2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog: How Can We Keep This Going?

Ed Note: Due to various technical difficulties, this final installment of Spencer Topel’s 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog was slightly delayed, but here at last is the report from the day of the concert.

The morning starts off very early. I head to Orchestra Hall with a short list of final ideas for our last rehearsal. Adrenaline from concert day giddiness makes up for the accumulative lack of sleep, and I feel confident the day will progress smoothly. Among the various adjustments, I need to add a few notes to a clarinet part. Heading to the Green Room, I see Aaron and he urges me to go and deal with the changes during the morning presentations.

As I walk on stage, I see Paul Gunther setting out parts. He greets me and I explain my situation, which he says is not a problem. I head up to the library where he provides the necessary tools for his staff and I steady my hand to make the addition. I quickly work and finish just in time to make the beginning of the rehearsal.

The orchestra looks happy and rested today. They rehearse in concert order, starting with Angel Lam’s piece In Search of Seasons, a colorful work that fuses Chinese sensibilities with western harmony and minimalist gestures. After a few spot checks, they move on to my piece, Incendio. Since the orchestra is in dress rehearsal mode, the time for each composer is compressed and we must make concise recommendations from this point forward. Upon hearing the first few minutes, I begin to relax because everything is coming together.

All of the recommendations from the day before sound good and I start to see that it will be a brilliant performance tonight. The middle sections of my piece, plateau like passages of bell-like sonorities, ring beautifully through the hall and move smoothly toward the reprise of the opening. To my delight, the performers and Osmo seem quite enthusiastic. I provide one comment to Osmo to raise the dynamics of the last phrase to punctuate the ending, and the rehearsal moves on to Roger Zare’s Aerodynamics. Roger’s piece appears to be coming together quite nicely, and the orchestra wraps up the session with a solid run-through of the piece.

Following the orchestra break, they start the second part of the rehearsal with Dessin no. 1 by Kathryn Salfelder. This peaceful composition adds contrast to the program, expressing a fondness for French lyricism, and cantabile string writing. The other pieces rehearsed in the afternoon, Fernando Buide’s Antiphones, Carl Schimmel’s Woolgatherer’s Chapbook and Shadows of the Infinite by Geoff Knorr sound great and the grand climax in Geoff’s piece will round out the concert nicely. The rehearsal and we head off for a brief lunch before our follow-up sessions with Osmo. His comments are supportive and come from a unique perspective that only an accomplished conductor and composer can possess. We discuss briefly future projects that I am working on and his impressions of my work.

The composers have a generous time to have dinner with family and friends who came to support them at the concert. I am so proud to have my fiancee, Maria Endrinal, and my both my parents, Robert and Jeannette Toppel, attend the concert tonight. Their support is really the main reason I compose music, and realizing my sentiments for them in my music is a natural part of being a composer. In fact, I noticed that many of the other composers also had guests attend, and it certainly provides an added boost of confidence that can only come from those who love you.

As the evening begins at Orchestra Hall, the excitement in the air is tangible. After a brief meeting in the green room with Aaron and our interviewer for the evening, Allison Young, we head down to a packed concert hall. This is truly a great feeling to see so many in attendance. As the orchestra plays piece after piece the energies of the ensemble, Maestro Vänskä, the audience continues well into the final bows of the composers.

I take a moment of reflection while walking back to the hotel a few hours later and I recall the question I presented in my first post: “How can we keep what we have here going?” I feel confident that tonight we have accomplished that. Tonight, we come together as a society of people who are excited to make “living” musics by bringing time, energy, money, and attention to the importance of our cultural identities encapsulates the importance of looking beyond oneself.

I am confident in the future of the Minnesota Orchestra, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Osmo Vänskä. Hopefully through this program, there will come new opportunities that question the “validity” of contemporary music-making.

6 thoughts on “2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog: How Can We Keep This Going?

  1. schimmel

    I
    Among the one hundred forty-three scores, in mountains,
    The only moving things
    Were the eyes of dedicated adjudicators.

    II
    It was of seven minds,
    Like a beacon
    In which there are seven hues.

    III
    Sarah Elhardt and Lilly Schwartz whirled in the office wings.
    They were a key part of the performance.

