Time to Play

Meghan Berneking


MusicNOW 2017 features award-winning contemporary works


The CSO’s collaboration with the MusicNOW Festival, now in its fourth year, continues to generate buzz across the country for its genre-defying experimentation, numerous U.S. and world premieres, and unexpected artistic relationships. This year’s program again features adventurous new music, composers, and artists making their CSO debuts (including conductor and composer Matthias Pintscher), as well as returning audience favorites including MusicNOW Artistic Director Bryce Dessner. Making this year’s line-up particularly exciting is the high caliber of the works to be performed, which include a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Grawemeyer Award winner.

“I believe deeply that our responsibility as members of an artistic community and as stewards of one of America’s great orchestras, our work is firmly rooted in bringing new music into the world and exposing audiences to the work of living composers,” said Mr. Dessner.

On Friday, Jan. 13, the CSO kicks off its portion of the Festival with a rare performance of Andrew Norman’s masterwork for orchestra, Play. The work recently won the prestigious 2017 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, an award sponsored by the University of Louisville, whose previous winners include John Adams, Pierre Boulez and Thomas Adès. “Play combines brilliant orchestration, which is at once wildly inventive and idiomatic, with a terrific and convincing musical shape based on a relatively small amount of musical source material. It ranges effortlessly from brash to intimate and holds the listener’s interest for all of its 47 minutes—no small feat in these days of shortened attention spans,” said Grawemeyer Award Director Marc Satterwhite.

“It’s a piece I’ve been writing and rewriting for four or five years now,” said Mr. Norman in an interview for NPR. “It’s taken up a substantial chunk of my creative life. It’s also opened up a lot of ideas for me that I feel like I’m going to explore in many more pieces to come.” The work has overlapping narratives and metaphors that guide its musical construction. “It has to do, on a very physical level, with how we play instruments.... I was thinking also about the idea of childlike play, of watching toddlers and the kind of exuberance and imagination that comes with that,” he said.

Also on Friday night, Mr. Pintscher will conduct the CSO in his own orchestral work idyll, originally commissioned for The Cleveland Orchestra in 2014. The Cleveland Plain Dealer described the piece as “a cornucopia for the ear, a quiet stream of ethereal textures and shimmering colors.”

Friday night’s performance will conclude with acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, accompanied by Aaron Dessner (Bryce’s brother and bandmate in The National), as they perform works from her new recording, which Aaron produced.

The Festival continues Saturday, Jan. 14 with an ambitious program of contemporary music. The evening opens with a work from Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who “surely has the most personal sound of any classical violinist now alive” (The Telegraph), returns to the CSO to perform Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (a work programmed as “a kind of ‘historical key’—a doorway through which we might open conversations about these younger composers,” said Mr. Dessner). 

Composer and pianist Timo Andres will perform his work for piano and orchestra, The Blind Banister, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. The work draws on Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. “The best way I can describe my approach to writing the piece is: I started writing my own cadenza to Beethoven’s concerto, and ended up devouring it from the inside out,” says Mr. Andres in the program notes for the work.

The Festival concludes as Bryce Dessner performs the U.S. premiere of his chamber concerto for electric guitar, Wires. “I moved to France three years ago and have been more and more immersed in the music and traditions of Paris,” said Mr. Dessner. “This culminated this past September with a new commission for the renowned Ensemble Intercontemporain [of which Mr. Pintscher is the artistic director]. While the past 20 years of living in New York have been deeply important to my evolution as a composer, Wires reflects my interest in some of the music I have been more exposed to in Europe.”

In addition to the CSO’s performances, this year’s MusicNOW Festival includes a performance by Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead) at the Aronoff Center for the Arts on Thursday, Jan. 12. He’ll perform music from his recent solo release, Blue Mountain, and works joined by his band, The Campfire Band (which features members of The National—Aaron Dessner, Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf—along with Josh Kaufman and Jon Shaw).

“If I could summarize what makes Bob and his history with the Grateful Dead so significant for us it would be their unrelenting commitment to experimentation and new music,” said Mr. Dessner. “The polyphony of the Grateful Dead, like most great music of the 20th century, with many distinctive voices in dialogue with each other through music, would be the thread that I think connects them to modern composition of which Andrew Norman, Timo Andres, Matthias Pintscher and Anna Thorvaldsdottir all represent a beautiful evolution.”

As in previous years, the concert experiences will also include pre- and post-concert performances and artist talks. At its core, MusicNOW is not just about pushing artistic boundaries—it’s about seeking inspiration from composers, musicians and audiences from all walks of life and sharing an engaging vision in return.

“I am hopeful that audiences walk away curious. To me this year’s festival is all about dialogue, about hearing voices in the music. Whether it be the polyphony of Bob Weir’s new music, or the adventurous landscape of music by some of the 21st century’s most exciting orchestral voices, I think there is a lot on this year’s festival to provoke conversation,” said Mr. Dessner.


Photos: (from top) Bryce Dessner performs his work, St. Carolyn
by the Sea, during MusicNOW 2014.

MusicNOW concerts typically include pre- and post-concert
performances, further expanding the collaborations.

Richard Reed Parry (of the band Arcade Fire), composer and
pianist Nico Muhly, CSO Music Director Louis Langrée and Bryce
Dessner (l-r) exchange ideas backstage—a common occurrence
during MusicNOW.