The ACO Underwood Readings’ Blog: A Conductor’s Reassurance

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José Serebrier
Photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra

[Ed. note: The American Composers Orchestra's annual Underwood readings will be taking place this coming Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22, 2010. Every year it is a fascinating couple of days, so this year we thought it would be exciting to get an insider look at the process from the perspectives of one of the featured composers (Tamar Muskal), one of the musicians in the orchestra (French hornist Danielle Kuhlmann), and one of the participating conductors (José Serebrier).

José Serebrier's career spans over half a century. He garnered major recognition as both a conductor and a composer while still in his 20s—after five years as Leopold Stokowski's Associate Conductor at Carnegie Hall, Serebrier accepted an invitation from George Szell to become the Composer in Residence of the Cleveland Orchestra. A lifelong champion of contemporary music, his debut recording was a performance of Ives's Symphony No. 4 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and for many years Serebrier served as the artistic director of Festival Miami, where he conducted numerous American and world premieres and also commissioned many important works, including Elliot Carter's Fourth String Quartet. Today he devotes equal time to composition and conducting and is featured in both capacities on a series of discs for Naxos American Classics. So José is no stranger to bringing new orchestral scores to life as he relates below. (For composer Tamar Muskal's first musings, visit here).—FJO]


While last year’s Underwood readings with the ACO were my first experience in this project, my history with the ACO goes back a couple of decades when we toured the East coast. One of my memories of that tour was that the program included the ballet Souvenirs by Samuel Barber and I thought it would be nice to have him attend, especially the final concert of the tour, at Tully Hall. Everyone told me it was impossible, from his publishers to my colleagues at the ACO. They all said that Sam never attended concerts, and besides he was very ill. Nevertheless, I took the chance and called him. His response? “Finally somebody invites me to a concert, and I get to hear my music live. Thanks so much for thinking of me. I’d love to come.” He got a standing ovation. It was probably his last concert appearance.

Sight-reading new music can be real challenge. My most unforgettable experience was when I was 21, working as associate conductor with Leopold Stokowski in New York. It was the second season of his new American Symphony Orchestra. He was determined to finally give the first performance of the Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives. He had tried four years before, in Houston, but the orchestra could not get past the first few bars. It was that difficult! In fact, Stokowski needed a last-minute replacement for it, and played the premiere of my own first symphony instead. That’s how we met. Now, four years later, he was ready to try it again, and obtained foundation help to have over a month of rehearsals. The first rehearsal, at Carnegie Hall, was treated like a ceremony, with distinguished guests, composers, critics, and Ives’ specialists in attendance. Stokowski stared at the over-sized score (which required several music stands to hold it in place), and decided to start with the 4th movement, perhaps the most complicated of all. He stared at the score for the longest time, and then, noticing me on the side of the stage he called me over and simply said: “Please conduct this. I would like to hear it”…I didn’t have time to faint. At that age anything seems possible. Somehow, we read through the score without stop. At the end, in private, I said to the maestro, “You know, I was sight-reading.” He replied, without any sign of emotion and a sort of Mona Lisa smile, “And so was the orchestra”.

For the ACO Underwood readings the situation is completely different. We have had the scores for a couple of weeks. Performers and conductors have had an opportunity to see the music and prepare for it. However, rehearsal time is extremely limited, since there are seven new works to be read. Therefore, careful planning and preparation are essential. I am looking forward with great anticipation to hearing these works live, to observe the composers reactions, and to work again with the great, devoted musicians of the ACO.

The scores arrived while I was in Moscow, conducting the closing event of the First International Rostropovich Festival, which was being recorded live for release this summer. Then we spent a week recording the complete concertos by Glazunov. Recordings in Moscow are in the middle of the night, because the hall is busy during the day. It gave me the opportunity to spend daytime hours looking over the new works for the ACO readings. In between, I had to fly a long way, to Costa Rica for a couple of days. There was a lot to juggle, but it’s all for a good cause. I so hope that these readings will encourage these composers and many others to write orchestral music. It’s essential!

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