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Sounds of summer

Mizzou New Music Summer Festival resonates with aficionados

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Published: July 9, 2010
Sounds of Summer

The MU School of Music and the Missouri Symphony Society present the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, a weeklong celebration of contemporary compositions. Photo by Nic Benner.

Take this as sound advice. You can hear the history of music being made at the inaugural Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, an event that promises to position Columbia and MU as a center for new compositions. 

Ten world premieres will highlight the weeklong festival, July 12 through 18, presented by the MU School of Music and the Missouri Symphony Society. Four concerts will feature innovative artistry and the scores of emerging and established composers. 

Audiences will hear how music is gravitating toward blends of jazz, pop, rock, world and modern styles. They can watch and listen as rising-star composers finish new works under the guidance of distinguished composers and during rehearsals.

“We expect this festival to become one of the elite programs in the country,” says Robert Shay, director of the School of Music. “It will be a dynamic environment, something special for Mizzou and Columbia.” Established new-music festivals are held annually at the University at Buffalo in New York, the University of Cincinnati and other locations.

International interest

Alan Pierson and Lisa Moore

Guest performers for the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival include the 20-member ensemble Alarm Will Sound featuring Artistic Director Alan Pierson (left) and avant-garde Australian pianist Lisa Moore (right). Photos by Justin Bernhaut and Mark Ostow.

Festival planning began in earnest when a field of 120 young composers from several countries submitted music samples — three original scores and recordings — to win spots as resident composers. The chosen eight composers then began writing new scores for a large ensemble.

After a week of fine-tuning at Mizzou, those pieces will make their premieres at the July 18 performance by Alarm Will Sound, an ensemble internationally known for innovative recordings.

“All composers look for good performances for their pieces. Having a large ensemble like Alarm Will Sound rehearsing and performing these pieces is a pretty rare opportunity for them,” says MU Professor Tom McKenney.

MU’s link to Alarm Will Sound is Associate Professor Stefan Freund, who composes for and plays cello with the 20-piece ensemble that performs nationally and internationally for appreciative audiences. “We have an energy on stage that comes out when we play,” he says. “There’s a lot of interaction between players that draws in the audience.” 

The group draws in great critical reviews, too. A New York Times reviewer says the ensemble is “the future of classical music” and “as close to being a rock band as a chamber orchestra can be.” Entertainment Weekly labels Alarm Will Sound “Uberhip.”

New music rocks

Derek Bermel and Martin Bresnick

New compositions by Grammy nominee Derek Bermel (left) and Guggenheim Fellow Martin Bresnick (right) will be performed during the festival. Opening night also features world premieres of music by composers Thomas McKenney and John Orfe. Photos by James Pomerantz and Nina Roberts.

“This is the type of music that can bridge the gap between people who listen to rock and those who listen to classical music,” McKenney says of the featured festival compositions.

McKenney and Freund, who teach MU music theory and composition classes (the rocket science of music education), selected the resident composers after reviewing submitted music scores and recordings for hours. They were looking for original voice, creativity and solid construction. 

“The winners jumped out at us with fresh ideas,” Freund says. “What they were doing was very interesting to listen to. There are eight very different styles and an eclectic collection of music.”

The inaugural resident composers are Christopher Dietz, Francisco Cortes-Alvarez, Moon Young Ha, Edie Hill, Amy Beth Dirsten, Jeremy Podgursky, Paul Dooley and Zhou Juan.

Each will receive private lessons and mentoring from distinguished composers Martin Bresnick, a member of the music faculty at Yale University, and Grammy-nominated Derek Bermel, composer in residence of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Bresnick, Bermel, McKenney and Freund all contributed original pieces or transcriptions that will be performed at the festival.

Audiences can watch the process as well as hear the concerts. Workshops, presentations by the composers and performers, and some rehearsals are open to the public. Concerts will be held at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts; other activities will be at campus venues. See the full schedule for details.

Quite possibly, the two area residents who will enjoy this festival the most are music patrons Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield, whose charitable foundation supports the program and the Mizzou New Music Initiative.

With the Mizzou’s festival in place, the Sinquefields’ vision to create a Missouri incubator for the composition and performance of new music has gained clarity. 

Instrumental to having fun

The mix of unusual instruments alone may be worth the price of admission to Mizzou New Music Summer Festival concerts.

Here’s a sampling of some lesser-known instruments the musicians will play:

  • West African gyil (similar to a marimba)
  • slit drum (primitive log drum)
  • shaker made from goat toenails
  • Tibetan prayer bowl
  • agogo and cajone drums
  • cabasa (cylinder covered with a chain)
  • claves (short, thick dowels)
  • vibraslap (sophisticated version of a jawbone)

Pushing instrumentation to the edge, the performers also will make music with a bicycle pump (whoosh, whoosh), an oven rack, water chimes, a washboard, a cowbell, a duck call, an anvil and a chain (dropped on a drum). And they will use instruments in unusual ways, as demonstrated by Australian pianist Lisa Moore in a July 13 concert.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012