12 Composers Become Part of the Fromm Commissioning Legacy

Twelve men were chosen from 150 applicants to receive commissions from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University. The $10,000 commissions form one of the foundation’s primary programs and aim “to strengthen composition, the vital source of musical culture, and to bring contemporary concert music closer to the public.” The recipients of the 2002 Fromm commissions are:

Now, a few months after the announcement of the commissions at the Foundation’s board meeting, the twelve composers are at different stages in the creation of the pieces, getting them ready for their premieres. (After the commission is awarded, the composer chooses an ensemble for which he wants to write and the Fromm Foundation offers a financial subsidy of up to $3000 for costs associated with the premiere performance of the piece.) I was able to catch up with many of the winning composers to get an inside look at how the commissions are going.

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Jeff Myers
Photo by Joseph Wierzbowski

Jeff Myers, a composition student at the Eastman School of Music, has already completed his commissioned work. In fact, he was wrapping it up when he learned that he would receive the commission. He had decided to write his first string quartet last year regardless of whether or not he was selected for a Fromm Commission. “I didn’t really think I would get the commission, so I began to work on the piece over the summer. Well, lo’ and behold, I was awarded the commission and I had nearly finished the piece!” The completed string quartet is intended as a follow-up to his violin concerto titled Metamorphosis and he describes Metamorphosis II as “similar in concept, an exploration of gradual, transformative processes, mainly in the field of texture.” Although he has yet to choose an ensemble to premiere his piece, he is excited to take advantage of the talent pool at Eastman, “especially Yuki Numata, who had played the solo part in Metamorphosis.”

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Liviu Marinescu

While Myers is assembling his string quartet, Romanian-born, California-based composer Liviu Marinescu is seeking out an American orchestra to play and possibly record the orchestral work that he is finishing up for his Fromm commission. Marinescu’s main goal with this work, as is the case with his oeuvre as a whole, is to create music that wide audiences can connect to without making any formal or stylistic concessions. “One of the unique aspects of living and writing in a post-modern world is that composers can reclaim all musical elements of the musical vocabulary that were lost or neglected by previous generations without discrimination.”

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David Rakowski
Self-portrait with prisms

David Rakowski, a composer and professor based at Brandeis University, has also finished his work, Etudes for Piano, Book V, and it will be premiered by Amy Dissanayake at Brandeis on March 12, 2003. According to Rakowski, “The etudes are, in order, on piano bop, palindromes, fast notes moving in parallel, triads, accelerando-ritenuto, sevenths, tri-tones, half-diminished seventh chords, finger pedaling, and register shifts…It’s 30 minutes of very difficult music, and it took a little more than three months to write.” This is Rakowski’s second Fromm commission. Composers must wait 7 years between winning an award and applying again.

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David Schober
Photo by Martin Vloet

And although Michigan-based composer David Schober‘s collaboration with the innovative new music group eighth blackbird began during their college years at Oberlin, the Fromm Commission nurtured this creative bond with its financial support for Split Horizon: Concerto for Sextet and Chamber Orchestra. Of the work, Schober says, “The title, Split Horizon, is drawn from poetry of Thomas Lux and suggests the interplay between the small and large ensembles. The concerto’s five movements also reflect themes from East Asian history and art; I have a particular interest in Korea, where I have studied and traveled extensively.” The premiere will be given in March 2004 with the American Composers Orchestra and eighth blackbird at Carnegie Hall.

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Edmund Campion
Photo by Philippe Gontier

This year’s commission will also endorse Bay Area composer and winner of the 1993 Paul Fromm Award (a separate award given annually to one composer at Tanglewood) Edmund Campion‘s ongoing collaboration with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. This ensemble has played several of Campion’s works in the past and will premiere the newest one (still untitled) during their 2004 season. Campion is currently the composer-in-residence at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) in Berkeley, and his work will be for large ensemble with computer and electronics.

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Jeffery Cotton

New Jersey composer, Jeffery Cotton, is also using his commission to create a work for an ensemble with which he has had a long relationship. His work will be a concerto for strings (that may end up being the title as well) written for the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra. “I’ve worked with the group for five years now, and have come to know their sound and style very intimately,” he said of the ensemble. “As this coming season will be my last as their composer in residence it seemed only fitting that I would write a work of this type for them.” As far as the working concept he has right now, he explains that the piece “will be in the spirit of the Strauss work from which the ensemble takes its name—that is, with solo parts for everyone.”

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David Taddie

With the support of the Fromm commission, David Taddie, a composer and faculty member at West Virginia University, will rekindle his connection to members of the New York-based Cabrini Quartet (violin, cello, piano, soprano). He had been commissioned previously by the Cabrini Duo (they’ve recently added two players) to create a piece for violin, cello, and electronics and is excited to write another piece for them. “I have worked with all of the members of this quartet previously and they are all absolutely top shelf musicians and wonderful people. I am really looking forward to the collaboration.” He is still in the early stages of preparation and has just begun to search out texts for the piece.

