People wondering about the character of new music these days, especially music for symphony orchestra, get a carload of impressions and information at the Minnesota Orchestra's annual "Future Classics" concert, which draws a bigger audience of curious and enthusiastic music-lovers, young and old, each year.
This year's concert, which took place Friday night at Orchestra Hall, is the culmination of the orchestra's Composer Institute, now in its 13th year, a collaboration with the American Composers Forum. Seven young composers are chosen each year out of hundreds who apply. They're in the "emerging" category and have already earned commissions and won awards. The age range this year was 26 to 36.
They're treated to a week's worth of seminars on subjects that music departments usually ignore: copyright law, grant writing, contracts and career promotion — how, as one of the composers put it, "to be a pro."
And their works are carefully rehearsed during the week. No other major orchestra does this. Musicians work on their parts weeks — months, in some cases — in advance. Music director Osmo Vänskä, for whom the institute has become a fierce labor of love, counsels each of the composers in private sessions, as does the institute's director, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts. Mele Willis of the orchestra's staff coordinates the whole effort.
What did we learn Friday night? First, no one style or idiom dominates any longer, though I guess we knew that already. Big, solemn statements are out of favor. The era of High Modernism — innovation for its own sake — is over. Ambiguity is in, the graceful melancholy, for instance, in the trombone solo of the slow section of "Magayon" by Joshua Cerdenia, a New York-based Filipino composer. Just before that, the audience heard an eerie viola solo (Thomas Turner) in the richly textured, multilayered "Asphodel" by former Rhodes Scholar Nick DiBerardino.
Matthew Browne's terrific "Barnstorming Season" suggests that music can be lighthearted and serious at the same time. Browne evokes the airshows of the 1920s, "flying circuses" wherein "The 12th Street Rag" keeps collapsing into raucous chaos. In another aeronautical score, Emily Cooley draws on Annie Dillard's book "The Writing Life" to describe a stunt pilot practicing tricks in his one-man plane, flying ever higher until a kind of peaceful consolation is achieved at the highest elevation. Anthony Vine's clever "Transmission" turns the orchestra into a giant radio receiver, broadcast signals struggling to come into focus.
Subtle, complicated percussion effects infused many of the works. (What a workout this was for Brian Mount and his colleagues in the percussion section.) Kirsten Broberg from White Bear Lake, the only Minnesota composer in this year's group, paints silvery, glistening sounds in her "Celestial Dawning." And Michael Gilbertson from Dubuque, Iowa, creates a thoughtful abstraction on "The Four Seasons" in his "Sinfonia After Vivaldi."
"I've never had my music played by a full string section," Gilbertson told moderator Fred Child onstage Friday night. "It sounds so good."
In an earlier interview, Vänskä spoke of the thrill for the composer that is at the heart of the institute.
"I have written enough music myself to know that composing is a lonely activity. It's a glorious moment when they can actually hear what they wrote."
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.