Atlanta: Written Upon Request

Mark Gresham
Mark Gresham
Photo by Angela Lee

For most composers, a significant career goal (and hurdle) is getting new works premiered by skilled orchestras, especially in these days where paid commissions are few or non-existent for a composer not already on the symphonic “hot list” of established names.

Even more difficult is breaking into the “big leagues” with a premiere on the subscription series of a reputable major orchestra. But at an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert in early in November, composer/conductor Robert Pound had such an opportunity, thanks to guest conductor Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

Despite the ASO’s reputation for performing new music, one fact loomed large: No commission money for this particular endeavor. Undaunted, Pound produced the nine-minute concert opener Irrational Exuberance for Morgan and the ASO entirely free of charge.

Morgan has built a reputation for introducing little-known composers to the orchestral circuit, and with this ASO engagement found what he thought was the perfect opportunity to showcase a new work by Pound, born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, who in traditional Southern fashion “went off elsewhere and did good” and is currently on the faculty of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

The day before the premiere, Pound and Morgan were videotaped by the ASO in an interview to be shown at the concert—a customary practice of the ASO when performing a work by a visiting living composer. Immediately afterwards, as the lights and cameras were being packed away, we talked about the circumstances surrounding the request.

Pound’s response regarding the absence of commission money was simple and direct. “Well, one has to get one’s foot in the door somehow,” he says.

Morgan agrees, vowing “major orchestras are not going to commission you sight unseen or unheard.” He goes on to explain, “I’m only a guest conductor [here]. With the music director, they might do a commission, but with a guest conductor they certainly aren’t going commission a new work. I’m always encouraging my composer friends to come up with pieces that can be an introduction to various major orchestras. This was more logical than most because of all the Georgia connections.”

That comment struck a chord with this writer, knowing as I do people at certain major orchestras who avoid deliberately seeking out local composers to commission or perform because they “don’t select new music geographically.” Perhaps they fear that performing local composers would be being seen as being “too parochial” by board and patrons at a time when the orchestra is trying to project a more national or international reputation?

Robert Pound and Michael Morgan
Robert Pound and Michael Morgan in front of
the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s cameras

But Morgan disagrees with that tack. “I think being rooted in the geography of the place is really, really important, so the people right around you understand that they have a connection to the orchestra,” he explains. “We get a lot of credit in Oakland for all the new music that we do, but also for the fact that we do Bay Area composers. That’s for a lot of reasons. Also the audience understands these [composers] are not people who descend from Mars—it’s the person down the street who writes music.”

A strong, long-term professional relationship between the conductor and composer was a major factor in the request. “I’ve known Robert about 12 years,” says Morgan. “In fact, the first time I ever came to the Atlanta Symphony as a guest conductor, Robert was traveling with me that week as my assistant.”

And Morgan had already premiered another work by Pound a decade ago, even though Pound freely admits that first piece didn’t go so well. “I was a young composer and made a lot of mistakes,” acknowledges Pound. “Over time, it’s good to see that, in spite of that, you have someone who trusts in you, has worked with you, and knows you better, and will try that again.”

Neither downplays the importance of such direct professional relationships. “The contact with conductors and other performers is really the key thing,” explains Morgan. “You write things for your friends to perform. Your friends go out and perform your music, and maybe somebody else hears about you, and you build up a reputation.”

Pound adds that composers should also know their audience. “All of our favorite canonic composers, Beethoven [for example], wrote for a particular audience whether they were writing piano music to be played at home or string quartets for experts.”

All in all, both agree that attention to the unique localized aspects of this mix of composers, performers, audience, and context is ultimately good for the cause of new music today.

“First of all you need new music everywhere, all the time,” says Morgan. “Even to feel better about the old music you need new music to compare it to, to show we’re in an ongoing stream here, not just looking over our shoulders all the time.”

The following evening, after a screening of the videotaped interview, the premiere of Pound’s Irrational Exuberance opened with flurries of woodwinds. The five contiguous sections of the piece took the listener through a quasi-“irrational” (though compositionally planned) journey through different aspects of “exuberance,” including brashness (particularly sudden riffs in combined bass instruments), nostalgia, celebration, and whimsy—often unexpectedly. Musical ideas and tempi were interwoven and overlapped in a continuous fabric of shifting line and color, with occasional moments that reminded one of orchestral palettes of Sibelius or Mahler. The piece concluded with a duo tremolo between glockenspiel and triangle that was finally punctuated and capped off by a tutti stinger.

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A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Gresham is a composer, publisher, and freelance music journalist. He is a contributing writer for Atlanta’s alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, and was winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism in 2003.