes in call-and-response sections and louder punctuation from the brass, and Manson suggests softer strings about forty measures in, which adds an element of tension, the strings barely noticeable under the low-volume but hypnotically grooving percussion. Rehearsal time is up and the musicians take a ten-minute break.

Ruby Fulton: ameriwaste
Brad Lubman, conductor

Brad Lubman talks through a few sections before starting. (Lubman, like Manson, is miked so the composers can hear his instructions to the musicians.) Rapid arpeggios layered against pizzicato violins. As strings change textures, trumpets play hits on the downbeat of every other measure, which disguises the changes in texture. The piece is extremely dense and rhythmically complex, leading to a few stops in the reading, before notation mistakes are discovered in the score. Lubman talks the musicians through one particular passage with meter changes every measure. Lubman finally starts in again at “letter E – Elgar.” Dense orchestration alternates with playful percussion. Lubman stops again. It quickly becomes clear that this is much more of a working rehearsal than was the case for Lee’s work, although both are scheduled to be read again tomorrow. After going back to the beginning, Lubman even rehearses individual sections of the orchestra.

It wasn’t obvious at first, but I notice that thanks to long-short phrasing and the use of drumset (though sparsely) the piece betrays a certain jazz influence, though all the rhythms are of course played “straight,” without a swing. The end of the piece even sounds akin to avant-garde Big Band.

Roger Zare: Green Flash
Anne Manson, conductor

Before beginning, Manson tells the musicians, “You’ll see very quickly this piece is about textures and subtle dynamics.” Indeed, against the pianissimo humming of the violins my typing on the laptop feels too loud. It takes but a minute for the volume to swell, but along the way, no prominent melody emerges. After much of the orchestration drops away, however, the bassoon offers up a somewhat mournful melody. Eventually the orchestra falls into a sixteenth-note groove, with lines passed around from section to section, but these runs still don’t take on characteristics of a prominent melody.

(Conductor Anne Manson speaks with composer Roger Zare during a feedback session. Photo: American Composers Orchestra)

After the reading Manson confers with composer Roger Zare on balance issues and tempo, which Zare points out was a little on the slow side. Having seen Manson conduct the orchestra for a second time, it’s clear that her style—in contrast to Lubman’s meticulous stop-and-go—is to make it through the reading and address all issues at once, though Zare’s work doesn’t seem to present as many technical challenges as Fulton’s.  For the first time members of the orchestra, including concertmaster Deborah Wong and principal bassist Gail Kruvard, discuss trouble spots with the composer.

Reading Zare’s biography, I wonder if—while he’s had his work performed by quality youth, college, and university groups as well as community orchestras—this my be the first time he’s heard his work read by an ensemble with such extensive experience with, and dedication to, the music of living composers. Indeed, he seems a little tentative with his suggestions at times, perhaps even surprised by some of the questions Manson and the musicians have for him, but Manson encourages him to speak up with suggestions even when not asked—a very inviting attitude to any young composer. Sure enough, just before the end of his allotted time, Zare speaks up with a couple of final suggestions to keep in mind for tomorrow’s reading.

Conrad Winslow: The Violence of Ragtime
Brad Lubman, conductor

Back on the podium, Lubman makes note that the beating patterns are already written in the score and thus starts in fairly quickly. The piece has a fun, bouncing quality to that is, at the same time, not far from irony. Like Fulton’s piece, this is much more rhythmically driven, which makes me wonder if the ACO carefully assigned their conductors to the pieces, as Lubman’s conducting movements favor precision over expressiveness. (Later I find out that Lubman was originally a percussionist.) As the piece builds, tension grows, with the elements of ragtime implied by the title occasionally peeking through.

(Composer Conrad Winslow (foreground) with mentors Robert Beaser and Christopher Theofanidis during a feedback session.  Photo: American Composers Orchestra)

Lubman leads the orchestra all the way through before going back to the beginning to work sections. Trouble ensues with the synthesizer, which had been set to sound like a harpsichord, adding to the piece’s irony. Composer Conrad Winslow is eager to make suggestions and very confident in doing so. After a bit more rehearsing Lubman confers again with Winslow on tempo, noting that while he is conducting slightly under the written tempo, the groove feels right; Winslow says tempo is less important than everyone locking in together on the rhythms. Once they do, I can hear the elements of ragtime come out even more. Who knows whether Winslow will actually change the tempo in his score, but were he to do so, it’s a perfect example of why readings like this are so important for composers: You never know how things are going to work until you hear them.

(Composer mentors Christopher Rouse and Chen Yi consult a score during a feedback session. Photo: American Composers Orchestra)

Overall the readings were very interesting, and I’ll be even more interested to hear each of these works again on Wednesday, as musicians get more familiar with the works. In addition, works by two other composers are slated. Stay tuned!

(also see: Underwood Day 2)