Composer Lisa Bielawa has picked up the 2002 Whitaker Commission, an honor that includes a $15,000 prize and a world premiere performance of the new work by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. She was chosen from among eight composer finalists whose works were read during the ACO’s annual Whitaker New Music Reading Sessions in April.
ACO Executive Director Michael Geller says that based on his observations, Bielawa “clearly has a very individual and personal voice and something unique to say. Her music is also very sophisticated and mature, despite the fact that she has not had the opportunity, here-to-for, to write for the full symphonic ensemble.” Geller further explains that in the ACO’s reading of Bielawa’s Roam, “we heard a fabulously uncluttered shimmering musical tapestry, and we have high hopes for Lisa’s newly-commissioned work.”
Despite the fact that the nine-minute piece only had 47 minutes of rehearsal time at the Reading Sessions, Bielawa says “it was really, really terrific. Every minute that Dante Anzolini used was better than the last one. It was extremely exciting.”
She highly praises the efforts of the musicians that day, who gave the piece a bold and confident performance. “But that’s what the ACO is so great at,” she says. “These are players who understand how important it is to get to that degree of confidence with gestures that are unfamiliar or unusual.”
Though the actual reading time likely flies by for each of the composers, the ACO makes each of them a tape of their piece to take home, an extra perk Bielawa is grateful for. “In the reading itself you’re really concerned just about what you can make out of the 47 minutes you have. Then it’s not until you actually get the recording and sit down at home with the score that you really start to assess how well the piece works.” Demonstrating that she hasn’t let the commission go to her head, she adds that this aspect is really important to her “because despite the fact that I won or whatever, I’m still concerned with making the piece that got the reading as good as it can be. That piece has also yet to be premiered and I care a lot about it. That’s the whole point [of the sessions]. It’s the point for all eight of us.”
The Whitaker Commission and writing for a full symphony orchestra, she feels, “is a very natural next step” for her in terms of where she is artistically. Inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, she set out to write one piece with four sections but that quickly turned into four individual pieces. The works are all related thematically, and the commission will be the last of the four.
“I’m happiest when I’m on a trajectory that takes me through several pieces,” Bielawa explains, “because then you can really expand and work through ideas. I think it lets the pieces breathe more because no single piece has to express everything about a certain trajectory of thought. For me that’s just the best way to grow.”
Bielawa was also greatly influenced by time she spent in Serbia in 2000. In the wake of political atrocities, she saw the importance of innovative art in the lives of the people there even while they struggled for basic survival. “That really changed me and it probably made me more eccentric in my concerns as a musician.
“I’m passionate about the things that don’t have any purpose in a capitalist system because I think the most powerful and universally relevant acts of humanity are the ones that aren’t going to make people money or promote this or that thing.”
Though she could write music with more commercial appeal, perhaps score a film, she’s honestly just not interested. “I’m interested in writing work that faithfully observes the actual sounds that I find beautiful and there really isn’t anything I can do about how many other people find it beautiful. The great thing is that obviously other people did find it beautiful so they want me to write this piece [for the Whitaker commission] and that’s incredibly gratifying. It makes me feel like I have company on the planet. But there really isn’t anything I would have been able to do about it if that were not the case.”
The Whitaker New Music Reading Sessions were held in New York this past April under the direction of ACO’s Music Director Dennis Russell Davies and Artistic Director/composer Robert Beaser. Also participating were mentor-composers Yehudi Wyner and James Mobberley, and guest conductors Dante Anzolini and Paul Hostetter. (See earlier coverage of the reading sessions, composer finalists, and their works). A work by Paul Yeon Lee, last year’s Whitaker winner, is scheduled for it’s premiere performance by the ACO at Carnegie Hall in the 2003-04 season.