Feature: "One Orchestra, Three Weeks, Four Living Composers"

 Brett Mitchell with the Colorado Symphony during his inaugural concert as Music Director on September 9, 2017. (Photo by Brandon Marshall)

Brett Mitchell with the Colorado Symphony during his inaugural concert as Music Director on September 9, 2017. (Photo by Brandon Marshall)

Brett Mitchell's focus on contemporary American music during his inaugural season as Music Director of the Colorado Symphony is the focus of a new article by Teddy Niedermaier.

In September 2017, the Colorado Symphony opened its season by featuring four living composers in a span of three consecutive weeks. This was a bold and auspicious move for Brett Mitchell, the orchestra's new Music Director. It's also welcome news for composers and musicians alike who would like to see more contemporary offerings on symphony programs. Here's what they played:

  • Sept. 9 (concert featuring Renée Fleming): Peter Boyer, New Beginnings (2000)
  • Sept. 15-17 (official opening weekend): Kevin Puts, Millennium Canons (2001) & Mason Bates, The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra (2009) (The composer participated in these performances)
  • Sept. 22-24: Missy Mazzoli, These Worlds in Us (2006)

Such programming flies in the face of recent statistics showing that major American orchestras devote relatively little time to newer compositions. A survey of 22 large American orchestras in 2014-2015 showed that only 11.4% of programmed pieces were by living composers that season, and in 2015-2016 that number remained essentially constant at 12%...

"A lot of great art...in 21st-century America"

In the Colorado Symphony's 2017-2018 season brochure, Brett Mitchell writes, "The opening weekend of our Classics series pairs Beethoven's immortal Fifth Symphony with two contemporary American works I think you'll really love." In this pairing, Mitchell's inclusion of new music goes far beyond tokenism--or the idea that orchestras play new music here and there merely out of "obligation" or to maintain the appearance of being modern and relevant. For Mitchell, the Puts-Bates-Beethoven lineup bore specific, meaningful connections: the driving rhythms in Bates's B-Sides evoked the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, whereas the fanfares in Puts's Millennium Canons echoed its triumphant finale.

Bates's B-sides, a five-movement, 23-minute commission from the San Francisco Symphony, is a major work modeled after Schoenberg's iconic Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16. This inclusion too bucks a trend which states that new compositions must be relegated to "overture" status--ancillary, peripheral exercises to be wrapped up before the main "meat" of an orchestral program. In interviews played during the live Colorado Public Radio broadcast of the Sept. 15 opener, Mitchell again emphasized the interconnectedness of the Puts, Bates, and Beethoven works, placing the composers on equal footing as if they were musical colleagues having a conversation. These connections resonated with Jeffrey Nytch in his review titled "A New Beginning at the Colorado Symphony":

This program, pairing Beethoven’s Fifth with a first half of works by Kevin Puts and Mason Bates, presents a coherent package. Puts and Bates complemented the Beethoven – just as Beethoven retroactively complemented Puts and Bates. This wasn’t cynical programming; this was thoughtful programming that gave every piece on the docket an equal role in service to the whole.

The vision behind this was that of the Colorado Symphony’s new Music Director, Brett Mitchell, and it’s a vision that plays out over the course of the entire season. In concert after concert we see not just a mix of canonical standards with lesser-known classics (or a refreshing number of new works), but a pairing of old and new that illuminates both. Such is certainly the case in this opening concert, where the vibrance of Kevin Puts’ Millennium Canons foreshadows the brass fanfares of the Beethoven finale, and where the pulsing rhythms of Mason Bates’ The B-Sides set us up for the insistent drive of that famous 4-note motive that not only opens the Fifth but spins its way through the entire symphony like a 19th-century version of a techno beat.

The following week in Denver brought Missy Mazzoli's These Worlds in Us, winner of the 2007 ASCAP Young Composer Award, paired with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Tchaikovsky's epic Fifth Symphony. While this program more neatly fits the typical overture-concerto-symphony format, Mitchell addressed the audience from the podium to reinforce his belief in the importance of new music. "There's a lot of great art being created in 21st-century America, and we hope to share some of that with you," he said, adding that he hoped to "pique your interest" and "pique your curiosity" throughout the season. And here too there were thoughtful musical connections, as the haunting lyricism and E tonality of the Mazzoli foreshadowed the dark E minor opening of the Tchaikovsky.

A Broad Landscape

The programming of new music by American orchestras should reflect the broad, diverse musical landscape of contemporary composition in the United States. And by playing the four composers listed above, the Colorado Symphony has begun to paint a vivid picture of that diversity. Composer Peter Boyer, whose New Beginnings was commissioned by the Kalamazoo Symphony, has achieved considerable success in the arenas of concert music and film music. Kevin Puts, a St. Louis native, is now the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer's Institute, a crucial training ground for emerging orchestral composers. Missy Mazzoli has already forged her reputation as an important voice in American opera with the successful premiere of Breaking the Waves in Philadelphia last year. And Mason Bates, former composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony, is a DJ who has incorporated electronica into many of his large orchestral works; he too has broken into opera this year with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs for the Santa Fe Opera.

In these four composers alone we glimpse an exciting cross-section of sounds, styles, and genres. While it's not a complete picture, we can take the Colorado Symphony's recent programming as a healthy sign that 21st-century orchestral music is vibrant, diverse, relevant, and deserving of a prominent place in American concert halls.

To read the complete article, please click here.