in: News & Features

July 28, 2011

Free Concerts at Composers Conference

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Summer is that magical season when the fortunate among musicians sequester themselves at festivals and seminars to perform, debate, and carouse with like-minded artists all day, every day. Just down the highway at Wellesley College is one such haven, the Wellesley Composers Conference, which in addition to being a highly sought-after and prestigious destination for emerging composers is a unique community that incorporates professional free-lancers and amateur new music enthusiasts. Several free public concerts are scheduled, all at the award-winning Jewett Arts Center: July 28, July 30, and August 3, 4, and 6. I spoke with Mario Davidovsky, director of the conference, and Peter Van Zandt Lane, this year’s commissioned composer, about what makes the conference tick and what it has to offer the new-music-loving public. Lane’s piece, Seven Rants, commissioned by Composers Conference for Amateur Chamber Music Center players, is on the program, with different players, on July 30 and August 6.

The two-week-long session at Wellesley, which runs through August 7, involves ten composition fellows who come from across the US and abroad and are chosen from 90 to 100 applicants through a call for scores. Mostly graduate students and young academics, they are mentored by Davidovsky and one guest composer each week; this year’s guests are Yu-Hui Chang of Brandeis University and Harold Meltzer of Vassar College. Their music is rehearsed and performed by expert freelancers from the Boston and New York City areas; Davidovsky describes one of the conference’s practical goals as aiding young composers in the advancement of their careers by providing them with high-quality recordings to showcase their work. A less tangible but equally valuable result of the conference is the interaction with the group of amateur chamber musicians that form the other half of the seminar, the Chamber Music Center. These players, coached every morning by the resident professional musicians, perform selections of their own choosing from the standard repertoire as well as pieces by the composition fellows. Davidovsky describes them as “non-professional performers — academics, businesspeople, etc. — who play chamber music with friends during the year, many returning [to Wellesley] every year to create almost a family of people that look forward to spending a week or two in the summer playing chamber music with friends and also participating in the activities of composers on the side.”

In a professional world whose participants often seem strictly assigned to one of three categories — composers, performers who have devoted their careers to new music, and a small circle of critics and connoisseurs — Lane (who is an early-on BMInt reviewer) finds the opportunity to work with enthusiastic musicians from different walks of life invaluable. “They’re extremely knowledgeable and offer pretty unfiltered opinions about the contemporary music they’re exposed to at the conference,” he says of the community at Wellesley. “It’s a utopian audience; we can count on everyone considering themselves a music lover.” When I asked Lane how he, as a fellow in 2010, was selected to return as the commissioned composer this year, I expected a bestowal of favor from the reigning academic powers. I was wrong: he was voted back by the musicians of the Chamber Music Center, who also requested his commission to be orchestrated for wind quintet and piano. Now he is working with two separate groups on the resulting piece and could not be more pleased with the process. He works with each group for an hour every day for six days, conducting, coaching, and receiving feedback. “It’s extremely collaborative, more so than at Brandeis [his home during the year] where we have our compositions played by really fantastic professionals, but get maybe an hour total of time to work with them on a piece before the performance.”

Both Lane and Davidovsky emphasize the further level of collaboration that comes from living on the Wellesley campus together, rehearsing, attending colloquia, and (not to be underestimated) eating and drinking together at meals and at the end of the day. Davidovsky insists that a true sense of the place cannot be gained by anything less than spending a full day there to truly appreciate “the sense of industry and dedication of the artist.” From Lane’s perspective, the concentrated community offers composers “a chance to interact for an extended period of time with the people who will be their audience.”

