Arts Listings

Berkeley Symphony Features Emerging Composers

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:26:00 AM

“Our ‘Under Construction’ new music series is really about composer development more than music development,” says James Kleinmann, Berkeley Symphony’s executive director. “We’ve spent over 15 years developing an orchestra that’s very proficient at taking on challenging work with short preparation. We give the composers’ works ‘cold readings,’ with the pieces extensively marked up before a, say, 25-minute performance. We give it our darnedest, with the audience hearing the pieces played and corrected, and, in spite of any trepidations, even a ‘gnarly’ score, something beautiful and unique to the composers’ voice and style comes through. And over time, the composers can get a sense of how a real orchestra works, and push through the boundaries, let their personalities shine through; test out, develop their craft—and hopefully fall in love with creating symphonic work.” 

“It’s like open mic night...with full orchestra!” So the symphony’s website announces the informal concerts, when the Emerging Composers in Residence with the symphony “hear their work come to life for the very first time.” The three events that will feature music by the 2008-9 composers in residence, with guest conductors (visiting as candidates in the search for a successor to Musical Director Kent Nagano), will be on Sundays at 7 p. m.: Oct. 26 (William Eddins conducting), Nov. 16 (Paul Haas) and Dec. 14 (Joana Carneiro), all at St. John’s Presbyterian Church on College Avenue. The resident composers also provide feedback for the evaluation of the visiting conductors as candidates.  

Themes are: Democracy in America (for the pre-election concert, Oct. 26), Harvest Fest (Nov. 16) and The Longest Night (Dec. 16, before the solistice). Recorded clips will be on the Symphony website next year. 

This year there are four Emerging Composers in Residence, one more than last year (and Kleinmann says future years could see even more): Jean Ahn, David Graves (who was one of last year’s class of three in residence), Patricio da Silva and Clark Suprynowicz. All are Bay Area residents; none has had a symphonic work performed by a local professional orchestra. 

Jean Ahn, an Orinda resident, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Seoul National University in South Korea, and is a Ph. D. candidate at UC Berkeley. Her interest is in combining instruments and elements from traditional Asian music with electronics. Her entry for residency is entitled Salt for Orchestra. 

David Graves, who lives in San Francisco, composes in various genres, including jazz, rock and ambient music. A large-scale ambient piece, tree/sigh, was installed in a redwood canyon, and a multimedia work was part of Surround>Sound in San Francisco, 2006. His work has been performed by the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra, with which he is affiliated. His pieces Insecurity (and Other Agencies of Government), The Spectator and Deep Green Dreams were performed by the symphony during his residency last year.  

Patricio da Silva, a Danville resident, studied piano and composition in his native Portugal, completing his MFA at CalArts and his Ph. D. at UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz. His work has been performed internationally at festivals. Da Silva’s entry is entitled The Fact of the Matter as a Matter of Fact.  

Berkeley resident Clark Suprynowicz studied bass with Dave Holland and has worked with leading jazz artists. He’s composed theme and incidental music for National Public Radio. Berkeley Opera staged his Chrysalis (with John O’Keefe’s libretto) in 2006 and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival commissioned Caliban Dreams (with Amanda Moody). A cofounder of the New Music Theatre Project at San Francisco’s Z Space, Suprynowicz teaches at Berkeley’s Crowden School and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has written songs and chamber music. 

Kleinmann, Suprynowicz and Graves engaged in a far-ranging discussion of “Under Construction” recently, commenting on its uniqueness in the musical world as a development program, enabling composers to work directly with an orchestra, albeit on short deadlines (draft scores due about eight weeks before performance, only a matter of weeks after the theme has been announced) with no rehearsals, in an ongoing program not geared to the performance of one commissioned work from a composer. “There’s nothing else like this,” Graves said, “just contests, or the schools where composers get their Master’s.” 

Graves and Suprynowicz flatly stated that getting any style of composition performed is becoming more difficult. “It’s all getting harder—whether opera, symphonic work—all the time,” Suprynowicz said. “Sometimes somebody gets a break. Composers often have to work out unusual deals to get professional musicians to play and record their pieces. I know one composer who writes soundtracks for video games who farms out an extra hour when they’re recorded to get his own music played and recorded for his own benefit.” 

Graves, as returning composer, said to Suprynowicz that the musicians “will recognize your style by the third concert”—and commented that in recent years “the public has become willing to listen to performances without full orchestra,” which he and Suprynowicz discussed. “It’s great to write for, and to actually hear your music with, a full string section,” Suprynowicz remarked, saying that he’s previously written for groups of up to 20 pieces. (Graves remarked that most compositions are for up to eight or 10 pieces; compositions for larger groups have much less likelyhood of getting played.) Suprynowicz said that many performances of bigger works use “essentially string quartets augmented with brass or electronics.” Graves added, “Composers have a limited time to compose; they compose what’ll be played ... There isn’t another resource with 30 strings that would run through this for you.” 

Kleinmann, who is also founder of the play development organization Playground, “a parallel development in theater,” added that “Under Construction,” initiated in 2003, with its first class of resident composers last year, “needs to stick five or 10 years to have it work correctly. It’s ultimately about long-term relationships with local composers, not somebody we fly in for the concert, but hopefully originating a new body of work over time. Composers—and playwrights—are originating artists, but the attention is on the superstars, the conductors and musicians ... As David said, nobody builds a career through one piece at a time. But once someone’s crawled over the transom, creating that initial relationship, something’s begun. But if the tendency is to commission one work at a time, what’s that for a community? We hope ultimately to create a small community of composers. It’s not about any one composer producing great work after great work ... but a different type of recognition. If you succeed more than you fail—that’s a career.”