The 40th Anniversary of the New York Youth Symphony will be marked by commissioned works by three young composers. Andrew Norman, Steven Gates, and Jeff Myers have been selected to participate in the orchestra’s 20th First Music season and have been asked to write pieces surrounding the theme of “celebration,” marking 20 years of commissioning new works from young composers. Including the 2003-04 commissions, the New York Youth Symphony will have created 60 new orchestral works. While last year’s commissions requested that the composers meditate upon New York City, a task that brought images of September 11th to mind (although certainly not all of the pieces were oriented toward this event), the commission for the 2003-04 season forego any shadow of tragedy. While the word “celebration” may elicit repressed memories of Disneyfied parade music, the different takes on the theme will most certainly be deeply personal for the composers. For instance, Gates, who recently earned his master’s as the University of Southern California, will be focusing on the region in Southern California known as Joshua Tree, collaborating with poet Jennifer Dobbs. “It is an ancient and hauntingly beautiful desert area that has a wonderful spirit to it. In a broad sense, I am celebrating beauty, life, nature, space.”
While all three composers are native Californians, their studies have scattered them throughout the U.S. For Myers, who will be moving from the Eastman School of Music to the University of Michigan this fall, this will be his first opportunity to write for a full orchestra. “I will be able to do some things that I have been wanting to do for a while, like write very large chords and play with tone color in ways that I couldn’t with small ensembles. I am very interested in creating sonorities that sound ‘electronic’; I tend to think about sound very empirically.”
Like Myers, this will also be Gates’s first opportunity to try out his orchestral chops. “For the last few years I have worked more on chamber music than large ensembles, but this project works out wonderfully because I was just about to make the jump and write for orchestra.”
Norman, the youngest of the three, has the most experience with orchestral writing. His first orchestral pieces were for his high school orchestra, in which he played viola, and he has also had his work performed by professional and university orchestras. But even with so many orchestral compositions under his belt, he is thrilled to be writing for the New York Youth Symphony. “I tend to view the medium and the music I write for it through the lens of my own orchestral experience,” he says. “As a result, practical concerns are always of primary importance to me, and I am continually asking myself, ‘Could I play this?’ or perhaps more importantly, ‘Would I want to?’ “
Gates agrees that it is important to keep who he is writing for in mind. “It’s important to me that the performers enjoy the physical experience of playing my music, and that they understand it on more than just a surface level.”
And although there are certain instrumentation and rehearsal limits placed on the orchestra, none of the composers feel deterred by the age of their performers. “The New York Youth Symphony is certainly one of the most talented youth orchestras in the country, so I haven’t felt the need to write at what might be a typical youth symphony level. After all, they are about to perform Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra,” Gates points out.
“While there are considerations to be made—like an avoidance of overly complex rhythms and a careful use of exposed textures—I feel no need to ‘write down’ to these players or limit my imagination because they are students,” Norman adds. “My goal is to write an effective piece that is both gratifying to play and to hear.”
Myers is also very optimistic about writing for the NYYS. “There is a balance to be made—I wouldn’t want to dumb the music down, nor would I want to write absolutely whatever I thought sounded good on MIDI. As a result I am focusing on things that, technique aside, should make the piece a worthwhile listening experience.”
“There is always so much to learn from any performance of a large ensemble work,” Norman continues. “It is a chance to hone skills of orchestration, to try out new ideas and to learn from conductors and players. But the First Music experience is special because it is a chance to connect with musicians that are close to my own age.” For him, the niche of writing for student orchestras is one that is too often overlooked.
All three composers site the commission as an invaluable opportunity for the development of their professional careers, in terms of learning how to work within the restrictions of a commission format, learning about orchestras, hearing their music played by a high quality ensemble, and gaining confidence in their ability to write for large, visible ensembles. And for Gates, First Music will bring him another new experience in addition to writing for orchestra. For a “guy from a small town in Northern California,” Gates says the trips to New York and having his work premiered at Carnegie Hall “will be a blast.”
About the composers:
Jeff Myers (b.1977) was born and raised in Fremont, CA, a suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area. From age 8-11 he studied piano on and off. In high school, he pursued other interests in chemistry, biology, and poetry until one night at a party when he attempted to improvise on the piano. Soon afterwards, Jeff was totally obsessed with piano and composition, teaching himself to notate and orchestrate. After high school, Jeff enrolled in nearby San Jose State University where he was exposed to many types of music including electro-acoustic music, Western classical music, jazz and world musics. Studying under Brian Belet, he wrote his first major work Five Parametric Etudes, for Disklavier (digital player-piano), which won a BMI Award and is now featured on a CD of contemporary music (Capstone Records). Jeff continued to explore many options studying with electro-acoustic composer Allen Strange and film composer Dan Wyman (he scored Lawnmower Man). After deciding to pursue contemporary concert music, he made his next home the Eastman School of Music where he has worked with David Liptak, Dan Godfrey and Martin Bresnick. During his two-year stay he has received numerous honors including a BMI Award, an ACA residency, a Tanglewood Fellowship, a Yvar Mikhashof Grant, a Fromm Foundation Commission, and a First Music Commission. Since he began composing, he has undergone several stylistic changes, from tonal to quintal, conceptual to polystylistic, and is now settling into a personalized synthesis of these styles, which he believes retains the best attributes from each. Jeff’s biggest musical influences are Lutoslawski, Vivier, Ligeti, and Messiaen and their influence can probably be heard as an undercurrent in most of his latest works. Jeff is currently working on a commissioned piece from the New York Youth Symphony, a short suite for orchestra. Next year, he will be studying at the University of Michigan with Bright Sheng, and will sadly lament the cancellation of the TV show Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.
Steven Gates (b. 1976) completed his undergraduate work in composition at the University of Denver, Lamont School of Music, where he studied with Donald Keats. It was also here that Mr. Gates began focusing his primary performing area on jazz piano, and has since played with numerous jazz combos and bands. In May 2003, he will graduate from the University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music, with a Masters Degree in Composition, and will begin his doctoral work there in the fall. His primary instructors are James Hopkins and Frank Ticheli. Mr. Gates’ most recent honors include: 1st place, Tampa Bay Composers’ Forum Prize for Excellence in Chamber Music Composition, and the designation of honors at the University of Oregon’s “I Wage Peace” choral music competition. Recently, Mr. Gates received a commission from the New York Youth Symphony, which will premiere the new work in February 2004.
Andrew Norman (b.1979) studies composition and piano at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, where his principal teachers have been Donald Crockett, Stephen Hartke, and Stewart Gordon. In 2002 he received his B.M., summa cum laude, from the Thornton School and was named its “Most Outstanding Piano Performance Major” and “Most Outstanding Undergraduate.” He has been commissioned by the Modesto Symphony (1998), the California State University Stanislaus Symphony (1999), the William Kapell Piano Foundation (2001, 2002), and the New York Youth Symphony (2003). His compositional honors include two Morton Gould Young Composer Awards (1998, 1999), an honorable mention (2003) and a Special Citation (1997) from ASCAP, First Place in the National Federation of Music Clubs Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Awards (2003), Second Place in the Music Teachers’ National Association Composition Contest (2001), and First Place in the USC Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work (2002). Andrew has twice been a Composition Fellow at the Chamber Music Conference and Composers’ Forum of the East (2002, 2003), and he was one of five young composers in residence at the National Youth Orchestra Festival at Interlochen (1998). As a member of the Music Teachers’ Association of California Young Artist Guild, Andrew maintains an active recital schedule throughout the state. He currently teaches piano and composition at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.