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Richard Festinger

Bay Area composer Richard Festinger is also excited to work with an ensemble that has an unusual instrumentation—the NewYork-based Cygnus Ensemble which is comprised of flute, oboe, violin, cello, and two guitars. Festinger, who was once a jazz guitarist, is excited to write for the pair of guitars. “The guitar is a somewhat idiosyncratic instrument, which I have not composed for in a very long time. The pairing of two guitars is particularly interesting in the possibilities it suggests for extending and enlarging upon the capabilities of the instrument.”

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Keeril Makan

Meanwhile, Berkeley composer Keeril Makan, who is currently in Paris for a 2 year-long residency, will get his first opportunity to write for the superstar Kronos Quartet. Makan’s work will look to take advantage of Kronos’s special talent for playing with electronics. He explains his concept saying, “By transforming the acoustic sound of the quartet via the computer, I will be able to create an expansive string-based sonic landscape whose evolution is determined by the ensemble’s expressive nuances.”

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Stephen Siegel
Photo by Margo Green

Vermont-based composer and professor Stephen Siegel, is also using his Fromm commission to compose a string quartet, although he has yet to decide which string quartet will premiere it. “As I presently imagine it, it will have several movements that will frequently interrupt, collide with or appear to arise from each other. I intend to create—as I have in much of my recent music—multiple simultaneous narratives whose interactions form the substance of the music.” Once he finds the string quartet that will play it, he wants to personalize the material to each player.

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Mischa Zupko

And Mischa Zupko, who currently resides in Indiana, is still undecided about how he wants to use the commission. While he originally planned to use the award toward an already completed chamber concerto for harpsichord and string quartet, he has since begun to think that writing a new orchestral work might be a better use of this opportunity, which he calls a “godsend for composers.” He explains, “This grant came at a time when I had reached the end of a number of projects and was really at odds with how I was going to tackle the next project and maintain some financial stability.”

Overall, most of the selected composers were overjoyed to be paid to compose. “Not only is it a terrific feeling to have ones creative work considered worthy of support, but it is also tremendously gratifying to be given some money to do what one truly wants to do,” Daniel Koontz said of the prize money. Koontz will be working with Harold Meltzer‘s group Sequitur for his commission. David Rakowski humorously added, “The commission means I can actually make the mortgage payments, buy name brand foods instead of generic, and go out to eat once in a while.” And to Jeff Myers, the money from the commission assured him that, at least for a while, “I can continue my work without worrying that I may soon have to eat my manuscript paper to survive!”

In addition to the money, the composers were honored to, as David Schober puts it, “be part of Paul Fromm’s unparalleled legacy of promoting the creation of new music.” Steven Siegel shares Schober’s sentiment, and is particularly impressed with the quality of work that the commissions have made possible in the past. “I’m aware that many works of lasting meaning, power and beauty have been written in response to Fromm Music Foundation commissions (e.g. Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras and Luciano Berio’s Circles, to cite but two examples), so I feel called upon to create a work worthy of the award.”

The Fromm Music Foundation was founded in 1952 by Paul Fromm (1906-1987), one of the most important patrons of American composers during the 20th century. Immigrating to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1939, Fromm went into the wine importing business where he made his fortune. In the early days of the Foundation, commissions were distributed privately to composers selected by Fromm himself. Without a board of directors, Fromm sought the opinions of trusted friends such as Aaron Copland, Gunther Schuller, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, Ralph Shapey, and Robert P. Morgan. Fromm’s personal taste in music established a certain penchant for commissioning academic music and this preference was enhanced when the Foundation was moved to Boston to be administered by Harvard University.

From the beginning, Fromm aimed to integrate contemporary music into American musical life, so in addition to simply commissioning works, he established a subsidy system to support premiere performances, and dedicated himself and to the promotion of these works to other ensembles in order to ensure a life after their premieres. Since its inceptions the Fromm Music Foundation has commissioned over 300 works including Milton Babbitt’s Vision and Prayer, Roger Sessions’s Concertino for Chamber Orchestra, and Melinda Wagner‘s Concerto for Flute, Percussion, and Strings, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

In the more recent history of the Foundation, leadership no longer lays with one man. The Foundation is managed by a board of directors consisting of Thomas Forrest Kelly (Chair), Dennis Russell Davies, and Olly W. Wilson; an advisory council of eight composers; and Jean Montcrieff, the Fromm administrator at Harvard. Winners are then selected by a jury of active composers, selected by the Foundation. And while the new regime stays true to Fromm’s artistic tastes and organizational mission, hopefully it is an anomaly that all the recipients this year were men. After all, according to the Fromm Music Foundation website, Fromm himself was “Careful to avoid the endemic sexism of the music world where the woman composer is a relatively recent social phenomenon… [He] made a point of commissioning the most gifted women composers of today; but he also foresaw a time when to do so will not be to make a special point, when the expression ‘woman composer’ with its implicit special pleading will have fallen into desuetude.” Hopefully, he will prove to be an accurate forecaster.

For more information about applying for a 2003 Fromm Commission, visit the Fromm website.