FIRST MUSIC 19 Commissions New Crop of Young Composers



Three of the four FIRST MUSIC 19 composers (from top) Brian P. Herrington, Philip Rothman, and Matthew Tommasini

The New York Youth Symphony has a reputation for excellent programs, especially when it comes to championing new music. For 18 seasons, its FIRST MUSIC program has commissioned a new crop of young composers each year and given each a world premiere performance at Carnegie Hall.

Next season’s FIRST MUSIC 19 composers for orchestra are Philip Rothman, 25 (premiere date 12/08/02); Matthew Tommasini, 24 (premiere date 2/16/03); and Brian P. Herrington, 26 (premiere date 6/1/03). In addition, Matthew Van Brink, 25 (premiere 4/29/03), will have his chamber work premiered at Weill Recital Hall. The composers were selected by the FIRST MUSIC 19 Advisory Committee – John Corigliano, Chair; Tom Cipullo, Gheorghe Costinescu, Katherine Hoover, Russell Platt, and Gregory Sandow.

This year, the NYYS has asked each of the selected composers to write an 8-minute orchestral work on the theme “New York City.” As must be expected, each composer had to carefully consider how much influence the events of September 11 should have on his piece.

Rothman, the only New York City resident in the lot and the Manager of Grantmaking Programs at the American Music Center, is adamant about not referencing the disaster. Instead he plans to focus solely on the vibrancy of city life. “My piece will be the first work on the first concert of the season, with a new music director, so I anticipate that the piece will reflect those things. I want it to be inspiring for the players to perform and for the audience.”

Tommasini, currently at work on his master’s degree at the University of Michigan, struggled with whether or not to address the tragedy. “When thinking about possible ideas for a piece, my thoughts kept turning towards the World Trade Center disaster. So, during a visit to New York a couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit Ground Zero to see the site for myself.”

He found the experience to be haunting and perplexing, but he still wasn’t sure if he could write a piece about the disaster or not. “Confused,” he says, “I began walking around downtown Manhattan and came across a sign in a tailor shop window only a few blocks away from Ground Zero. The sign was an advertisement and read in big letters: “Re-Weaving.” According to the sign, this is the process of restoring frayed or torn threads in clothes. I thought the image of torn threads being restored was a powerful metaphor for hope in the face of such a disaster. I knew at that moment that I had the idea for my piece.”

Herrington faced a similar struggle. “The NYYS has asked that the piece be related to New York City. This is tricky for me, since my inspirations are rooted in my rural Southern upbringing. So my piece will be a slight stretch. Rather than being directly about the city, it is a piece suitable for a city that has endured a certain kind of horror.”

“But it’s not a “9/11” piece,” he emphasizes. In the end, he expects his work to speak to larger issues. “It’s about the ongoing struggles and hopes of humanity in all ages. It’s very much inspired by William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech of 1950, in which he said, ‘I decline to accept the end of man.’ At any rate, I think New York City has tasted both the struggle and the hope. I hope it might be a healing piece for the city.”

Whatever their commissioned pieces end up being inspired by, each composer is flattered by the prospect of writing for the ensemble and the chance to hear their work in that bastion of culture-Carnegie Hall. But Herrington warns that “an artist shouldn’t value recognition too much. Prizes or no prizes, I measure success by the surety of my craftsmanship. What I do value immensely, though, is the opportunity that FIRST MUSIC has given for my voice to be heard. Hopefully, other musicians will be interested in my music through this commission. More organizations ought to follow the NYYS’s example.”

Tommasini agrees. “I think, most importantly, this recognition has told me that somebody is interested in my music and that’s a great boost to my self esteem. As far as the influence this opportunity will have on my professional career, who knows? The NYYS is dedicated to supporting the young composers they commission. With that support, I’m sure great things will come of this opportunity.”

Under the terms of the commission, each of the composers will travel back and forth to New York for rehearsals and the concert. No sweat for Rothman, but Herrington, a Texan currently living in London, anticipates that the transatlantic travel will be “mighty difficult.” Even from Michigan, Tommasini expects the trips to be tiring, but “the idea of flying to New York to listen to an orchestra rehearse a piece of mine is very exciting. I think the energy from that excitement will keep me going.”

None of the composers thought writing for a “youth orchestra” would be a handicap. On the contrary, each seemed excited by the energy and passion young performers bring to the stage. Rothman articulates it best, explaining, “I think the challenge is to write a piece that will be interesting to them, present some challenges that they may not see in the traditional repertoire, and energize them about playing new music so that they will make it a regular part of what they do as a performer. The NYYS performs challenging repertoire regularly, so I don’t see any reason to ‘dumb down’ the composition for these players. Whenever I have worked with young musicians, I have found that whatever experience they lack in terms of technique or ability is compensated for by their eagerness and willingness to learn new things. My anticipation is that this will be a rewarding endeavor for everyone involved.”

About the composers:

Philip Rothman completed his undergraduate work at Rice University and went on to receive a master’s in composition from the Juilliard School in 2000. He is the recipient of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award (2000) and the ASCAP Special Awards (1998-2001). His orchestral works have been performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the National Philharmonic of Lithuania. He has been a student of Samuel Adler, Edward Applebaum, Samuel Jones, and Richard Lavenda.

Originally hailing from California, Matthew Tommasini receive his B.A. from UCLA and is now pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, where he currently serves as the chair of the Composition Forum Committee. His awards include the Henry Mancini Award for Composition of Music for Motion Pictures and Television Films (1999) and a viola sonata commissioned for Evan N. Wilson, principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (2000). He has studied with William Bolcom, Paul Chihara, Michael Daugherty, Jerry Goldsmith, and Ian Krouse.

Brian P. Herrington is currently living abroad in London where he is a Ph. D candidate at the Royal Academy of Music. He has been commissioned by the Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra and his organ work will be premiered in Royal Festival Hall in April 2002. His work Oculus non vidit for three antiphonal choirs will be performed by the BBC Singers in the summer of 2002. He has been a student of Simon Bainbridge, Steve Rouse, and Marc Satterwhite.

The NYYS’s chamber music commission has gone to Matthew Van Brink, a graduate of the Indiana University School of Music and currently a master’s degree candidate at the Boston University School of the Arts. A grand prize winner of the Delius Competition (2000), Van Brink was commissioned to write a chamber work for Boston’s Fleet Celebrity Series in 2001. He has studied with Samuel Adler, Bruce Adolphe, David Dzubay, Lukas Foss, Don Freund, and John Harbison.