    IV
    A man and his music
    Are one.
    A man and his music and an engaged audience
    Are one.

    V
    I do not know which to prefer,
    The beauty of their inflections
    Or the beauty of their crescendoes,
    The Minnesota Orchestra’s virtuosity
    Or their kindness after.

    VI
    Spencer Topel filled the NewMusicBox website
    With insightful prose.
    His shadow, Frank Oteri,
    Crossed him, to and fro.
    The duo
    Traced in the cyberworld
    An important cause.

    VII
    O wise people of Minneapolis,
    Why do you encourage modern works?
    Because you see how great music
    Knocks around in the brains
    Of the youth about you!

    VIII
    I know noble accents
    And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
    But I know, too,
    That librarian Paul Gunther is involved
    In what I know.

    IX
    When the mission came into sight,
    It sparked a pledge
    From many circles.

    X
    After the sight of Alison Young
    Smiling in the stage lights,
    Even the oddest cacophony
    Would fly out artfully.

    XI
    Aaron Jay Kernis rode from New York
    In an alloy coach.
    Once, an idea pierced him;
    He took
    This shadow of a brainchild
    To Minnesota.

    XII
    The music is moving.
    Osmo Vänskä must be conducting.

    XIII
    It was mild all afternoon.
    It was not snowing
    And it was not going to snow.
    The listeners sat
    In the theater dim.

    Reply
  2. angellam

    One of the most rewarding moments as a composer is hearing your work come alive and communicating to its listeners. That is a simple goal, but not easy. The process comes a very long way…It takes many steps and arduous hard work late at night through the early am hours conceptualizing the storyboard, musical form, sound world that it belongs to, pouring out the most important, poignant statements from a language that is inherently abstract. This is what they say of music, an art form beyond words–a human sublimation. Then comes the equally difficult task of notation and parts that need to be at perfection and communicate clearly at a first reading. Next is the crucial step of delivering the ideas to the players. We need positive energy from the conductor and musicians to together bring out the beauty and essence from an artwork. It is then that an idea may blossom in meaningful utterances.

    Luckily at the Minnesota Composers Institute, they’re very supportive of the process. The wonderful programming at this Institute amazes me. The workshops, seminars and rehearsals were expertly organized and well planned. Besides the many useful and informational sessions (they were each elaborate and detailed, with Q & A session after each presentation), the rehearsals were set up in such a way that is smooth and effective. Our sessions with orchestral musicians occurred a day before the rehearsals which allow us to make any adjustments and make friends with musicians if we have particular concerns. Maestro Vänskä was thorough and dedicated–I can feel his earnestness from his speech about the program during the donors’ dinner. The professional attitude of the orchestral musicians and the expertise of Maestro Vänskä made everything run smoothly. Maestro answered most questions from players and kept rehearsal time proficiently flowing–none of us have any major problems in the score, and rarely did Maestro need to turn around to ask the composer questions, nor did we need to broadcast our suggestions to them. There were private times to meet afterward and Maestro is very attentive to give helpful feedback.

    Another thing that happened to me this week is an interview and video shoot with Best Buy Inc. That was a pleasant surprise. I was notified of such an arrangement on the day/moment I arrived the Institute. Apparently this corporation has a project in mind called “The Creative Minds” and they chose one composer to participate in their video shoot/interview. They filmed for a few hours each day at selected institute workshops/rehearsals with a goal to get inside the process of realizing a piece for performance from a composer’s perspective. It was an enjoyable experience despite the extremely tight scheduling we have at the institute (one particular morning I woke up at 6am for a make-up session at 7, followed by a 1 and 1/2 hr interview before everyone arrives at the orchestra hall for the 9am seminar) By the end of the week I was so alert and excited (mentally and physically) that I forgot I need to catch up on sleep!

    Lastly I wanted to mention what a pleasant, walkable city Minneapolis is. Everywhere downtown is connected through skyways that allow us to stay in a cozy warm environment. On the last day I took a small tour to the Walker Museum and the sculpture garden nearby, which was a delightful escape.

