The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger talks about the state of contemporary classical music. Part 1 of 2

February 25, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

A reminder: British pianist Stephen Hough, who will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend, will be the featured guest on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Midday program Thursday. It starts at noon on WERN 88.7 FM in the Madison area. On Thursday afternoon, from 1 to 3 p.m. in Morphy Hall, Hough will give a free public master class at the UW-Madison.

This Tuesday night, March 2, at 7:30 p.m.  in Mills Hall, the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (below) will perform a concert of largely contemporary classical music.

Admission is free and unticketed.

University of Wisconsin-Madison prize-winning composer Laura Schwendinger (below) directs the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

For background, here is a link to her UW biography and press release about winning a prestigious prize:

Schwendinger recently gave The Ear an e-mail interview about the upcoming concert and about the state of contemporary classical music in Madison and elsewhere.

Q: What is the importance of Nathan Currier and why or how is the UW offering a world premiere?

A: Nathan (below) is one of the most celebrated composers of his generation.  He  has been the recipient of important prizes and awards, such as the Academy Award, given for lifetime achievement, from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Rome Prize, Guggenheim, Fulbright, NEA, Fromm, Ives, Barlow, and ASCAP prizes in composition.

This is a rare opportunity for our Contemporary Chamber Ensemble to premiere a work by such a composer, as we have no commissioning budget.

Nathan will also be giving a master class for composers on Wednesday, March 3, at 3:15 p.m. in Room 2551 in the Humanities Building. We invite the public to this event although seating is limited.

Q: How would you describe Currier’s style to laypeople or non-musicians?

A: His work is well conceived and immediately attractive, even though rigorously composed.

Q: And the styles of other pieces/composers on your program?

A: We are doing Kaija Saariaho beguiling “Miranda’s Lament”; Ravel’s glorious “Chansons Madécasses,” a most exciting and dramatic work; an early work, “Dark Upon the Harp,” by Jacob Druckman; a jazzy and lyrical work by percussionist/composer Bob Becker; and a premiere of a work by one of our graduate students Fillippo Santoro.

Q: How is contemporary classical music treated at UW? By other performing groups and presenters in Madison?  Are we adventurous enough?

A: Besides the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, the School of Music as a whole is very supportive of contemporary music. For instance, our wonderful orchestra director James Smith, holds a new music reading session at the end of the each semester. Students actually get a chance to hear their works read by the orchestra.

In addition, several studio heads are also great supporters of new music. Tony Di’Sanza, our amazing percussion professor is constantly premiering new works with his ensemble and his terrific partner, pianist Jessica Johnson. Sally Chisholm, Mark Hetzler, Les Thimmig and Christopher Taylor are all extraordinary supporters and presenters of new music.

I also hope, in my capacity as the artistic Director of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, that one day my teaching load will include my ensemble. Currently I offer the work with my group as an overload because I believe strongly that the music of our time is living music, and the performance practice of it must be part of any School of Music curriculum.

Q: What about off-campus? What approach would you like to see?

As for the greater Madison area, although there have been great concerts and events, there are ways the city could explore the power of new music more. Some of the established performance organizations could program more challenging new music.

My philosophy in programming for the CCE is to perform mostly living composers. For our March 2 concert, we will perform four works by living composers, a work by a woman and two premieres. That sort of approach promises the listener a new adventure, a challenging one yes, but one that is filled with discovery.

Although I’m sure it’s daunting for presenters to program music they feel will challenge their listeners, it is only with exposure to new music that one learns to enjoy and understand the rhetoric of it. This is an investment of time well worth it, for new music has so much to offer.

One other way Madison can support new music is in attendance of concerts at the University and by other ensembles that offer it. For instance, the CCE takes part in a consortium with the fantastic new music ensembles of the Universities of Iowa and Minnesota.

Each new music ensemble tours the other participating schools presenting extraordinary concerts of new music. Even though we publicize them as much as we can, we see small audiences for those concerts and would love attendance to grow for them, as they are such strong programs. They are free and open to the public. The University of Iowa performs at UW April 9 and the University of Minnesota performs here on April 24.

Tomorrow: the state of contemporary classical music in Madison and the US; an upcoming performance in Madison of Schwendinger’s “Van Gogh Nocturnes” for piano; and places to hear her music

Posted in Classical music

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