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UW School of Music Centennial Commissions

The 1995-1996 academic year at the UW School of Music will offer students, faculty and the entire community of music lovers an extraordinary series of concerts marking the school's 100th year. The series, known as the "Centennial Commissions," will feature six concerts, each showcasing a new work by an internationally acclaimed composer.

Each composer has been commissioned to provide a work for one of the School's student or faculty ensembles. The composers are Daron Hagen, John Harbison, Libby Larsen, David Ott, Ralph Shapey and Joan Tower, all of whom will also take part in residencies at the school. The performing groups will be the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, the Concert Choir, the Symphonic Band, the Wingra Woodwind Quintet, the Pro Arte Quartet, and the Symphony Orchestra. With the orchestra, guest artist Ursula Oppens will be the soloist in a new piano concerto composed by Tower, to be performed in the Union Theater.

Such massive undertakings as these could not come to pass without forward-looking creative leadership. Very soon after he assumed the directorship of the Music School four years ago, John Stevens started setting the wheels in motion for this centennial celebration; an impressive list of grants and gift funds will defray the enormous costs of the seven-month celebration. It wasn't always this way at the Music School: the climate for such far-reaching projects was markedly less favorable up through the 1950s and `60s. There were many fine musicians at Wisconsin even then, of course, but on the whole the kind of visionary leadership Stevens and the faculty are demonstrating now would scarcely have been possible 35 years ago. The School was fairly insular in outlook and on average reluctant to introduce much outside stimulation. With precious few exceptions, it was a thoroughly parochial place to study and work.

The School's national acclaim began in 1939, when the first musical artist-in-residence position at any American university was established. This move brought the Pro Arte Quartet to Madison, where it has resided ever since. Subsequent musical artists-in-residence included pianists Gunnar Johansen and Paul Badura-Skoda. In the first half of the School's century, training for artist-level performance was largely left to conservatories like Julliard, Eastman, New England (Boston) and Peabody. Colleges and universities, especially public ones like Wisconsin, tended to place their main emphasis on music education, that is, on training people to teach music in primary and secondary public schools. On the other hand, the Universities of Indiana and (to a lesser extent) Michigan were among the first tax-supported institutions to create programs for artist performance training. By mid-century, many college and university music schools boasted of one or two artist-performers on their faculties.

At Wisconsin, the presence of the Pro Arte, pianist Johansen and soprano Bettina Bjorksten did not make itself felt on the School's general program right away. These highly acclaimed and accomplished artists were somewhat apart from the rest of the faculty, who in my impression regarded them simultaneously with respect but perhaps also with distrust, as though they themselves did not quite meet the high standards presumably demanded by these European luminaries. And in truth, the standard set by such artists was high, as they proved repeatedly with long series of top-caliber performances. The high quality was like an acorn: it grew slowly but impressively into a strong and spreading Wisconsin oak.

Over the years since there has been a steady climb in overall quality in every aspect of the School of Music: more and stronger faculty artists, expansion of the academic offerings (there is now a Doctor of Musical Arts program, which is a performance degree, not an education one), rising enrollments, a huge increase in the number of student and faculty concerts (more than 300 a year now), and a stronger sense of connection with and participation in the larger Madison-area community. It seems appropriate that as it turns 100, the school should be straining to reach even further ahead, indeed into the future. As Stevens remarked, "Rather than focus the centennial on the past, we wanted to look to the future. These concerts and these new works will be part of the school's legacy to future generations, not only of our own students and faculty, but outside the university too, for they will help demonstrate that the UW School of Music is more than just a place for music teaching. It will help the school become known as a center for musical activity, with a national reputation."

Indeed, this wider reputation is already being established: the School's Wisconsin Center for Music Technology is considered a leader in that field, with one of the best-financed computer laboratories for music education and composition in the country. "We expect the new compositions to enter the repertory, and of course they will forever be associated with the School and the University of Wisconsin," Stevens said.

Many features of the entire project touch upon students' experiences during the school year. The composer residencies will be at least three to four days in each case, and will involve the composers meeting with classes, attending open rehearsals, and so forth. "John Harbison is here to conduct," Stevens said. "The impact of having the composer present right on the spot raises the whole experience of preparing a performance to a different level."

