Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

When Anthony Korf was a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music, the percussionist was doing more conducting than performing. Composing would come in time, he knew, but it wasn’t something he pursued seriously at first. In that way, Korf is not so much a New York new music story as he is Mahler brought up to speed.

Parnassus, the group Korf founded in 1974 from the cream of New York’s freelance musicians, was already widely recognized by the time its artistic director began to circulate his own music. To date, Parnassus has premiered nearly 150 works — more than 50 of which were composed for the ensemble from established American masters Elliott Carter, Mario Davidovsky, Donald Martino and Charles Wuorinen to such current international luminaries as Thomas Adès, Jonathan Harvey and Gyorgy Kurtag. The group has recorded for CRI, Koch International, and New World Records.

Much of Parnassus’s acclaim came from the group’s 1992 recording of works by Stefan Wolpe. The New York Times claimed there was “no better introduction in the current CD catalogue to Wolpe’s visionary contributions.” Korf’s interest in Wolpe, he admitted at the time, had come through hearing performances of his work by the Group for Contemporary Music, which also had premiered Korf’s works.

“Conducting contemporary music contributed to my own growth as a composer,” says Korf claiming Parnassus has shaped his own pieces and vice versa: “Who I am as a composer determines who I am as a musician, and that I suppose determines who I conduct.”

From the Riverside Symphony, where he is artistic director and composer-in-residence, Korf has learned a broader perspective. “There I see the quality of Mendelssohn and Beethoven and realize that it’s just not enough for a piece to have a neat effect, or some virtuosic stuff that we as performers get a lot of satisfaction from working out. I’m a lot less sentimental these days about the ‘newness’ of music.”

And as a conductor, he’s also less sentimental about the composer as an isolated romantic figure, free from the practical side of music making. “When composers just come to the last rehearsals, they don’t know when we’ve spent too much time working out things that were either illiterate or unclear in the score,” he says. “When you rehearse, you find out quickly what works and what doesn’t. And you appreciate people who write their scores legibly. I know it sound mundane, but it reflects the composer’s commitment to maintaining a standard of professionalism.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox