The 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog: Composer Fine Print

The 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog: Composer Fine Print

Spencer Topel

Waking up today is beyond challenge, but I am getting accustomed to the limited sleep. I feel like we have been thrust into a posh boot camp for orchestral composers, with no relief in sight. Still, it is thrilling to be a part of this fantastic musical fervor.

The morning is dedicated to the dark arts of copyright and the commissioning process. Master copyright lawyer James Kendrick presents a stunning mini law school class. Maybe for the first time, I have a clear idea what Grand Rights are and how to calculate them. James is clearly a strong presence within the composer community, and his expertise is rare and specific to the kind of advice we need as composers. The commissioning session evokes funny comments from composers Stephen Paulus and Alex Shapiro, and without much of a break, we quickly move on to the percussion seminar.

Brian Mount and Kevin Watkins start the percussion seminar by saying how excited they are by the high quality of the percussion writing and careful layout considerations across all of the compositions. Halfway through the session cameras came in from the orchestra to film a little promotional material, and everyone in the room sat up a little straighter and laughed a bit louder.

Humor is easy because of the comical dynamic between Brian and Kevin. I think they really have a funny dynamic: Brian with his enthusiastic yet serious tone, and Kevin with his more laid back approach and southern sensibilities make for a brilliant percussionist stand up routine.

A short power session with conductor Mark Russel Smith finishes out the afternoon. His advice for working with conductors is a good reminder for how to approach the rehearsals in the next few days. He emphasizes the language appropriate for communicating with a conductor, and what is not (the dreaded “I don’t know”, for instance).

Going quickly into the evening, we had an excellent dinner with donors and board members at a beautiful private home in one of the older neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Michael Henson, President and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, gave a short speech followed by a concise yet empowering introduction by Osmo Vänskä and Aaron Jay Kernis. I was delighted to hear Osmo affirm the importance of the program, in the most pragmatic Finnish sort of way, by saying “composing music without hearing it is like a Chef cooking a dinner no one eats; (pause) it’s a bad idea.”

Aaron took a moment to describe the sheer volume of awards and accomplishments in recent years coming out this program, ranging from multiple Rome Prizes to major orchestra commissions across the world. Aaron pointed out the important role the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute plays in the attainment of these opportunities, which is clear when considering the experiences we are going through here as participants.

Throughout the evening, there was a prevailing sense from this powerful group of people that new music is truly a major part of this orchestra and community. I absolutely loved meeting such a warm and passionate group of new music advocates. When people talk of contemporary classical music dying, they should visit Minnesota and see this wonderful exception. After short and well delivered composer introductions, we head back to the hotel. Big day tomorrow with the first rehearsals. I am already getting nervous.

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