The 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog: Vast Distances

Ed Note: This is the second installment of Spencer Topel’s 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog. To read his first installment, click here.

One of the many peculiar traits belonging to the American composer is traveling vast distances to performances of our work. Braving worn-out cars, congested highways, airport security, roach-motels, and paparazzi…okay maybe not the last part. We go to great lengths to hear our music: what drives us to do this?

As I sit half-awake on the Dartmouth Coach headed to Boston for an AM flight, I ponder the gravity of this question. A fellow passenger says to me that such travel habits are true of Americans in general. He mentioned a story of his English in-laws’ shocked reaction to him driving his family out to Stonehenge while on vacation. “It is three hours away!”, they exclaimed. In a similar vein, my European colleagues are always amazed at how far we will go to hear a little music. Maybe it has more to do with our idea of scale: everything is simply bigger.

While my November was hectic with concerts in different cities, there are certainly composers who run crazier travel schedules on par with the most seasoned concert performers. This is admirable when considering the stamina required, and the proposition of spending money to attend performances. (A colleague once told me his composer-in-residence stipend barely pays for his flights to the orchestra and back!) Fortunately, the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute is quite unique in this regard, helping organize and fund nearly every detail of the project.

Such efforts to have composers attend performances at large, however, doesn’t go without scrutiny. In rough economic times, there are whispers on foundation boards around the country that commissions, composer attendance, and related expenses are hard to justify. What surprises me about this trend is the potential ignorance of the intangible benefits. Among the better concerts I’ve experienced, the attendance of the composer made the event truly special. In the case of premieres and commissions, the enthusiasm and insight of the selected composer can inspire everyone involved.

One particular performance I’ll always remember is Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera last November. Casually, I picked an off-night of the week to attend the new-to-New-York opera, not expecting to see John Adams. When he came out for the curtain call, the audience lit up with excitement, celebrating his presence. I was proud to be a composer that night, and was happy for the growing enthusiasm of new music in the United States.

Will this Saturday be exciting for the audience as well? I hope so. Just as the Google Scholar logo reads “stand on the shoulders of giants”, the only reason this institute exists is because of the success of Artistic Director, Aaron Jay Kernis, and countless past participants that left a lasting positive impression on the orchestra, sponsors, and audiences. No pressure…at least I made my flight.

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