Opportunities for composers to hear a piece of their work performed by a professional orchestra are few and far between in today’s world of powerful unions, warhorse repertoire, and reluctant conductors, which is why the American Composers Orchestra‘s Whitaker New Music Readings are so appealing to emerging composers. Each year, up to eight composers are chosen to have their orchestral works performed by the ACO and obtain a professional quality tape of the performance. In addition, one of these composers is selected to receive the $15,000 Whitaker Commission to write a new work that will be performed by the ACO.
“The Whitaker Readings are one of the main ways that the orchestra interfaces with the compositional community at-large,” comments ACO Artistic Director Robert Beaser. “It’s a way of finding new composers—both giving them an opportunity and giving us an opportunity to be able to hear their work and get to know them.”
The eight composers selected to participate in the 12th Annual Whitaker New Music Reading session were Jude Weimar (Buried Secrets), Paul Rudy (Symphonie Pastorale), Martin Kennedy (Juvenilia), Matthew Fuerst (Portrait), Manly Romero (Merengue), Sally Lamb (The Coincidence of Being), Lansing D. McLoskey (Requiem, ver.s.001x), and David Stovall (Let it Fall). The readings took place on Monday, April 7th at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City. In addition to ACO Music Director Steven Sloane, Artistic Director Robert Beaser, and guest conductors Jeffrey Milarsky and Scott Yoo who ran the event, participants had the chance to interact with this year’s mentor composers Chen Yi, Joseph Schwantner, and Steven Stucky. The mentor composers and principal players of the ACO were charged with providing critical feedback to the composers following the readings.
After the reading session the mentor composers, conductors, Beaser, ACO President Francis Thorne, and ACO Executive Director Michael Geller convened to discuss the merits of each composer’s work. Through consensus, the composer that will be awarded the $15,000 Whitaker Commission is chosen. This year the honor went to Manly Romero, a composer who had received an honorable mention for the Whitaker Readings in 1999. But he, like so many other young composers who dream of writing for the orchestra, was determined to be involved with the program further. “In 2001, I decided that I was going to write a piece specifically for the Whitaker Reading session that would win the ACO commission (some nerve, eh?),” he quipped. “I started writing a piece to submit to it and other similar contests. I thought I would write it quickly and send it in for the 2002 reading, but I ended up working on Merengue for an entire year, doing a series of twelve (12!) re-writes and edits.”
Apparently the hard work paid off, as Beaser relates the judges’ impressions of the work. “It was clearly written at a very high professional level, meaning the ear was really wonderful.” In addition to the structural quality of the piece, Beaser was impressed by Romero’s unique and well-developed compositional voice that combines Latin American rhythmic and musical influences within the larger, orchestral framework. “It’s the type of a piece that can sometimes be dangerous,” Beaser said of Merengue. “[But] the language was one which managed to integrate the elements that he was using in such a way that one did not feel as though we were only hearing the elements…It felt like he had integrated those elements into a cohesive and unified language, which was his own.”
It is this personal compositional voice and clear artistic vision that have been the main criteria in the selection of Whitaker Commission winners and Reading Session participants in the past. “Very often we go with composers who have quirky voices,” Beaser affirms. “It’s fairly usual that we have a broad diversity of styles.”
Romero says that for the commission he plans to write a concert piece with “a recognizably Latin character.” For him, incorporating Latin styles into classical music pieces for the concert hall is “emblematic” of his identity. “My father comes from a poor Hispanic background, my mother from a non-Hispanic upper-middle-class background. They found common ground during the Beat era in San Francisco,” he recounts. “My heritage is a mixed bag, and this music, I think, reflects the variety and the confusion that comes with it.”
And while the commission is certainly a great honor for the selected composer, Beaser insists that “the reading is an ending in itself and the commission is icing on the cake…[The Reading Sessions] have become a really important part of the landscape for composers who want to write for orchestra.
“We want to take really talented people and subject them to a really intense experience,” he continues. “A lot of people who haven’t won the competition have gone on to do fabulous things and be very well-known composers.”
Since the program began 12 years ago, it has given 69 composers the chance to listen through their orchestral compositions. In addition to the 12 winners of the Whitaker Commission who have a new work performed by the ACO at a public concert, several participants in the readings have received other commissions from or been programmed by the ACO. Last year’s Whitaker Commission winner, Lisa Bielawa, is currently at work on her commission, The Right Weather, which will be performed by the ACO as part of a new concert series at Carnegie’s brand new Zankel Hall in February 2004. Plus, earlier this year, three Whitaker-commissioned works by Brian Robison, Dan Coleman, and Hsueh-Yung Shen were given their world premieres at Carnegie Hall.
For detailed bios and photos of the composers that participated in the reading session, visit the ACO website.