Today’s blog post is from a wonderful composer, Stephen Feigenbaum, who joined us in spring 2011 to take part in our Composer to Center Stage Reading Session. Stephen was one of three finalists who traveled to Albany twice over the course of the spring, to work with Music Director David Alan Miller and our composers-in-residence to refine their pieces before they were read and recorded by the ASO. Below, Stephen shares with us his experiences and insights. We are currently accepting submissions for this year’s Reading Session. Learn more
This spring I had the great opportunity to participate in the Albany Symphony's reading session of works by student composers. In addition to having my piece “Murmur” read and recorded, I was able to spend some time with Derek Bermel (a friend and alum of my a cappella group at Yale, the Baker’s Dozen), John Corigliano, and George Tsontakis. I also was able to catch up with my fellow students Ryan Chase and Yiwen Chen, both of whom I already knew from my studies at FUBiS in Berlin and the Bowdoin International Music Festival. Their pieces were both beautiful and widely varied, and the teachers' critiques of our pieces were concise and pointed.
The reading itself was highly informative. The biggest surprise for me was that, after having heard my piece twice (a year prior to the ASO reading it had been given a low-key performance at Yale)--the things that hadn’t sounded great with an amateur student orchestra were still my least favorite parts when played by the highly skilled ASO. There’s often a tendency for a less-experienced composer to blame his performers (especially if they are students) when his piece doesn't sound immaculate. But it’s much more likely that he is still learning how to write effectively for those instruments and simply hasn't gotten it right yet. It would have been nice to waltz into Albany, walk away with a pristine recording of a perfectly-written piece, and go be John Corigliano for the rest of my life, but then there would be no point in what the ASO is doing with this reading program. At this stage, learning from one’s mistakes is much more useful than attaining easy success.
The reading was actually my second visit to the Albany Symphony—I was there earlier in the spring, when I was initiated into the ASO family. Most of this involved socializing with David and the administrative wing of the orchestra, who are a clever and fun group. It also involved sampling the locally brewed beer available in bars and burger places throughout Albany which overall I highly recommend.
I am a huge proponent of using new ways to reach audiences. My approach involves theatrical venues instead of concert halls, with heavy usage of lighting, staging, and amplification. But this doesn’t mean I think orchestras are dead or that they ought to move in this direction. Orchestras provide an unparalleled live experience, and a wholesome escape from the high-stress world that has infiltrated most other forms of entertainment. David Alan Miller and the ASO have captured this magic brilliantly with a program that at no point resigns itself to simply playing the classics, yet also entirely avoids alienating its audience. They have demonstrated that this is goal is entirely attainable. Now other orchestras should follow. This, to me, was the real lesson of my time working with the Albany Symphony.
Thanks, Stephen, for blogging with us today! If you want to learn more about Stephen and his work, please check out his website here. And get those submissions in for our Reading Session Competition!