At the first rehearsal of our works, I ran into a wall of nerves and exhaustion when asked to describe my piece (in 20 seconds or less) in front of the orchestra. In a panic I blurted out an excerpt of the poem on which the work is based, mumbled what I remember as “Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you-I-love-you-all,” and ran back down the aisle. By the time I reached my seat the orchestra had already launched into the first moaning chord of my piece, complete with not one but two melodicas (my favorite instrument of all time) played by the adventurous percussionists. When Osmo Vänskä first saw that my piece opened with the sound of the melodica, he said, “Hmmm, I think we are going to wake a lot of people up with this.” That prediction could apply to the institute as a whole; the future of this music depends on bringing the orchestra into their lives and waking them up. Hearing my piece played professionally for the first time reminded me that composing is a profession of extremes, and that the years of struggle and poverty can be balanced by ten minutes of incomparable, overwhelming joy.
Navigating a composer’s life often feels like running very fast with a blindfold on. For twenty minutes I was able to take off the blindfold and lay out my dreams for all, including myself, to see. I grew up loving orchestral music and was heartbroken in feeling that the orchestra was an impenetrable behemoth from which I would be forever excluded. My experience today taught me that the orchestra belongs to me and all composers—past, present, and future.
After hearing the rest of the first rehearsal, many of my neurotic doubts about the orchestra’s place in the modern musical landscape have begun to subside. Each composer brought the orchestra to life by infusing their piece with their own experiences and influences, both musical and non-musical. The orchestra has no singular sound or style; today I heard the Minnesota Orchestra transform into a chamber ensemble, a rock band, a jazz band, and even a tango band. The skillful orchestration and expressive brass writing in Stephen Gorbos’s Diaphony created a full and enveloping sound that seemed to radiate from all corners of the hall. Ashley Nail’s …at the end of the tunnel began with a pianissimo that could have originated in Finland; it was that soft. Her piece was an ever-changing landscape of dramatic orchestral timbres. Gregg Wramage’s delicate La tristesse durera began with the intimacy and clarity of a chamber work and morphed seamlessly into a frenetic and powerful tutti. The orchestra did a 180 with Kurt Erickson’s Toccata for Orchestra, a work with unique harmonies, hypnotic rhythms, and the single catchiest riff of all the works on the concert. Dan Visconti’s Black Bend, with its bluesy inflections and clever orchestration, had the orchestra tapping their feet and nodding their heads despite the challenging musical language. Alejandro Rutty’s Tango Loops 2B combined infectious tango music with the distortion and reverberation usually found in electronic music—this work is pure Rutty, channeling a daydreaming Piazzolla through the mind of a street-smart DJ. Garrett Byrnes’s Solace is an aggressive and cinematic work infused with moments of delicate beauty featuring the harp and celesta. Anna Clyne’s <<rewind<<, influenced by her extensive work with electronics, is a captivating combination of layered rhythms and rich orchestration. <<rewind<< concludes with a seven-second tape part during which the audience hears the entire piece in reverse. The orchestra transcended the confines of the medium and the weight of tradition by fearlessly tackling these nine pieces with the same energy that they would apply to pieces from the core repertoire.
Bookending this rehearsal were lectures by copyright lawyer Jim Kendrick, Lyn Liston of the American Music Center, and Henry Fogel of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Let me just say that, when the revolution comes, I want these people on my side. It’s always amazing to meet non-composers who have heard contemporary music, and it’s even more incredible to meet non-composers who have a deep understanding of the complex needs of artists and a sense of where contemporary music might be headed. I can’t believe I’ve survived this long without them.
The Friday night concert will be yet another dream, but there’s a lot of work to be done in the next twenty-four hours…now to bed with me.