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Immersed in Experimentation

The Fuel Behind MusicNOW


By Meghan Berneking


As Music Director Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra enter a third year of collaboration with the MusicNOW Festival and its Artistic Director Bryce Dessner, the so-called boundaries of music continue to blur as the doors of experimentation are flung open. This year, the two unique programs (one on Friday, March 18 and the second on Saturday, March 19) feature works by Mr. Dessner, Terry Riley, Julia Wolfe, Witold Lutosławski and more, as well as guest performances by the Grammy Award-winning mandolinist (and new host of A Prairie Home Companion) Chris Thile, the Kronos Quartet and violinist Jennifer Koh. 

While the CSO’s MusicNOW performances certainly help to elevate its artistry by expanding the Orchestra’s role, the experience of being immersed in experimentation also resonates with audiences. Exploring new music and engaging up-and-coming artists serves to deepen feelings of engagement and connection to the community, particularly for young adults new to the region or returning after time away from the Queen City. Does this community enthusiasm generate an environment conducive to experimentation? If so, what do the results mean for the future of music?

Fanfare Cincinnati explored some of these questions with Ms. Koh and David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet. What emerged were fascinating insights about the very nature of music, the role of collaboration and the responsibility of artists today to pave the way for artists of the future.

The nature of music
“I think of music as a great big set of variations,” said Mr. Harrington. “Just imagine the very first person in the universe who ever heard music…. Somewhere, someone became the first musician, and I would say that everything that’s happened in music since then is a variation on that. The idea of genres is something that’s been applied to music.” 

These variations are so particular to each individual’s personal history that close, intimate collaboration is key to the continuation of the art form. “The idea of there being a kind of environment where musicians can try things out together, that’s a really important thing. It’s like a living laboratory, and we’re not sure what the end result will be, but we know it will be another variation, and maybe something we have not heard before,” said Mr. Harrington.

These “variations” are not limited to musicians. Ms. Koh sees collaboration as something critical across all art forms. “I feel very close to artists in general. I think that most of us come to an understanding of the world around us through art. It is a false imposition to define us as separate whether we work in different genres of music or in different art forms,” she said.

It’s a commonality that extends beyond the stage and to the audience. “So when someone comes to a concert, they’re hoping to find new words to add to their vocabulary, new memories and new experiences,” said Mr. Harrington.

Over its history, the CSO has experimented with everything from radio broadcasts and daring world premieres, including collaborations with other art forms. Most recently, The Pelléas Trilogy with director James Darrah brought together dance, film and set design in its October 2015 launch, and the next two installments over the next two seasons will feature spoken word, as well as operatic elements in partnership with Cincinnati Opera.

From Haydn to mandolin
The Kronos Quartet, which has built a career largely on new music and re-imagining the string quartet experience, will be performing later this year at Esterházy Palace, considered the place where Haydn invented the string quartet, in a performance that will likely pay homage to the entire history of the string quartet from its earliest iterations to contemporary explorations. “I never thought we’d ever be invited. Those are important moments for musicians, where you sense that you’re challenged by the place you are playing in. And I feel that way about MusicNOW,” said Mr. Harrington.

For Ms. Koh, the time period or style of music does not affect how she approaches a new piece. “My process usually begins with a total immersion in each composer’s full body of work. The learning process of an individual piece is the same as well, where I try to reach a point where the music becomes a natural part of my body—a state of flow and alchemy,” she said.

While both Ms. Koh and the Kronos Quartet consider Bach and Haydn as musical fathers, their dedication to the commissioning of new music is laying the foundation not only for their own careers, but for future musicians. The Kronos Quartet recently launched its “Fifty for the Future” project, which will, at the end of its five years, result in fifty newly composed string quartets with the scores and parts to each available to download online for free, thus eliminating many of the obstacles of availability and cost that string musicians and ensembles often face. “We’re attempting to create a repertoire for the next generation of string quartet groups,” said Mr. Harrington.

“I am thrilled about many projects coming up in future seasons with new commissions by many of my closest composer collaborators, and I am very excited that Robert Wilson will be directing a fully staged production of the complete works by J.S. Bach for solo violin,” said Ms. Koh. In addition, she founded MusicBridge, a non-profit organization dedicated to funding innovative, artist-driven commissioning projects and music education initiatives. “I founded MusicBridge in order to create a structure to support and expand education programs and artistic collaborations based on particular concepts. I am excited about continuing our first fully funded programs for Bridge to Beethoven, which includes commissions by a diverse array of composers musically conversing about their relationship with Beethoven,” she said.

Chris Thile has also successfully bridged the perceived gap between old and new, perhaps most notably through his recording of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for mandolin. 

MusicNOW in Cincinnati
The pieces Ms. Koh and the Kronos Quartet will perform at MusicNOW will be new to CSO audiences, but are direct results of their work with contemporary composers. The Kronos Quartet will perform Julia Wolfe’s My Beautiful Scream and Terry Riley’s The Sands, both of which were written specifically for them. Ms. Koh will perform Anna Clyne’s The Seamstress, a work she premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I enjoy the strangeness of the harmonic language and the uneasiness of the coloration in the orchestra beneath the beauty of its melodies,” she said of the work.

Over the history of MusicNOW and the CSO’s collaboration with the Festival, it remains clear that part of the Festival’s success is due to Cincinnati itself. “I would say that the audience and the musical culture that exists in Cincinnati are just perfect for the Festival,” said Mr. Harrington. “Our first time at the Festival was in 2009, and what was remarkable was the incredible vibe and enthusiasm surrounding it. It was not only the audience but everyone who was part of the Festival; you could sense a real energy, commitment and enthusiasm, and to me that translated to what happened on stage. I feel like what Bryce and everyone at MusicNOW have done is they’ve created a situation that challenges us to find the next step and just go for it. And what better challenge is there than that?”

MusicNOW takes place at Music Hall with the CSO, Chris Thile, the Kronos Quartet and Jennifer Koh Friday and Saturday, March 18-19. Single tickets and two-day passes are now available. For details and tickets visit cincinnatisymphony.org/musicnow.

The MusicNOW Festival continues Sunday, March 20 (sans CSO). For details and tickets visit musicnowfestival.org.