July 20, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Works by the Next Generation of Composers

For the past three years, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has teamed up with Princeton University to present a week-long Composition Institute sponsored by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. Last week, four emerging composers, selected from an international applicant pool of university composition students and composers in the early stages of their careers, worked on the details and refinements of their pieces, aided by the players of the NJSO, Institute conductor David Robertson, and Institute Director and composer Steven Mackey. The week culminated in a performance by the NJSO Saturday night in Richardson Auditorium. 

The four composers featured in this year’s Composition Institute came from different regions of the United States and the world, and each brought a different musical background to their one-movement works. One common theme through the five pieces heard Saturday night was that composers’ works are strongly affected by what is going on around them.

In the case of the first composers featured, an overriding influence on the music was nature. Vermont native Matthew Browne reached back to the 19th-century form of the tone poem for Farthest South, a musical depiction of British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s early 20th-century expedition to Antarctica. Browne focused on Shackleton’s arrival at Beardmore Glacier, where the explorers came upon a Stonehenge-like field of glass structures of unknown origin and seemingly untouched for 4,000 years. Browne’s music captured the vast and cold environment of Antarctica, with the piece building in intensity as one would stand on the glacier and take in more and more of the expansive view. Browne’s orchestral color was shaded with raindrops of percussion, a punctuating harp, and lean strings, as well as sweet melodies from violist Frank Foerster, cellist Ted Ackerman, and concertmaster Eric Wyrick. In the full symphonic sound of the NJSO, one could sense the wonder of the unexplored Antarctic terrain.

Composer James Anderson, a native of the Pacific Northwest, brought nature from a different part of the world to life in Places With Pillars, a work not about structures, but depicting the pillars of life toward which people strive. Anderson found inspiration for this work on the beaches of southern California, creating a strong and powerful work. Heavy with percussion, Places With Pillars often moved forward breathlessly, with strength from all instruments. Conductor David Robertson maintained good control over the dynamic builds and drama of the music, as the piece ended on a strong note.

Korean native Jung Yoon Wie has had a lifelong fascination with water and light. Water Prism for Orchestra captured how light passes through a prism, creating a rainbow. Centered on the pitch “A,” Water Prism traveled through three musical registers in which Wie sees attributes — the high registers of music being sacred, the middle registers human, and the lower registers representing deeper emotions. The orchestral color of Water Prism became more “human” as the work progressed, with lush orchestral writing contrasting with scattered pitches depicting light. The musical effects within this work were poignant, as orchestral light filled the hall at the work’s close.

New Hampshire composer Will Stackpole created …Ask Questions Later as a response to the gun violence in this country in 2015 — a musical social commentary even more appropriate a year after the piece’s composition. Stackpole described his piece as “music based on a tempestuous onset, followed by serene music that is cut off before the thought is completed.” Stackpole’s music was jarring, unsettled, and urgent, with sharp strokes aided by percussion and periodic solo trumpet — the universal instrument of tragedy. As the piece moved along, things quieted down and then started up again, similar to real events throughout the course of the past year. Stackpole’s calm passages were very serene, as life returned to normal in his musical scenario, but the undercurrent of instability was always there.

Institute Director Steven Mackey also contributed a piece to the concert — a work commissioned in 2006 for the opening of Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Turn the Key was a play on words in Mackey’s use of a 7-beat clave rhythm (also the Spanish word for “key”) in a piece which inaugurated the acoustics of a new concert hall. Turn the Key had many textures, as the musical “keys” tumbled into one another in a perfect ending to an evening of very accessible new works which hopefully will have future lives in the concert repertory.