    Reply
  3. knorr

    I think that composers, and, perhaps, in particular, younger composers (such as myself) are a “do-it-yourself” kind of people. First and foremost, we write the music, thousands of notes, indications, expression, and articulation markings carefully pieced together to make the larger whole. But many of us also endure the arduous process of preparing and printing the score and parts. When that’s done, we have to share our creations with the world, so we find all the places we can send them to, drive them to the post office, lick and seal the envelope, and release them unto the world. A “Composing Depot” warehouse would likely do well, at least on a small scale.

    Last week at the MN Orchestra Composer’s Institute, myself and six other composers found ourselves in situations which seemed to, at times, defy this existence. Upon arrival at the airport, a man was holding a sign with my name on it. He drove me to the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at. That evening, my detailed schedule for the week was handed to me. Almost every meal during my stay was provided for. Prominent men and women in concert music spoke to us, including a lawyer – at no charge to us. Saturday night, we sat and listened to the marvelous MN Orchestra led by Maestro Osmo Vänskä play our works. Sunday, another man showed up at the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at and drove me back to the airport. I boarded the airplane with a ticket I didn’t buy myself.

    This is not usual. Not comfortable. I’m used to having to do all the work, plan out all the details, and pay for things. But, for a week, this law of being was suspended, at least most of the time…

    Wednesday night, our composing selves did make a showing. Inspired to make changes after part-critiquing sessions with the concertmaster and principal violist for the concert, we found our parts backstage and started neatly scribbling in changes, and covering over mistakes with white-out. At one point, we even had to return virtue to a delinquent white-out dispenser. We neatly placed everything back in the right order, and cleaned up the surrounding area, all at hours of the night when most are dreaming. Ah, now that feels like being a composer.

    There seems to me to be a kind of unspoken composer’s etiquette behind all of this – one which I was not fully aware of previously. Do all the “do-it-yourself” passionately, comprehensively, excellently. This part is familiar. But once that is done, be ready to graciously accept the generous service of others as well. This part is uncomfortable. Don’t I owe anything? Well, no. Just be thankful and enjoy. But, but, I can do….no. Just be thankful and enjoy.

    Back in Baltimore, my wife, Cat, and I rode a parking lot shuttle bus near midnight from the airport back to our car. We noticed an incessant clanging from one of the luggage shelves. After a brief glance, I pinpointed what seemed to be the problem, and got up to take a look, thinking there might be a chance I could fix it. After closer inspection, I realized there was nothing I could do to mend it, so I made my way….”Whatever you do, don’t try to fix it! Whatever you do, don’t try to fix it! We’ve got mechanics and they rigged it that way. Whatever you do, don’t try to fix it!” the driver asserted over the intercom. But, but, that’s who I am! I’m a composer! If something needs to be done, I’m used to doing it, fixing it, editing it, printing it, binding it, taping it, sending it…

    I had already slipped back into old thought patterns…”Do-it-yourself,” “Do-it-yourself,” “Do-it-yourself.”

    Remember, remember…”Do-it-yourself,” be thankful, enjoy.

    Reply
  4. Kathryn Salfelder

    November 22, 2009

    Seventy-two hours ago, over 400 parts lay neatly in folders stacked in the oak cabinets backstage at Orchestra Hall. Our music had yet to be rehearsed; the orchestra had yet to experience how these millions of dots would materialize into an absolutely riveting concert Saturday night. How is it possible that I’m already on the plane back to Boston? So much has happened in such a short time. The past week feels like one, long, sleep-deprived, super-amazing day… yet I’ve learned so much that it might as well have been a month-long residence in Minneapolis.

    Orchestra Hall now feels like home. My time spent navigating the circuitous offices and halls (getting lost frequently) with my little grey key fob, editing parts backstage at 12:30am, climbing up to the top of the 2nd tier to hear the best acoustic, admiring the dozens of conductor and guest soloist photos and signatures adorning the walls of the Green Room, chatting with the warm, gracious, and ever-efficient staff (kudos to Lilly and Sarah)….. I could do this all year. Heck, I could do this forever.

