In the course of a three-month Beethoven festival which concludes this week, the Phoenix Symphony performed five world premieres, written “in the spirit of” Beethoven by young American composers. Notably, three of the five are represented by the non-profit organization Young Concert Artists. Phoenix Symphony Music Director Hermann Michael assures that it was pure coincidence. The selection was based on talent, not YCA’s promotion. When the call went out, he says, “I got, of course, many scores from young composers. I selected these five people, and by chance three were from the same agency.” But he was only concerned that the composers “should be young—all are around 30—young and American.” A fluke or not, YCA has obviously been successful connecting their composers with the right oppportunities.
Young composers don’t often court the same critical attention or number of orchestral engagements that a young soloist with dazzling technique and a stable of standards can. But YCA, long an organization devoted to the promotion of the young and talented but unknown performer, has added a composer category to its roster, hoping to offer the same kind of assistance to the next generation of music creators.
Since 1961, YCA has prided itself on turning young artists into household names and shepherding them through the early stages of their careers. Mainstream stars such as Emanuel Ax, Richard Goode, and Dawn Upshaw began their careers under its auspices as well as contemporary music specialists like Ursula Oppens, Fred Sherry, and Paul Dunkel. In 1994, the Young Concert Artists Composer-in-Residence program was initiated by the alumni association, expanding the operation to also assist emerging composers. The current roster in this category includes Kevin Puts, Kenji Bunch, and Mason Bates. A new composer, yet to be selected, is slated to come on board this spring.
“It’s a completely different world,” says Monica Felkel, Director of Artist Management and the woman who oversees the YCA composers. It’s an experience she has found to be much different than working with the artists who make up most of the roster.
“Getting new music played is always a challenge,” she acknowledges, and her job is made more so by the fact that her composers’ names as well as the product they’re offering is largely unknown. An orchestra considering booking an unknown soloist playing a standard violin concerto suddenly seems like its taking much less of a risk. “In terms of generating publicity and reviews, getting pieces played, it’s a little harder, but we’ve had a great year with the composers,” she says, pointing to a recent Kevin Puts premiere with the Cincinnati Symphony and the Pheonix Symphony commissions.
As part of their residency with YCA, each composer is guaranteed $10,000 to write two works for a YCA artist. For instance, Bates, who was added to the roster in 2000, was first commissioned to write Elements for flutist Mimi Stillman, who premiered the work on her debut recital in the Young Concert Artists Series at Carnegie‘s Weill Recital Hall in 2000, and will perform it at her Washington, DC debut at the Kennedy Center
“It surprised me how much of a breath of fresh air it was for me professionally,” says Felkel, who used to manage performing artists exclusively. She says she continues to learn the industry alongside the composers she is promoting, getting a handle on MOLA guidelines and Sibelius lingo. But for whatever she lacks in technical composer know-how, she covers with enthusiasm. “There’s an incredible excitement that I find coming to these pieces. There’s something about sitting in on the very first rehearsal of a piece. I think I get the same nauseating feeling in my stomach that the composers do. It’s a total roller coaster because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I have to say that it’s fun for me working with composers because it’s completely new.”
“It was completely fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants when we started,” she admits, recalling the early days of talking to organizations about new composers, contracts, and commissioning fees. “What’s nice about being at YCA is that people are willing to just lay their cards on the table and have an honest conversation.” Using the same contacts across the country that she fostered during her years promoting performers, she has been able to open doors to commissions that composers might not have found on their own and negotiates contracts on their behalf.
She illustrates, “Someone can say, ‘Look, I have $7,000 plus $2,000 for commissioning,’ and they want a 15 or 20 minute piece. Well that’s not really practical from the composer’s standpoint so we just try and make it work. Because you want the commission to happen, but sometimes everyone has to give in on their sides a bit.”
YCA’s reputation may help smooth over hesitation about engaging a relatively unknown composer. “Within the industry everyone’s very used to working with us and our artists and they know they get incredible quality, even though you might not know their name. That’s been happening with the composers now.”
But that leads her around to a delicate issue. “You can talk about a violinist or a cellist and give them a tape,” explains Felkel. “But it’s much harder with composers.” That frequently stems from the fact that orchestras want to not just see, but hear samples of the composer’s work and recordings are often difficult to make—even for archival purposes—due to musicians’ union rules.
“ASCAP is working on trying to help young composers get recordings from orchestras when they do have a premiere. A young artist needs to be able to hear it, and to be able to cultivate more commissions other people need to hear it. We’re not talking a radio broadcast but just to be able to send something out. But that is actually a very big challenge for us.”
Felkel categorizes all composers involved with YCA as “really bright and proactive in their careers. They’re seeing what’s out there, and I think that ultimately makes it great. It’s really growing. And it’s fun. It’s not another Mendelssohn concerto.”
But the answer to what comes after YCA is still not clear. Though each composer is signed for two years, two of the previous composers-in-residence remain on the roster for the time being. “It’s easy for us to say to a violinist, ‘Well, the next step is to go to commercial management.’ For a composer, there are some managers that do this but you also need a publisher, so we’re trying to figure out how all that works,” explains Felkel. “I personally would like to keep all of them. They’re all really different and I think it’s a great way to expand.”
There are many different paths a composer can follow to success and Felkel finds that this is reflected in their attitude. “Instrumentalists, I think, have a certain vision of how their careers are going to go. When I call a violinist and say I have an engagement with the XYZ symphony next year, they say, “Oh, great…” But when you tell a composer, ‘Oh, the XYZ symphony wants to commission you to write an eight minute piece as part of their festival next year,’ they’re ecstatic. It’s a whole different level of excitement from them and that’s why I think I like the program so much, too.”
“It’s always new. I think that’s what’s great. It’s always fresh with them.”