May 11, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 16

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    Contemporary Chamber Players will perform the compositions of four graduate students on May 19

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    In mid-May, Chicago audiences will have a rare chance to hear a professional chamber ensemble perform works by a group of emerging artists in the field of contemporary composition. One of the only events of its kind in the region, this annual concert will present listeners with a first-hand experience of new works written by graduate student composers in the University’s Department of Music.

    This year’s Katherine A. Abelson Young Composers Concert will feature the world premiere of Dana McCormick’s The Leash of Love’s Longing, Suzanne Sorkin’s Night Watch, R. Ben Sutherland’s ...not the songs of light and Pelarin Bacos III’s String Quartet No. 3. Cliff Colnot, Resident Musical Director of the University Contemporary Chamber Players, will conduct the group in performing the works at 8 p.m. Friday, May 19.

    The Contemporary Chamber Players, founded in 1964 by Ralph Shapey, Professor Emeritus in Music, has annually presented a Young Composers Concert since 1983, providing student composers with an opportunity to hear their works performed in the setting of an internationally renowned, professional concert series.

    A grant from the Katherine A. Abelson Fund of the Lester S. Abelson Foundation has underwritten the event and made it possible for this year’s concert to be presented free of charge.

    For many of the composers, the concert marks the first full materialization of an artistic process that has spanned hundreds of hours of solitary effort.

    Shulamit Ran, the William H. Colvin Professor in Music, explains that before a musical idea can be given an expression in the real world, composers must translate their imaginations of what audiences will hear into a form that is legible to musicians.

    “Composition is the art of organizing sounds to create meaning,” said Ran. “But we have to remember that when composers write instrumental or vocal music, they don’t deal directly with sounds, they work with notation,” she continued. “So added to the challenge of creating something that exists mainly in one’s head is the task of conveying it to paper, in all of its immense subtleties. Performance situations can demonstrate whether what one has written succeeds or fails to communicate one’s intentions.”

    Contemporary Chamber Players Manager and doctoral candidate in music Russell Grazier echoes Ran’s assessment. “When you finish a score, that’s not the piece. The piece is a performance,” he said. “For the piece to actually happen, you have to assemble a group of musicians who have the talent to make your work a reality.”

    This year, all four composers whose works fill the concert program are Ph.D. candidates. Their compositions represent a range of genres and aesthetic orientations that demonstrate the versatility of composition as an expressive form.

    Sorkin said her contribution, Night Watch, sets Adrienne Rich’s poem of the same title to music. “In my music, I’m attempting to create a counterpoint, not just of notes, but of ‘colors’ as well,” she explained. “By blending and combining different instrumental and vocal timbres, I’m hoping to create a new sound world.

    “My relationship to the poem is a very close and personal one, and I wanted to create, in music, the different colors and feelings the poem suggests,” she continued. “For example, the ‘paleness’ of sleep, or the cold, hard quality of ‘black flint.’”

    Sorkin, as well as music students Adrian Childs and Tiffany Sevilla, had works selected for performance at this year’s Poznan Festival of Contemporary Music in Poland.

    Bacos, whose work will be performed by Pacifica String Quartet, the University Artists-in-Residence and members of the Contemporary Chamber Players, said he counts Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart as his greatest points of reference.

    “Although sometimes I ask myself whether or not it would make sense for me to be more ‘avant-garde,’ when I’m actually writing, I think about how my scores might fit in with the genre’s glorious past.”

    Bacos said the experience of hearing professional musicians perform his work has been tremendously valuable. “If my score is too difficult to play, they let me know. In contrast with younger student ensembles, I know that if Pacifica can’t play the music I’ve written, it’s probably just unplayable.”

    Colnot agrees. “By hearing their works performed accurately, student composers are able to gain profound insights into what works and what doesn’t and what directions they might want to pursue in their next piece.”

    While teaching advanced orchestration, Colnot comes into contact with most of the students whose works are performed in the Young Composers Concert. In his classes, Colnot discusses notational practices and “traps” students should avoid in writing their scores.

    According to Richard Cohn, Chairman and Professor in Music, students in the composition program receive intensive training in music research. Students also make significant contributions to teaching and scholarship, he said. “In one way or another, everyone in the department is studying the products of creative artistry,” said Cohn. “Those who create on a daily basis have a special perspective that helps to ground some of the more esoteric impulses of their scholarly colleagues.”

    Ran said she marvels at the breadth and depth of talent the program brings to the University each year. “The range and variety is incredible. It’s something that’s so inspiring.

    “At times, it’s troubling to think that composition is viewed as a marginal activity by the population at large. But if someone were to ask me if I thought that it’s a dying art, I would have to say that any fear I might have of that prospect is resolved by the passion and commitment I see in our students.”

    The Katherine A. Abelson Young Composers Concert will take place in Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. For more information, call (773) 702-8098 or visit http://music.uchicago.edu.