Composer Chameleon (Orchestra Remix)

A year ago this time, I was in a very different North hanging out at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I wrote very effusively about it, and I’m sure if I were in Hudds this week, I’d be writing just as effusively about this year’s model. Having to miss Tiere Sitzen Nicht (Enno Poppe’s collaboration with MusikFabrik) and world or UK premieres of works by Anthony Braxton, Michel van der Aa, Emmanuel Nunes, and a host of friends and mentors absolutely kills me. But as incredible as the HCMF is, I saw something much rarer at home in Minneapolis this week: a major symphony orchestra playing a whole program of pieces by emerging composers.

I refer, of course, to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, a week-long battery of rehearsals, seminars, and meetings that culminates in a performance (an astoundingly well-attended performance, by the way—I didn’t see a single empty floor seat in Orchestra Hall) of six to ten new pieces. As you’d expect, the performances were supremely polished and sensitive, and the pieces were orchestrated to a level that blew me away. The seven composers whose works I heard had distinct but equally advanced chops; last night’s concert packed more unexpected and marvelous textures than a crate of krautrock.

But something, I have to say, was missing. You see, I had a new lens through which to see the proceedings: Having just finished a symphonic piece of my own, I’m aware that the composer you see when a hundred-person orchestra plays his or her music is not necessarily the composer you see when a soloist or small chamber ensemble takes the stage. Because the orchestra is such a peculiar aggregation of instrumentalists with a deep but quite narrow specialization in terms of playing techniques and notational tolerance, it’s possible that the pieces I heard last night, while without exception very good, were not at all representative of their respective composer’s creative personality. That’s kind of a frustrating situation for a listener (like myself) who wants to know what’s really important to Angel Lam, Carl Schimmel, Spencer Topel, Kathryn Salfelder, Fernando Buide, Geoff Knorr, and Roger Zare.

What’s the solution? Ideally, maybe, a series like the one Julian Anderson and the Philharmonia run at the Southbank Centre: Free, shortish, early evening programs that showcase an individual composer, usually including a piece for orchestra or chamber orchestra and a few smaller works. But the Minnesota Orchestra is already sticking its neck out in such an admirable and valiant fashion that it seems unfair to ask them for more. Besides, when you hear Osmo Vänskä run the whole group through one great sounding piece, all you want is to hear them run through a few more. Congratulations to the Minnesota Orchestra and the participants and organizers of the 2009 Composer Institute.

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