Scene Scan: Welcome to Syracuse, New York

When new music crops up in an unexpected place—i.e. not in a major city—it often coalesces around a college with a school or department of music and its attendant composers. Syracuse, New York, home to a large, private university that shares the city’s name, happily and successfully bucks this trend. The Society for New Music, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this past season, programs concerts of contemporary music and provides tireless advocacy for young composers, untaxed by the pessimism that long, bitter winters and a protracted economic downturn have brought to Syracuse. The Society’s independence from the university, along with a willingness to collaborate and a refusal—despite geographic obscurity—to be overlooked, has made it the best and most exciting source of music in a region not known as a musical Mecca.

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The musicians involved with the Society for New Music are dedicated to championing local composers.

Since its founding in 1971 by a small group of musicians playing the works of their composer peers, the Society has been involved in both the performance and promotion of new music. The founding players were, variously, college faculty, teachers in area schools, and members of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, and this new ensemble filled a gap in the range of music performed in the city. The ensemble got its start, according to singer, teacher, and Society founder Neva Pilgrim, “under the umbrella” of the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, and has grown into a larger, more fluid group of performers. At every stage of the Society’s development, however, it has consistently championed local composers and has placed their work alongside that of composers of national and international fame.

In this and previous anniversary seasons, the Society has undertaken large-scale commissions in collaboration with other musical organizations in the area, engaging primarily classical-oriented groups like the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music, the Syracuse Chorale, and the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble to perform contemporary music. The Society has had a wide reach since its early years; for the United States bicentennial, only five years into the Society’s existence, it assisted in the commission of a piece by George Rochberg for the Syracuse Symphony.

This collaborative spirit has made the Society a cornerstone of the musical community in Syracuse, and it led to the particularly grand display which launched the Society’s 35th season in September 2006-the world premiere of Robert Morris’s Sound/Path/Field. Large crowds on the SU campus are used to gathering to attend games by one of the University’s well-funded but underperforming sports teams, but on that afternoon, they came for an outdoor musical happening. Morris drew his inspiration from the main academic quad and surveyed it daily for several months, taking in the space and its surroundings and walking its crisscrossing paths. The resulting work utilized more than a hundred performers, including student singers and instrumentalists, children’s choir, and large puppets from a local theater company. Flocks of mobile musicians turned the usually restricted, well-manicured space of a college quad into the stage for the largest undertaking in the Society’s history.

Students looking to spend a fall afternoon catching rays and chucking Frisbees stumbled upon a work of performance art that combined the precision of a marching band drill with Cagean aleatoric elements. Passersby became audience members—drawn in by the large crowds, as well as by the sight of large, billowy-winged puppets borne on poles—and they were able to freely mix with the roving musicians. Each cue from the University’s chimes made everyone look about for the next ensemble to start playing or singing.

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Performance on the quad as part of Robert Morris’s Sound/Path/Field

The creative cross-pollinations that made Sound/Path/Field possible continued throughout the Society’s 06-07 concert series. February’s “Visions of Sound” concert featured dancers and choreographers from the State University of New York at Brockport and the University at Buffalo performing works accompanied by the music of Marc Mellits, Daniel Felsenfeld, and others. Local dance studios provided complimentary tickets to their students, giving many young people exposure to contemporary music paired with modern dance. The geographic span of performers and composers on “Latin Rhythms,” a March concert of music by Latin-American composers, was even broader: works by composers based in Syracuse, Rochester, and New York City (with roots in Colombia, Mexico, and Cuba, respectively), musicians from five different colleges in Central and Upstate New York, with still more from the Syracuse Symphony; and a Syracuse-born-and-bred flamenco dancer.

This broad eclecticism extends to another of the Society’s influences upon the community: a radio program devoted solely to new music which, at an hour a week every Sunday afternoon, may seem modest but is still an hour more than many cities—especially ones as small as Syracuse—can boast. “Fresh Ink” is in its tenth year on 91.3 FM WCNY, the Syracuse area’s only classical music station. When talk of a new music program began more than ten years ago, the station’s programmers and other musical minds said they were too busy, but Pilgrim, now the program’s host, said, “I’m too busy, too, but I think it needs to be done.”