The fellows, performers, and guest composers are also happy to interact with members of the public who wish to attend one of the evening presentations or concerts. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the conference presents chamber concerts by the members of the Chamber Music Center, who perform programs that Davidovsky describes as nicely balanced in style and instrumentation, including familiar favorites and the new music of the fellows. On Tuesdays the fellows get a chance to talk to the audience about “life, their studies, why they decided to become composers,… then they get a chance, to the best of their ability, to describe their piece and hold a question and answer session.” Each Thursday offers a similar session with the guest composer of the week, who talks to the audience about different aspects of musicmaking, playing samples of their work to illustrate. Today will feature guest composer Yu-Hui Chang, who Davidovsky describes as a “fantastic musician, fantastic composer, very good conductor, very popular and beloved teacher, able to offer sharp and perceptive criticism and advice.” One job shared this week by Davidovsky and Chang is leading the morning seminars with the composition fellows, which take the form of extended, lively discussions, the content of which may always remain a bit of a mystery to the uninitiated. “We talk about aesthetics, technique, theory; everything and anything that comes up” says Lane. In addition to responding to samples of the fellows’ music, Davidovsky says larger philosophical issues figure prominently: “we might talk about stylistic possibilities that contemporary music offers, also issues having to do with contemporary music and society.”

Those curious as to the outcome of all this talk and hard work are heartily encouraged by Davidovsky and Lane to come see for themselves what the conference is all about. All concerts and presentations are free; a detailed schedule can be found here.

Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.

4 Comments

  1. I greatly appreciate seeing the Wellesley Composers Conference getting some much deserved attention here, and the collaborative atmosphere described by Peter Van Zandt Lane has long been one of the most idealistic and attractive aspects of this program. As a longtime staff performer for the conference as well as a performing member of the Brandeis University Music Department faculty, I do wish to correct one misstatement by Lane with regard to Brandeis: graduate student composers at Brandeis do indeed get more than “maybe an hour total of time to work with them on a piece before the performance.” I have played many New Music Brandeis concerts both as a member of the Lydian Quartet and with other terrific Boston area musicians, and the rehearsal schedules are set up by the graduate student composers themselves. Looking back according to my own datebook, each work on the average gets at least three to four hours of rehearsal time depending on length and difficulty, easily as much rehearsal time as is provided at the Wellesley Composers Conference. There can be exceptions if the instrumentation makes it difficult to pull together the schedules of a disparate array of players or if a group is visiting from out of town, and some players do like to be able to rehearse and polish a work before playing for the composer, but to say that each student composer gets only an hour is inaccurate.

    Comment by Joshua Gordon — July 31, 2011 at 4:56 pm

  2. Many Thanks to Josh for the clarification. My comment was not meant as a criticism at all to the wonderful and varied performance outlets we have as composers at Brandeis, and was mainly in reference to the practical limitations of performing ensembles (ones which often participate in academic residencies from out of town). I merely meant to highlight that the time the performers at Wellesley give to each piece is unusually generous.

    Comment by Peter Van Zandt Lane — August 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm

  3. For some counterpoint, there is a hair-curling report about goings on at a previous year’s Wellesley Composers Conference in this article: http://www.johnhalle.com/musical.writing.general/Davidovsky.pdf. So it’s a happier place these days?

    Comment by L. Larring — August 1, 2011 at 8:04 pm

  4. Yes, I would say the views expressed in this article are outdated (and were probably also outdated in 1995 when the article was written). It seems to represent more of a frustration with the non-democratic and subjective nature of musical aesthetics and its role in concert programming, granting, etc. The idea that the entire establishment of composers with administrative roles in the Northeast has chosen to sabotage the writer’s compositional opportunities based on the stylistic preferences of one man is absurd. It’s not only discourteous to Davidovsky (who has been a tireless advocate for composers of many different backgrounds), but seems to suggest that all of the cited organizations (Tanglewood, Koussevitzky, Guggenheim, Academy, and on and on) are all run by board members and directors who lack the artistic insight or free will to make their own aesthetically-informed decisions. It’s unfortunate that the writer felt victimized by so many different institutions, but this reads as a conspiracy theory, and its relevance to this article is peripheral at best.

    Comment by Peter Van Zandt Lane — August 2, 2011 at 12:42 am

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