In addition to the commissions, premieres of new works by five faculty composers -- Stephen Dembski, Douglas Hill, Joel Naumann, Les Thimmig and Joan Wildman -- will also be performed by student or faculty ensembles during the 1995-96 season.

Naumann, for example, is working on a chamber opera for Karlos Moser and the University Opera. The piece, which has been percolating in his imagination more than 15 years, is based on a small play by Edna St. Vincent Milay, Aria da Capo. The work, which will last about an hour, requires only modest forces to stage: five singer-actors and seven pit musicians (flute, clarinet, string quartet, and piano), resources that almost any community or small college could muster. "There will be no extremes in the work," he told me, "for either singers or players. The piece will be accessible," in keeping with the effort to produce works that will be performed repeatedly. "But it does contain some surprise elements: it begins with a brief prelude, like the musicians tuning up, while two actors are fussing about, setting things up on stage, so that people won't realize that the work has actually already begun." Despite the best-laid plans, however, Naumann knows he cannot finish the piece in time for this year's series.

Each of the six nationally known composers will write a work for a different School of Music ensemble, including three faculty groups and three student groups. It was left to each ensemble to recommend a candidate for its commission. It's clear from talking to the performers that one of the common features of most of the new music will be accessibility: the works are not so abstract or difficult that they must be heard many times to be understood.

Daron Hagen: Wisconsin Brass Quintet, Oct. 6, 1995. A Wisconsin native, Hagen will have his third Madison premiere in a two-month period. His opera Shining Brow, involving the early career of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, had its world premiere here in 1993 and was generally well received. The Milwaukee-based chamber group Present Music premiered a Hagen piece at Music Hall recently, and an orchestral/choral suite based on Shining Brow was featured at the opening of the current Madison Symphony Orchestra subscription season. The Wisconsin Brass Quintet includes some of the country's most outstanding brass players, among them trumpeter John Aley. Of the work Hagen has written for the Quintet, he says, "It's really an outstanding, wonderful piece. It should at once become a classic in the brass repertory. Cast in five mostly independent movements, its harmonic language is accessible; it's full of incredibly musical, singing tunes. It's interesting melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically. The players have their hands full, from the virtuoso point of view, but very pleasurably so. It's fun to play!"

David Ott: Wingra Woodwind Quintet, Nov. 11, 1995. Raised in Wisconsin, Ott is currently composer-in-residence with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and DePauw University. The National Symphony (Washington, D.C.) and the symphonies of Grand Rapids, Knoxville and Kansas City have commissioned works from him. The Wingra Woodwind Quintet has achieved a fine reputation for the wind department of the School's faculty. Like Aley, Marc Fink, the Wingra's oboeist, stressed accessibility of Ott's piece. "Both listeners and performers will find it easy to grasp; the work is certainly a useable piece and should get many performances." Called Gathering of the Waters, a translation of the Native American term for Wisconsin, Ott's piece is in six movements, each a programmatic depiction of a scene -- geographical or historical -- from Wisconsin. For example, one of the movements is called "Apostle Islands," while another is called "Peshtigo Fire." Ott has enjoyed considerable success: his Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra was heard in a Madison Symphony Orchestra concert several seasons ago. Fink remarked, "Rostropovich [then conductor of the National Symphony] liked it quite a bit." Fink also gives the new Ott piece high marks: "He writes very well for the instruments. It's challenging to play, but very lyrical."

John Harbison: Concert Choir, Dec. 8, 1995. Based for many years at MIT in Boston, Harbison makes his home at Token Creek, near Madison, where he and violinist Rose Mary Harbison have created a popular summer chamber-music series. Harbison's works have received a Pulitzer Prize, plus several important fellowships and awards. He has served as composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Los Angeies Philharmonic, as well as creative chair for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Madison audiences have had numerous opportunities to hear Harbison's music; his cello concerto was performed last weekend by Parry Karp and the University Symphony Orchestra. The Concert Choir, directed by Bevery Taylor, is a student group that in recent years has established an enviable record for fine performances. The Harbison piece for the Concert Choir is reported to be very challenging; it's scored for double choir (a device that usually implies antiphonal effects and two distinct characters).