    Last night, Alison Young (MPR and host of the Future Classics! Concert) asked me during the brief interview preceding the performance of my work, “Dessin No. 1”, “What is the one most valuable experience of this week?” My gut instinct (which I made great efforts to withhold) was some combination of uhhhhhhh and ummm….because it has all been so amazing I couldn’t decide what to say. So I’ll give it a try here:

    Music Director Osmo Vanska: to have such a gifted musician internalizing my work and realizing it to the fullest potential – what a humbling and exciting experience! He is kind, passionate, and genuine. I couldn’t be more pleased by his beautiful interpretation of my work last night. Institute Director Aaron Jay Kernis: his soft-spoken manner, knowledge of the orchestra from the inside out, and understanding of how it functions as a organism, coupled with the patience of a saint, a calming presence, and a witty sense of humor- one could not ask for a more inspiring mentor.

    Last night’s concert drew in a fantastic crowd; amazing not only in shear numbers, but also in their voracity for new music. All age groups, high school students through seniors, were represented, a completely different turnout from a ‘typical’ orchestral subscription concert in Boston. They were dynamic, enthusiastic, eager to learn more about us as people, and genuinely appreciative of the music we shared.

    Now, over the noise of jet engines, as I hear Spencer chatting it up with a fellow plane passenger across the aisle – one thing is for certain – this week never had a dull moment! My six composer colleagues were insightful, caring, supportive, and talented musicians. It was sad saying goodbye to depart for the airport. I eagerly anticipate our paths crossing again in the future; when we can not only reminisce about our wonderful experience with the Minnesota Orchestra, but share the new adventures of our creative lives!

    Reply
  5. Ann Millikan

    Check out the spread on Minnesota Public Radio’s website. Descriptions of the pieces, links to the composer’s websites, and best of all audio of the concert that will be up for the next week.

    Bravo composers!!!

    Minnesota Public Radio

    Reply
  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Two more of the participants involved with the 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute—Roger Zare and Fernando Buide—offered some reflective thoughts on their experiences earlier this month.

    From Roger Zare

    What an incredible week: When I arrived in Minnesota, I knew that it was going to be a great experience, but the institute surpassed all of my expectations. It was a whirlwind of seminars and workshops with very little downtime in between, but by the time it was finished, I wished it could have lasted longer. The meetings with the musicians were extremely informative and practical, and I was thankful that we had them before the first rehearsal as opposed to having them as a reaction to the first rehearsal. The public speaking component of the institute, though not everyone’s favorite part, was one of the most beneficial parts of the whole week for me. Following a brief seminar, we had numerous opportunities to speak to people about our music. By the time we got to the concert I felt very comfortable on stage, and was able to talk to the 1350+ in the audience without feeling nervous at all. It is vital for composers to be able to communicate with words, not just sounds.

    It was a dream come true to work with a world-class orchestra and see the musicians’ dedication to new music. Saturday night’s concert gave me the rare opportunity to completely relax during a performance of my music and really sit back to enjoy it. The size and enthusiasm of the audience were amazing, and I hope they represent a growing national trend for support of new music. Now that the institute is over, it may take a few days or even weeks for me to digest everything that happened, but I know that I have gained important knowledge and skills that will have a profound impact on my career.

    From Fernando Buide

    Eleven hours of flight, switching from English to Spanish, getting back to my students in Vigo, trying to catch up on sleep… I can’t believe the Composer Institute is over! I’m not sure whether I can recall five days as intense as the institute. I’ll probably need a couple weeks to digest the wealth of extraordinary artistic and human experiences lived in Minnesota.

    It was not only about having our music played by a first-rate orchestra with an incredible conductor who deeply believed in each of our pieces. The excitement brought so many different people into the project and transformed the institute into a unique “heaven” for new music. The incredible response of the audience that I’ve been told keeps increasing since the first years of the Institute has no equivalent in any other place. Osmo Vänskä, the musicians of the orchestra, Aaron Jay Kernis, the staff of the Institute, the patrons of the orchestra, everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming, an experience I will remember for the rest of my life!

    ***

    In addition, I want to re-iterate Ann Millikan’s comment above. Thanks to an unprecedented agreement with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, the entire concert is being streamed this week (and this week only) on Minnesota Public Radio. So if you didn’t get to attend the concert, you can still hear what we’ve all be going on about on the pages for most of the last two weeks!

    To listen to the concert, please visit the following URL: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/11/22/minnesota-orchestra-composer-institute-2009/

    Reply

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