This type of commitment speaks to a deep sense of loyalty in the Syracuse area. Children throughout the region grow up attending concerts and sporting events at SU; the Carrier Dome, a massive, on-campus arena that hosts many of these events, is visible from many places in the city and from Interstate 81, the north-south highway that bisects the city. This early connection results in many local high schoolers attending SU and in the cultivation of native talent not only in athletics, but also in academics and the arts.

This association has played out to the Society’s benefit as well. Steven Heyman, pianist and assistant professor of music at SU, grew up in Syracuse and returned in 1988 to teach and perform after studying at Juilliard and in Europe. Wesley Baldwin, a cellist who played on the “Latin Rhythms” concert, now teaches at the University of Tennessee, but still returns frequently to his hometown to perform. Andrew Russo, pianist and performing artist in residence at nearby Le Moyne College, studied with Heyman and turned pages at Society concerts when he was in high school. Natives who move elsewhere often say Syracuse is a great place to be from rather than to stay, but the allure of the arts keeps drawing long-time residents back.

The Society’s foremost connection, though, is to the community, not to the college, and the way that the Society bridges the familiar town-gown gap has contributed to its high standing. The group began by putting on five concerts split between locations in the city and at the University, and it has remained mindful of the separation between the city and the institution on “the Hill.” The Society has drawn upon what the University has to offer—performers from the faculty, a strong music composition department, concert spaces with some rare features (the 1950 Holtkamp organ in Crouse College is world-renowned)—while remaining apart from it and helping to keep musical life in Syracuse centered in the community.

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Stunning views mix with the music at the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in nearby Cazenovia, New York.

The Society concert series has since expanded to sites in other parts of the city: the Carrier Theatre at the downtown Mulroy Civic Center and the May Memorial Unitarian Society on the east side of the city. Concerts are reprised throughout Central New York: in Utica and Rochester, and at Colgate University and Hamilton College. In the summer, the Society sponsors a concert series in Cazenovia, a scenic small town 20 miles west of Syracuse, and the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, an outdoor sculpture garden that serves as a concert site, is an off-the-beaten-path gem. The Society tallies more than 20,000 audience members at its year-round concerts, with still more tuning in to and giving feedback on “Fresh Ink.”

In spite of the growth in audience and the strong positive reception that many Society concerts enjoy, provinciality and an antipathy toward new ideas sometimes crop up in Syracuse. The following write-up in the Syracuse New Times, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper, was particularly disheartening:

“If the atonal shrieks, squeals and shocks that define ultra-contemporary classical music don’t utterly offend you, there’s a good chance you’ll have the endurance only a true fan of chamber music harbors.” (Jan. 17, 2007)

The rest of the write-up for the concert was more promotional than utterly damning, but still slighted the notion of “experimental compositions,” as contrasted with “traditionally composed works.” This writing, under the headline “Compose Heap,” appeared in the paper’s “Picks” section, usually a spot for the newspaper’s editors to recommend the events most worthy of readers’ time and money.

In spite of this misguided bit of journalism, the Society’s advocacy of new music and dedication to local performers and composers continue unabated. In June, it will once again award the Brian Israel Prize, an annual award to winners Prize, an annual award to winners of a composition contest for New York State composers under the age of 30, with a $500 prize given by the Society and a $250 prize given by the New York Federation of Music Clubs. The 2006 winners, Christopher Doll and Ryan Gallagher, had their works performed on a November concert. The Society continues to program works by prize winners in subsequent seasons, and many of them return to hear their music performed again. A commission by the Society has been a starting point or a springboard for many more composers, including Melinda Wagner, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky, all during their pre-Pulitzer days.

Activity in upstate New York’s other new music hotbeds is centered around universities: Eastman School of Music in Rochester, and Ithaca Conservatory of Music and Cornell University in Ithaca. But the base of contemporary music in Central New York—a term coined to distinguish the region from the forbidding and distant-sounding “upstate”—is firmly situated in the community, not in the halls of academia. Thanks to a combination of homegrown talent, adventurous audiences, and tireless advocacy by the Society for New Music, Syracuse stands on its own as a remarkable musical center.