Joan Tower: University Symphony Orchestra (with Ursula Oppens, pianist), Mar. 2, 1996. Madison audiences are already familiar with Tower's Clarinet Concerto, which was performed here last season by the UW's Linda Bartley and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Tower was the recipient of the 1990 Grawemeyer Award and has been recognized by major award and commissions from the prestigious Guggenheim, Fromm, Naumburg, Koussevitzky and Jerome foundations. She has been composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony and currently teaches at Bard College in New York. The School's Symphony Orchestra, a student group, will surely find performing the new Tower Piano Concerto a major peak in their learning experience. Ursula Oppens has to be heard to be believed. She won first prize in the Busoni International Piano Competition in 1969 and has brought her formidable technical and musical prowess to bear on extraordinarily difficult new works by a whole galaxy of modern composers, including Carter, Ligeti, Boulez, Tower and Rzewski. Numerous other awards and recordings have established her as one of the country's leading pianists. Her appearance as soloist in the new Tower Concerto will be a high point, not only for the students of the Symphony Orchestra, but for all of us.

Libby Larsen: Symphonic Wind Ensemble, April 26, 1996. In the past, Larsen was composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra, and currently holds that post with the Charlotte Symphony. She's an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts, ASCAP, and the American Symphony Orchestra League. The Symphonic Wind Ensemble is a relatively new student group comprising 48 players (basically a concert band). James Smith directs the ensemble. Asked about the Larsen piece, he says, "It isn't written yet. She wrote a work called Water Music, which was recorded by the Minnesota Orchestra, and another of her pieces, a chamber-music work called Pinons, encouraged us to recommend her for the commission. She's visiting Madison in October and will presumably have sketches to show us. I would expect the piece to be finished about the first of the year. Larsen's music is esoteric though accessible. It certainly does not pander to the least common denominator. Apart from requiring 18-20 minutes of music, we did not otherwise stipulate what should be written."

Ralph Shapey: Pro Arte String Quartet, May 4, 1996. Well known for his role as the founder and director of the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago, Shapey won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982. He also won the first prize in the 1990 Kennedy Center Friedheim Competition. His commissions have included the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he has conducted both of these internationally acclaimed ensembles. The Pro Arte Quartet has long been recognized as a major American chamber-music ensemble, with a reputation for championing new music. The new Shapey quartet will cap this remarkable season, and should also prove an exciting challenge for the Pro Arte, who are starting the season with two new violinists. Of the Shapey piece, violist Sally Chisholm told me, "It's cast in four quite traditional movements: Theme and Variations, Scherzo, Canzonetta, and Rondo-Fugue. Undoubtedly the major surprise element in it will be the effect of tuning the bottom strings of the cello and viola down by a third [from C to A], which means the bottom string of the viola will be tuned to the same pitch as the top string of the cello. This will create a very different sonority from the traditional quartet sound." Though Shapey's music is usually quite concentrated and intense, Chisholm was very enthusiastic about the new quartet: "It's dramatic, majestic, tender, and joyous," she said.

It seems to me no accident that this project is happening now. Most of the second half of the 20th century has been musically rather conservative. It's not unusual to find very informed and experienced music lovers saying they don't like Schoenberg or Webern or Bartok, who've been dead about 50 years. This antipathy to new music seems to be changing as our century's sands run out. Today's students are perhaps less well prepared in classical repertory when they arrive at college, but no one would say they are reluctant to embrace new music; at mid-century, it was just the other way round.

A concept mentioned by nearly everyone associated with the Centennial Commission project has been accessibility. This is actually a code phrase for "not Schoenberg," that is, not atonal, abstract, formalistic, or difficult to comprehend. These are elements associated with classicism, indeed the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern nexus has been dubbed the Second Vienna Classical school. Our century ends, by contrast, in a wave of neo-Romanticism, a music that is tonal, lyrical, and, well, accessible. The supply of musical talent, pianist Howard Karp once told me, is as great as it ever was, but when students arrive at college now, they only rarely have an extensive background in classical music. Their experience is more eclectic, comprising many different styles and tastes. As we look forward to the Centennial Commissions performances and beyond, it is for these students that the music is being composed, for the most part. The legacy of the first 100 years of the UW-Madison School of Music seems to be summed up best by observing that "accessibility" implies the infusion into serious composition of entertainment values, an element that is distinct from the more formally developed idea of "pure" music, in which the thing is itself, without reference to anything else. One lasting result of the School of Music project may be to demonstrate how late 20th-century ideas and ideals will be projected into the new millenium.

Isthmus, October, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson

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