No matter how brilliant a composer’s ideas are, getting them down on paper is no guarantee of success. The next step is performing the piece, but bridging that gap is a major problem in the natural history of a composition.
With the Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Princeton University collaborate in a pilot project that addresses how to bring a composer’s intentions to reality on the concert stage. The institute is named for the late professor and composer Edward T. Cone, whose career at Princeton has left a permanent legacy in the musical life of the state.
For five days, beginning Tuesday, July 15, four emerging composers will intensively reconsider the compositions that won each of them a place in the institute. A concert open to the public in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium on Saturday, July 19, at 8 p.m., presents the world premieres of all four compositions — performed by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the orchestra’s music director, Jacques Lacombe. Each composer will be on hand to comment on his piece.
Also tucked into the time-frame of the Cone Institute at Princeton is a special NJSO event devoted to the world premiere of Cone’s “Symphony,” written in 1953, on Friday, July 18, in Richardson Auditorium. While Cone was well known as a theorist and teacher, his own compositions were not widely distributed in his lifetime.
In the first half of the evening Lacombe and Princeton composer/professor Steven Mackey point out key listening points in the Cone piece. The second half of the evening consists of a performance of the piece in its entirety. This concert is part of NJSO’s New Jersey Roots Project, begun in NJSO’s 2010-’11 season, which offers works written by composers who lived in or were inspired by the state. New Jersey Roots pieces have again been scheduled for the NJSO 2014-’15 season.
Mackey, Princeton University department of music chair, serves as director for the Cone Institute, of which he and Lacombe are the musical mentors. The participating composers come from various parts of the United States and have had works publicly performed.
Selected from a field of 50 applicants, each composer submitted compositions and program notes for their pieces. A quick description of the four provides snapshots of how the brink of a composing career looks.
Lembit Beecher grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and earned degrees from Harvard, Rice University, and the University of Michigan. He is serving a three-year term as the first composer in residence at Opera Philadelphia. His Cone Institute piece, “Kalevipoeg in California,” imagines what would happen if the Estonian folk hero Kalevipoeg were transported to present-day San Francisco.
Daniel Choi recently completed bachelor’s degrees in music composition and economics at Florida’s University of Miami and begins graduate studies at the Boston Conservatory in the fall. His piece “Scaena Ager” (Scenes from the Fields) embodies his reactions to Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”
David Biedenbender holds a doctor of musical arts degree in composition from the University of Michigan and has studied music in Sweden and India. He has performed on electric bass, bass trombone, and euphonium. His “Strange, Beautiful Noises” imagines what his son, Izaak, heard before his birth, and then without the filter of the womb.
Chris Rogerson studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and the Yale School of Music. He is a doctoral fellow at Princeton. His “Night and the City” reflects his first experience living in a major metropolitan city during his studies at Curtis.
The program of the institute includes master classes for participants as a group, as well as individual sessions. The master classes are given by Lacombe and Mackey. Rehearsals of the pieces with NJSO musical sections and with the entire orchestra are scheduled. Sessions offering guidance about career development are on the roster.
Interviewed by telephone from his Princeton home that he shares with his wife, composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, and their two children, son Jasper, 5, and daughter Dylan, 3, Mackey says that the master classes will focus on the conceptual and that the sessions with instrumentalists will focus on the practical. “Instrumentalists,” he says, “can give participants feedback and talk about what it’s like to play a particular piece.”
As a fledgling composer, Mackey says he would have welcomed such an institute. “My first three orchestral pieces had something dysfunctional about them. The fourth was OK. You have to hear an orchestra play a piece to judge its success. You have to learn to write so it matches what comes off the stage.”
Says Mackey: “A composer learns best by hearing an orchestra work on his own piece. You can listen to an orchestra rehearse someone else’s score for endless hours and not get the same benefit as listening to an orchestra rehearse your own music for one hour. It’s important to match the sound of a performing orchestra to your own imagined sound.”
“There’s something visceral when composers listen to an orchestra play the piece they wrote. You need to hear the piece to realize, ‘I really blew that.’ Or, ‘That sounds better than I thought.’ You learn the lesson more vividly with your own piece than with someone else’s. Listening to an orchestra rehearse your own music is personal. It hurts when you think you made an error. It’s exhilarating when it sounds better than you thought. The stakes are higher when you listen to an orchestra rehearse your own piece, and the lessons are more deeply etched,” he says.
“At the institute we’ll change practical things and make the music jump off the stage better,” Mackey says. “I’m expecting that the participants will make small changes in their compositions during the institute. The big change will probably come in the next piece they write.”
Mackey describes the Cone Institute as rooted in a long-term collaboration between the NJSO and Princeton University. “Over the years, maybe 15, the NJSO has been generously donating two rehearsal sessions a year to Princeton University, so graduate composition students could hear their work,” Mackey says. “These readings went well. And the musicians seemed to enjoy them too. Susan Stucker [NJSO chief operating officer] would set up these sessions. She would come down with the orchestra, and we would talk about turning (the sessions) into something permanent.”
“I worked with the orchestra and Jacques for the first time when they played my ‘Stumble to Grace’ commission in spring, 2013. They did a great job, and I thought Jacques had a flair for and interest in contemporary music. The NJSO did its last reading at Princeton in December, 2013. Michael Pratt [director of Princeton University’s program in musical performance] conducted. [U.S. 1, April 23] I was there and so was Susan. When Jacques let Susan know that he was interested in an institute for contemporary music, she went to the Cone Foundation for support.” Soon afterwards, the Princeton music department and the NJSO came up with support. Announcement of the institute came in early 2014.
“The selection process for our first institute had to happen quickly,” Mackey says. “We were under time pressure, and we thought that a big publicity campaign would be inappropriate for the pilot version, where we were looking for four participants. The call for submissions went to selected music departments. The deadline was April. We wanted to keep small and take it easy. We used criteria for applicants that Susan and I had discussed. We were looking for people with a unique voice for orchestral compositions. We were looking for professionalism, for people with a well-honed craft.”
Mackey, born in 1956 to American parents stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, grew up in California, found his way into music via rock bands (his compositions tend to include electric guitar in unexpected places), and learned his craft without benefit of a similar institute.
Though he says he has never before directed anything exactly like this before, in June he acted as mentor/composer for a similar project by the New York Philharmonic and the American Composers’ Orchestra.
The esteemed and established composer and winner of prizes and commissions has also recently finished a large multi-movement orchestral piece, “Mnemosyne’s Pool.” Mnemosyne is the mother of the muses in Greek mythology. She is associated with a pool in Hades that induces remembrance, as opposed to Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in the underworld.
Mackey says his approach to refining the operations of the institute is experimental, rather than theoretical. He delays making advance plans until after he observes what happens first. “After this initial attempt,” Mackey says, “we’ll see how to tweak the institute for the future.”
Tweaking in its own way, the Bent Spoon ice cream shop has responded to the Cone Institute by creating a new flavor, the “Ice Cream Cone Institute,” which will be available from Thursday to Saturda, July 17 to 19. It consists of chocolate cone pieces in vanilla malt. And a concert ticket stub entitles patrons to a 10 percent discount on any purchase.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Edward T. Cone “Symphony.” Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Friday, July 18, 8 p.m. $20.
Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, World Premieres. Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Saturday, July 19, 8 p.m. $15. A ticket to both concerts is $25.
For more information, call 1-800- Allegro (255-3476) or visit www.njsymphony.org.