Not so many years ago, there was a lot of robust competition in what the ACO was doing – you had Alarm Will Sound and Signal and the Brooklyn Philharmonic and a lot of other bands doing similar things in the same market. The field seems somewhat less crowded now, but how would you assess the competition for the territory that you occupy?
What we can do that will add value to the mix… I’m not saying that we won’t play chamber-orchestra repertoire, because we do, and will continue to do, because that’s what Zankel fits, and we serve a purpose in Carnegie’s overall programming that they support, and we’re grateful for that. But where we can add value in the ecosystem of New York and new music in this country, that ICE, Alarm Will Sound, Signal, and the Knights don’t necessarily do, is to be a symphony orchestra.
Over my first six months at ACO, I’ve asked a lot of young composers and established composers who are new stars: Do you care about writing for orchestra? Is that something you’ve totally written off, or you’re not interested? And I would say most people have said they would love to write for orchestra. Sonically and impactfully, there’s just nothing like it. Of course, the intimacy of chamber music and ensemble music has its own virtues, but composers today still want both. And so what Sawdust is doing, what ICE is doing – we all need to fit together and support each other, and support our composers by offering them a variety of platforms to write for. More and more, I hope ACO will resume its mantle as the symphonic platform for American composers.
What is the significance of “Dreamscapes,” the name you’ve given the new season?
It was the name that was given to the final concert of our season at Carnegie. It’s a lovely, evocative word. And for all of the pieces that are on that program, which I’m very excited about – Ethan’s piano concerto [Concerto to Scale] and Clarice Assad’s violin piece [Dreamscapes]; Hitomi Oba is a product of our Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute – there’s not an anchor piece on that program necessarily of someone who has a brand in this realm. So one of the things about asking Ethan to be the first Commissioning Club subject is to build a following for him in our world. He obviously has a following in his world, but we wanted to build support for him, specifically.
In terms of naming the season “Dreamscapes,” it was really to help draw attention to that final concert of the season. It’s a bit of a marketing umbrella, but one that I think is significant. And when we do our season print piece, we’ve asked various composers who are represented in our season to talk about dreams: How do you dream about music? Have you ever had a dream about someone else’s music? How would you define the American dream in 2017? And we’re very proud of the fact that ACO has a remarkably ethnically and gender-diverse group of composers that we work with.
That’s been true throughout the orchestra’s history, but it became markedly evident during the tenure of your predecessor, Michael Geller, to the benefit of all involved.
It was one of the great achievements of Michael’s tenure. So the idea of using “Dreamscapes” as an opportunity to talk about what composers dream about, and also as artists how they define the American dream, I think is really powerful.
Let’s get more specific about the Commissioning Club. What is the engagement between artists and members? What does someone who joins the club get?
There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is we want the Commissioning Club to get to know the composer as an artist: who they are, where they came from, what music they like, what inspires them; to hear some music that they’ve written before. An orientation, if you will. Second session, midway through the composition process: Here’s where I am with the piece. I may go this way; I may go that way. Here’s an interesting compositional problem that I’m grappling with right now in writing this piece. Very much in process, very much inside the mind of the composer as he or she is writing the piece.
I love that idea, because it takes the act of composition out of the ephemeral and makes it very tangible and concrete.
It’s akin, I would say, to being able to see a workshop of an opera, something in process – with, I hope, a lot of interactivity between the club members and the composer: “Why did you make that choice, and not that choice? What are you meaning to say here?” That kind of back and forth. And then of course the end point is the premiere, where this club feels ownership of the piece, they have intimate knowledge of the piece, they can be advocates for getting people to the concert to hear the piece that they helped commission, and then they get a signed score from the composer at the end, with their name listed on the front page as one of the commissioners. It’s their piece of immortality.
How did the Prototype collaboration come about, and why?
I think it’s very important as a small arts organization to collaborate with other organizations, because we can get a lot more done together than we can separately. I feel very, very admiring and close to what Beth [Morrison] and Kim [Whitener] have done with Prototype, what Beth has done with her production company, what Paola has done with National Sawdust, what Judd [Greenstein] and Sarah [Kirkland Snider] and their colleagues have done at New Amsterdam Records. At this point, Bang on a Can is almost kind of…
Old guard, and important! I believe in supporting each other, and I believe we can do things together that we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves. In the case of Fellow Travelers, I literally was in the shower, before I even contemplated leaving the New York Philharmonic and coming to ACO, and I heard the NPR piece on Fellow Travelers and about the premiere, and I thought, that sounds really interesting. That’s something that I would feel like it’s a must-see. And then a good friend of mine, who teaches at Cincinnati Conservatory, mentioned it in passing: ohhh, I saw this new opera called Fellow Travelers and it was really moving, really beautiful.
So the first thing I did once it was confirmed I was coming to ACO was I spoke to Derek and I said, I’m kind of interested in this piece Fellow Travelers, it’s by Greg Spears… and he said, “Oh, Greg came through our reading sessions… that would be great.” So I called Evans Mirageas at Cincinnati [Opera] and asked, is the New York premiere for Fellow Travelers spoken for? And he said, yes, Beth Morrison and Kim Whitener and Prototype are doing it. So I called Beth and said, Do you have an orchestra for Fellow Travelers? She said, why? And I said, I would like to co-present with you, and we worked it out. It spoke to a piece that we wanted to do, supporting a composer that we have some history with, and collaborating with a colleague and with an endeavor that I think it’s important for ACO to be in the same sandbox with.
Finally, to what extent are you looking down the line past the coming season? What are your aspirations and goals?
We’re in the middle of a strategic planning process with our board, but Derek and I have tossed around a lot of ideas about what we want to do in the long term. Derek and I have enough programming for 12 seasons! But it’s important to get the board on the same page, and to make sure we’re on the same page with the board. It’s not just them coming to us; it’s meeting someplace, so that we’re all taking this in the right direction.
We plan to finish the strategic plan in the fall. That’ll give Derek and me the framework with which we can work for the next few years. And then we will be able to commit to and fill a multi-year artistic plan, and an organizational budget that will support that plan. But, expect a lot of the themes that we have talked about so far: collaboration, diversity, interdisciplinary work, emerging composers, for sure – and the range of American composers, from legacy to current stars to emerging composers, playing a mix in what we do – and being an orchestra.
The American Composers Orchestra opens its 2017-18 season, “Dreamscapes,” on Nov. 7 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall. For ticket information, and for details of the entire season, including the Commissioning Club, see americancomposers.org.