The ACO Underwood Readings’ Blog: The Morning After

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The American Composers Orchestra in action:
George Manahan conducts the 2010 Underwood Readings
Photo by Tamar Muskal



[Ed. note: Last week we featured play-by-play blog posts from three participants in the American Composers Orchestra’s 2010 Underwood readings: Tamar Muskal, one of the featured composers; French hornist Danielle Kuhlmann, one of the musicians in the orchestra; and José Serebrier, one of the two participating conductors.

Each have had a chance to ruminate a bit on what transpired this past weekend and offer some further thoughts.—FJO]





Tamar Muskal, composer

May 22nd was the second day of the ACO Underwood Readings, which began with three workshops, back to back, from 9:00am until 1:30pm. First, we met with Jim Kendrick, Acting President of EAM (European American Music), who talked about intellectual property and copyright law. Then, we discussed music publishing with Norman Ryan, Vice President of EAM. We also met publicist Christina Jensen who talked about publicity and promotion.

From 1:30 until 5:00pm mentor composers Robert Beaser, Derek Bermel and George Tsontakis, conductors George Manahan and José Serebrier, and various ACO personnel discussed broad issues of form and aesthetics, and how to approach orchestral writing. We received valuable feedback about our previous day’s readings, and discussed what worked or didn’t work in our pieces and why. The discussion ranged widely: from small details, such as the use of A-flat and A-natural in a melodic line within the same measure, to broad issues like form and orchestration. At the end of this session, each composer met briefly with her or his conductor to discuss musical moments that didn’t quite work. It’s never too late to revise.

At 8:00pm we began our second reading session, which like the first was open for the public. This year for the first time, the ACO read through every piece on both days: on the first day, each piece received about half an hour of rehearsal time, and on the second, the orchestra polished each piece for about 5 minutes before giving one last run-through, which was recorded.

Even though the second session was a rehearsal, and so players were dressed casually, there was an exciting feeling among the composers and the audience. It was 8:00pm, concert time, and the event was very well attended. But after two full, busy days, our journey was coming to end—this was our last chance to hear our compositions. The discussions with the conductors earlier that day were very productive. I expected that my piece would sound better than it did on the first day, but was not prepared for such a big improvement! I felt the same way when I heard each of my colleague’s works. The players had a better understanding of the musical and technical needs of our pieces, and perhaps having the reading in the evening, with an audience, had an affect on the players as well. It felt more like a concert than a casual orchestral reading.

So, was it traumatic after all, as composer Derek Bermel suggested? Yup… Was it worth it? Yes, highly recommended!


Danielle Kuhlmann, French hornist

What an exciting weekend! It was such a pleasure to work with our new music director, George Manahan! The readings are interesting, because it is difficult to assess the pieces out of context. Normally, we would play a program of classical or romantic music with perhaps just one contemporary work. Or, we would have a well balanced mix of new music covering an entire program. I thought it was interesting that most of the works read this weekend were big, intense works with a lot of energy. This is great, and very exciting writing, but big writing means lots of playing. I think we were all starting to “feel it” by the end of the night (especially the brass section)!

It was wonderful to meet with the composers and their mentors and conductors to discuss the pieces. They probably feel like they are under a giant microscope in that little room, but it is all to help them grow individually and to benefit music in general. We try to give helpful tips to make a better experience for the performers and the audience as well as the composers themselves. It usually comes down to very simple issues: a note out of range, a computer’s ill-spaced bars, the size of the page. These are easily corrected hiccups. It was nice to be able to say that it was just a technical error, that the music itself is quality.

I was impressed by the writing, especially a few of the composers who both challenged the brass instruments and still wrote comfortably for us. We were never bored this weekend, and that is fantastic. I look forward to future readings and the progress of all of the involved composers.


José Serebrier, conductor

I am now rather far from New York. The brilliant Costa Rican National Symphony asked me to conduct their 90th anniversary concert. I sort of had to commute with New York in order to be able to do the Underwood readings with the ACO. I am delighted to have done it, and I believe completely in the cause. Paul Underwood deserves so much credit for making this opportunity available to emerging composers. Also, it is one of the most important, significant services the ACO can offer.

One thing is the printed page, but every composer experiences surprises when listening to the actual thing in a live performance, even today, with the benefit of computer, electronic performances never do justice to the music.

I was thrilled to see how such a complicated event was made to run so smoothly by Michael Geller and John Glover, and their skeleton staff. My heart was warmed to observe the good will of the musicians. These are all stars. What they did is fantastic, to read seven new works, each with enormous technical challenges. In two short sessions they managed to give a very good impression of the works. My sincere gratitude to each of these wonderful artists. I hope to write again, longer impressions, with a little more time, but now I better get to the rehearsal of La Mer.

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