VNPAC: Blogging the Chamber Music America Conference – Day Three

It’s amazing to see how new music has shifted in prominence at CMA conferences since my first one back in 1988. Then, there were many ensembles who only did standard repertoire, and quite a few who did only new music. My group, Pacific Serenades, then in its infancy, was rare in its commitment to new music in the context of traditional repertoire—at least, that was my impression.

Now, new music is everywhere, a part of the general consciousness of ensembles and presenters, and the younger performers seem to thrive on it—or at least to think of it as just a normal part of their lives. Ensembles that perform only traditional music appear to be the exception now. As a composer and someone whose life has long been devoted to the cause of the music of our own time, this does my heart good. CMA has always strongly supported new music and its programming, but it really struck me at this conference how much of a change there has been.

One of the constant sources of support and encouragement has been the CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming, given annually to ensembles and presenters who distinguish themselves in having programmed new music in the previous season. Yesterday’s ceremony at which those awards were presented was, as always, enlightening—the amount and the diversity of new music that is being programmed is impressive. And since this is a very big country, it’s just not possible for us to know what is happening everywhere, and I love getting the opportunity to hear about organizations and composers new to me.

I really enjoyed today’s CMA Commissions concert, held at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church a few blocks from the hotel, and it’s a testament to the general enthusiasm for new music that, even as a fair number of conference attendees had already left for home, the church was full. The concert showcased two works written with the support of New Jazz Works Grants, and two with the support of Classical Commissioning Grants.

In his introduction to the concert, Andy Appel said, almost in passing, that the lines between classical and jazz were becoming increasingly blurred the further we get into the 21st century. And the first two pieces on the program were such a demonstration of his point. Jason Kao Hwang’s Burning Bridge, performed by the Burning Bridge Ensemble—a really interesting amalgam of Chinese and Western instruments—seemed to me to be as much classical as jazz, and David Sanford’s Seven Kings, performed by the Meridian Arts Ensemble (brass and percussion), seemed heavily influenced by jazz, though it is in the classical category.

But who knows what that means now, anyway? I truly love how mixed up it’s all become. I mean, how often do you hear erhu and pipa playing with violin, brass, drum set, and bass, much less playing jazz? The drawing on and blending of our various musical streams seems such a natural development in our very diverse world of today. And though Jean-Michel Pilc’s Modern Lights, played his own jazz trio, was more overtly jazzy, and Huang Ruo’s Calligraffiti, played by the Chiara String Quartet, was more overtly classical in its origins, they also seemed to draw on a variety of musical roots.

All in all, it was a fascinating concert, full of very intense and gripping music. Each of the performances were stunning, and the audience clearly loved the variety and the vitality of all of the pieces. Bravo to CMA for helping make all of this happen!

Earlier in the day, I attended a session on a subject of great interest to composers, Digital Distribution, given by John Nuechterlein, of the American Composers Forum, and Sean Hickey, from Naxos. The audience members had so many questions on the subject that it could easily have been twice as long as it was. The speakers’ table was mobbed by people who wanted to know more as soon as their talk ended.

At one end of the day was a “networking breakfast,” at which it was fun to catch up with some old friends and to meet some new people. In the middle, I had more opportunities to talk with people about Pacific Serenades Music and was touched when a couple of people told me how much they loved my music, which they had already taken the time to listen to on our Border Crossings CD.

At the end of the day was the banquet, at which Anthony P. Checchia and Frank Salomon received the 2011 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award. The banquet was entirely enjoyable in every way—good food and wine, good company, good stories from great chamber musicians who worked at Marlboro for years with the honorees, a beautiful movement from a Beethoven string trio. I guess it speaks again to the enormous size of this country that I didn’t previously know who Mr. Checchia and Mr. Salomon were, when clearly they are very well-known in these parts. But I was moved by the loving and humorous stories told about them and by them and by the positive impact they have evidently had on so many people. It was a terrific way to end the conference.

One thing that was unique about this conference was the number of young people attending, the beneficiaries of CMA’s special $10 rate for “Next Generation” attendees, that is, people 25 and under. Actually, it was the rest of us who were the beneficiaries of their presence—they are the very sort of people who will carry on the tradition and the evolution of chamber music. I do hope that CMA will continue this practice and to do everything possible to encourage young people to attend and participate.

So now it is time for me to return to the real world: back to teaching my theory and counterpoint classes at UCLA, to a full schedule of rehearsals for the opening concerts of the Pacific Serenades 25th season in just under two weeks, and to 80-degree weather in the middle of January.

But it’s been a wonderful few days among my people—those who passionately love chamber music. And I look forward to returning next year for my 14th or 15th CMA conference.

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