Can you imagine enjoying a sandwich with Ludwig Van Beethoven or listening on with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as they rehearse “The Magic Flute”? Unfortunately it’s about 200 years too late for that, but now is your chance to interact with some of tomorrow’s greatest composers.
• What: American Music Festival
• When: May 15-17
• Where: EMPAC, 110 Eighth St., Troy
• How much: Ticket prices vary, some events are free
• Info: 694-3300 or www.albanysymphony.com
“All day, composers, musicians and music lovers hang out at RPI and EMPAC,” said David Alan Miller, conductor of the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
Miller is referring to the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming American Music Festival, a celebration of today’s composers. Miller likes to think of the festival as a way to demystify the process of music making and encourages the public to be a part of the magic.
“There are about 25 composers involved in the festival from all over the country,” he said. “They hang out with us for most of the week. I encourage everyone to come to open rehearsal … or have a sandwich at lunchtime at the cafe in EMPAC.”
The event, now in its 14th year, is a three-day festival that culminates the ASO season. Attendees will be able to interact with living composers and watch them rehearse, see what goes on behind the scenes and be part of a full orchestra performance on Saturday evening.
During the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s season, which spans nine weekends between September and May, the orchestra is known for combining music from both old and new composers. This festival is all about the new, something Miller is well-known for, having recently won a Grammy Award in January for his Naxos recording of John Corigliano’s “Conjurer” with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and Dame Evelyn Glennie.
“The Capital Region is one of the greatest centers for living music, thanks largely to what we do,” Miller said. “It has become known in the orchestra world as one of the most important centers to experience new composers and new music.”
This year, the festival takes on a new level of heightened visibility as Grammy Award-winning percussionist Glennie reunites with the symphony.
“We are excited to have Dame Evelyn Glennie perform ‘Strike Zones’ by composer Joan Tower,” Miller said. “The world’s greatest percussionist is coming back. It’s her first appearance with us since we won the Grammy.”
As part of the festival, audience members can get a sneak peak into the world of music when Glennie works with percussionists from the Empire State Youth Orchestra in a master class setting and when up-and-coming composers chosen from a competitive national selection process have their works read and performed for the first time by an orchestra.
“The whole orchestra is on the stage. We read each piece on stage with an audience listening. We rehearse the piece and make them a CD they can study from,” Miller said. “It’s roughly a two-and-a-half hour event.”
Miller said what makes the readings interesting, in addition to discovering new composers, is that the audience gets to experience the pieces taking shape.
“Afterward, we all come on stage and discuss the piece. Tell the composers what we thought, what worked and what didn’t work,” Miller said. “It’s really a view inside how we make the music, and people find it fascinating.”
On Friday evening, “Dogs of Desire,” a unique chamber ensemble made up of classical musicians and a rock band described as “classical chamber ensemble meets rock band,” will take the stage.
“Dogs of Desire is our new music ensemble rock band of the future … an orchestra of the future,” Miller said. “Sixteen musicians, a singer and drummer … it’s rock infused … not a rock band, but more of a fusion of pop music and pop culture and the great tradition.”
Miller said the group will perform four brand new pieces, three of which involve dancers.
“It’s really spectacular,” Miller said. “A very theatrical concert. People are always amazed how much fun and unique it is. We basically sell it out every year.”
On Saturday afternoon, Clarice Assad and musicians from the Albany Symphony will perform a free concert at the Troy Farmers Market. Assad is a classical and jazz composer, arranger, pianist and vocalist who served as the orchestra’s composer in residence this year.
“She has been doing a fantastic project at Hackett Middle School with 15 girls,” Miller said.
Assad has been meeting twice a month with middle school students in what began as an improvisation workshop but soon morphed into songwriting.
“I came to teach them about improvisation, but we changed plans,” Assad said.
After working with the girls, Assad found that they wrote very well and felt songwriting was something they were more comfortable with.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we combine their singing with their taste for songs they love — pop songs.’ Now they are writing songs together,” Assad said. “I’m helping them put them together and record them. It’s a lot of fun. We are going to have at least two hits for the summer.”
Assad will join the orchestra on Saturday evening for a performance of “Scattered Concerto for Piano and Scat Singing.” Assad said she wrote the piece a few years ago for herself out of a desire to combine the things she loved doing the most — singing, playing and writing for orchestra.
“It’s scat singing, called ‘scattered’ because it’s all over the place, from genre to genre,” she said.
Also taking the stage Saturday evening will be Grammy-winning contemporary American composer, concert pianist and conductor, Joan Tower.
Tower is best known for her award-winning piece, “Made in America,” which won three Grammys.
“It was an amazing experience. The piece was played by 65 orchestras,” Tower said.
Tower said she feels the piece connected with an audience because of the way she intertwined “America the Beautiful” into it. “Made in America” has reached a more widespread audience in a short span of time than many other modern compositions do in a decade.
“People are not used to hearing contemporary music played, so I decided to include ‘America the Beautiful’ in the piece as the basis of the piece. It’s woven in and out of the piece. It turned out to be a terrific idea and did tune people in,” Tower said.
Tower also teaches young up-and-coming musicians as a professor at Bard College and said she is an advocate for bringing living composers to the forefront the way David Alan Miller does with ASO.
“I think it’s an inspiring idea to do the festival like this and to invite so many young and older living composers to participate,” Tower said. “It brings music forward rather than keeping it as a museum piece. He (Miller) does it because he really loves composers, not because he should.”
Miller said each year the festival adds more elements to make it more about clarifying the process of making music and appreciating the living composers that are alive here and now.
“We try to give it more than prior years, build more elements to bring the audience into what we are doing and demystify the process,” he said. “We want people to feel the same excitement and also understand what is interesting and exciting about these people.”
The festival runs from Thursday, May 15 through Saturday, May 17. Tickets for all Albany Symphony performances can be purchased by calling 694-3300, online at www.albanysymphony.com or by visiting the box office at 19 Clinton Ave., Albany. For more information, call 694-3300 or visit www.albanysymphony.com.