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September 25, 2007

This week only: new music at no risk (to you)

Steven Stucky: Photo © Hoebermann Studio. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky will be at U of L’s New Music Festival next week.The University of Louisville School of Music’s annual New Music Festival promises a number of things: daring new music, of course, from this century and the previous one; multiple days of concerts; and a money-back guarantee of sorts. That is to say, these events are free. Your risk is minimal, and your major investment is time.The festival in the Margaret Comstock Concert Hall, widely lauded for superb acoustics, is an annual highlight for fans of new concert music as well as for neophytes, and a rare opportunity for all to hear some of the most exhilarating and daring concerts Louisville has to offer. It’s also significant for performers, who explore modern literature, work with living composers and try to convert anyone who believes listenable music ended with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”Besides programming that balances the repertoire between the new and the very new, the festival features pieces composed by members of the university’s renowned composition faculty (Steve Rouse and Frederick Speck are featured this year) alongside work by composition students.The festival also highlights music from a guest composer of great acclaim. This year, the spotlight falls on Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, who is featured all three nights. Stucky is one of the most performed and decorated living American composers, and also a dedicated mentor to and teacher of students from around the world. His work, ranging from solo pieces to large-scale orchestral compositions, has been performed and commissioned by some of the world’s most celebrated ensembles.Last week, he was gracious enough to share his thoughts with LEO, via e-mail, on new music and the festival.LEO: Some listeners find 20th and 21st century concert music intimidating and mysterious. What advice might you give to these first-time attendees?Steven Stucky: One big problem for all of us in this situation is a kind of stage fright — the idea that we might be unqualified to understand what we’re about to hear, that the concert is a sort of exam we might fail. It helps a lot if we get rid of that psychological obstacle, just remind ourselves that music is not to be understood. It’s just to be enjoyed on whatever level we can.LEO: Each new piece of art can present issues to be addressed and resolved by its creator. Are there any recurring issues or themes that you find yourself addressing in your music? Might there be a unifying thread?SS: There are a lot of differences among my pieces, caused perhaps by responding to different performing forces, different concert situations, and Steven Stucky: Photo © Hoebermann Studio. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky will be at U of L’s New Music Festival next week. different texts. What is the same from piece to piece, though, is that I try to write as specifically for each instrument or ensemble as possible: cello music that only makes sense on the cello; choral music that only sounds right when sung, that sort of thing. In that way, I also want to be a collaborator with the musicians, not their adversary.LEO: Orchestras are expensive to run, and living composers have limited opportunities to write for them. As one of the few modern American composers consistently contributing to the orchestral repertoire, what needs to be done in our country to create more performance opportunities for new orchestral music?SS: I have been impressed by the Minnesota Orchestra’s program for young composers. It is such a success partly because the orchestra is very good, partly because the music director is fully and very publicly behind it, and partly because the Twin Cities audience is bright and adventurous. I’m always puzzled why more orchestras don’t do the same, by building one week of that into their musicians’ contracts. There are ways to do that without costing extra. But at the other end of the spectrum, you’d be surprised how many amateur, community and college orchestras are playing new works. There’s nothing wrong with writing easier music that amateur orchestras can succeed at — and for the student composer, you probably learn more that way than writing something complex that a major orchestra will make sound good despite your mistakes!LEO: What opportunities does your role as the featured composer at the U of L New Music Festival provide for you?SS: To hear nine of my works in a few days is likely to be a sobering experience. They stretch over 25 years as well, so some of them are quite distant from me by now, like hearing the work of a much younger colleague.LEO: The U of L School of Music and the Louisville Orchestra have a long legacy as proponents of new music. As a guest of honor, what might you relay to the people of Louisville to make them more aware of the nature of this legacy?SS: I grew up listening to the Louisville Orchestra LPs of contemporary music from the 1960s onward. Those performances and recordings were crucial to generations of American composers, musicians and listeners. Nowadays, of course, the Grawemeyer Award is probably the premiere composition prize in the world. Just as all eyes are on New York City the first Monday in April when the Pulitzers are announced, all eyes are on Louisville at Grawemeyer time. I hope people take a lot of pride in that. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.comUniversity of Louisville’s New Music FestivalOct. 2-4, featuring music by Steven StuckyMargaret Comstock Concert Hall582-6907www.louisville.edu/musicFree; 8 p.m.Oct. 2: Faculty artistsOct. 3: University New Music Ensemble and University Wind EnsembleOct. 4: University Collegiate Chorale & Cardinal Singers; University Symphony Orchestra