Young Composers Hone Their Craft And Hear Results

Music director Osmo Vänskä led the Minnesota Orchestra in works by seven young composers.(Photos by Greg Helgeson/Minnesota Orchestra)
Music director Osmo Vänskä led the Minnesota Orchestra in a concert that showcased seven young composers.
(Photos by Greg Helgeson/Minnesota Orchestra)
By Susan Elliott

MINNEAPOLIS — Seven fresh-faced composers arrived at Orchestra Hall on Jan. 25 primed to embark on a week of workshops, seminars, rehearsals, and feedback on their oeuvre. It was the 13th annual Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, and it would culminate four days later in what turned out to be a well-attended concert of their works by the Minnesota Orchestra.

Vänskä: "
Vänskä: “You need to know exactly what you are asking for.”

Many of that sterling ensemble’s members had sessions with the budding Beethovens during the week, explaining what their instruments could and could not do and what constituted a proper instruction in the score to achieve the desired sound.

Given that virtually all of these composers had advanced degrees from major conservatories (some in fact are teaching, some already working on commission), there was a surprising amount of non-idiomatic writing in the orchestral parts. One piece in particular left more than a few musicians perplexed, if not a bit miffed, by its demands — or rather, in this case, nondemands: The composer had envisioned the orchestra essentially as a white-noise generator; his instructions on how to achieve non-tones on devices built to produce tones were beyond comprehension to some of the players.

“You need to know exactly what you are asking for,” Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä told the composer later in a one-on-one session, “otherwise the musicians will balk. They will think, ‘Hey, he doesn’t know anything.’”

“These kids are used to writing for their contemporary music groups at school,” one player said, “so they throw in all these extended techniques and things that we just don’t do.”

From 150 submissions, the works had been chosen by composer Kevin Puts, now in his second year running the Institute; Jennifer Higdon (two of her students’ pieces were picked); and Derek Bermel. Asked about the criteria in an interview, Puts said, “I want composers that have enough control over the orchestra that we can make real music.”

The 2016 Composer Institute participants, from left: Michael Gilbertson, Emily Cooley, Kirsten Broberg, Anthony Vine, Nick DiBerardino, Joshua Cerdenia, Matthew Browne.
The 2016 Composer Institute participants, from left: Michael Gilbertson, Emily Cooley,
Kirsten Broberg,Anthony Vine, Nick DiBerardino, Joshua Cerdenia, Matthew Browne.

He was also looking for a good cross section of composers and styles. There were five men and two women and they hailed from Texas (Kirsten Broberg), Michigan (Matthew Browne), the Philippines (Joshua Cerdenia), Wisconsin (Emily Cooley), Connecticut (Nick DiBerardino), Iowa (Michael Gilbertson), and New York (Anthony Vine). None of the works was longer than 15 minutes.

Stylistically, with the exception of that one white-noise diversion, all of the pieces were loud, thickly orchestrated, colorful, and percussion-laden (all but one required five players, and they spent a significant amount of time charging from one instrument to another). Some showed significantly more skill in writing for orchestra than others, some were substantive, some were not. It made little difference because all were treated with care and professionalism by the musicians and Vänskä. The players had received their parts about a month before the first rehearsal, and it was clear they had done their homework.

Composer Kegin Puts is in his second year running the institute.
Composer Kegin Puts is in his second year running the institute.

As Puts expressed it during a break, “This orchestra has so much integrity. All of these musicians have high standards. All those big swirling textures—they’ve been practicing them (on their own) a lot.”

That this year’s Institute provided for three full rehearsals, rather than two as in previous years, made a big difference, according to all concerned. “With one more rehearsal, we are tempted to really make music!” joked Vänskä.

The Institute, a collaboration with the American Composers Forum, started initially as a series of reading sessions. It was Vänskä’s idea to showcase them in concert, especially after a week’s worth of tweaking and polishing. The audiences have been growing larger every year; an enthusiastic and supportive crowd filled the orchestra section and one of the hall’s three balconies.

Kristen Broberg: Inspired by 'The Planets.'
Kirsten Broberg: Inspired by ‘The Planets.’

At the concert, each composer and his or her piece was introduced in a mini-interview on stage with Performance Today host Fred Child. Broberg explained that the inspiration for her Celestial Dawning had been Holst’s The Planets, which was clearly evident in the great wash of sound she favored throughout; Browne’s Barnstorming Season takes its name from the daredevil airplane stunts that were popular in the 1920s and uses old-timey Americana tunes — think choppy excerpts from a 1950s Boston Pops recording — from which to create its atmosphere aimed at humor.

Michael Gilbertson's 'Sinfonia after Vivaldi' closed the concert.
Michael Gilbertson’s ‘Sinfonia after Vivaldi’ closed the concert.

Cerdenia, still working on a master’s degree at Juilliard, drew inspiration from a popular myth of his homeland for his filmscore-like Magayon. Among the strongest works was Gilbertson’s Sinfonia after Vivaldi, two movements of which closed the concert. In his introduction, Gilbertson, whose pieces have already been performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony and Washington National Opera, and who counts names like Corigliano among his teachers, explained the advantage of growing up in a small city with an orchestra. He’s been testing out his pieces on the Dubuque Symphony since he was a teenager. In the context of his colleagues on this occasion, his experience was evident to players and listeners alike.

Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of