The Composers Now 2019 Festival Opening Event showed off an organization on target. Few evenings wrap such an exemplary program with such a collegial atmosphere. Aligned with the organizational mission to empower living composers and honor their cultural contributions, the January 31st, 2019 event at National Opera Center began with the 2019 Composers Now Visionary Awards to Laura Kaminsky and T.J. Anderson.
Artistic Director Tania León and pianist Ursula Oppens honored not only Kaminsky’s prolific success, including the U.S.’ most widely produced contemporary opera As One, but her thirty years of friendship and support. The evening featured two glimpses of Kaminsky’s range: the final train scene from her 2018 opera Today it Rains, and a movement of her Rising Tide string quartet. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert swept the aria from Today it Rains away with sensuous Arizona aridity, and together with Kristen Kemp’s precise and metallic accompaniment, they caught the light of Kaminsky’s shifting and spacious landscape. Kaminsky’s string orchestration in Rising Tide, with violin rising out of the unceasingly energetic texture, made me think of floods before reading the program notes (the music is a cornerstone of The Crossroads Project and reflects a conceptual framework for confronting climate change by physicist Dr. Robert Davies).
T.J. Anderson, the second awardee, no longer travels but sent love and reflections on the nature of composition and meaning of success via video. “Any man or woman in a bath tub can give you a tune,” said the founder of the National Association for the Study & Performance of African American Music about enjoying the process of developing general musicality into cultural artifacts. Be willing to fail, he advised. Doubt arises when you seek perfection. It was the perfect introduction for a program that began with young composers: Yuri Lee, 8th grade and Yusei Hata, 11th grade performed their work with the Face the Music String Quartet. Lee is a 2018-2019 Luna Composition Lab fellow, community organizer, and two-time winner of Concordia Conservatory awards. Her “Blustery Day” was whimsical, inventive, and full of technical ingenuity. Hata, a student at Special Music High School and winner of 2018 Community Music School of Webster University Young Composers Competition Level 1, exposed string quartet texture through his “Very Short” jagged harmonies and angular rhythm.
Recalling his Juilliard experience as a gay black student in “Black Moon (La Lune Noir),” Major Scurlock remixed Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” with disco, Gospel, and jazz to explore the queer black nightclub and masculine experience in America. After a video featuring choreography and costumes by Monstah Black, with androgynous women and one man in dramatic red heels voguing, dancer Kendra J. Ross gave a solo performance and deeper dive into Monstah’s interpretation of vogue dance.
Gusti Komin’s gender wayang gamelan music, inspired by Balinese devotional rituals and family relationships, rang with sheer exuberance that belied its underlying complexity. Interlocking melodies were intricate representations of the lasting effect of daily ritual. The pieces were performed by Saiban, a contemporary Balinese chamber ensemble that explores the space between Balinese and American musical sensibilities. The transcontinental group is based in Pennsylvania and Bali, and its music calls for a venue befitting radiant volume and glorious overtones. The National Opera Center was too small for Saiban, but perfect for Samuel Torres’ 2019 composition “Aguazul.” Using a pair of maracas llaneras, Torres played a jaw-dropping explosion of complex rhythm and granular control stemming from his myriad traditional Colombian and African percussion expertise.
Finally, there was Joseph Keckler, who repossesses the hyphenated-genre with smartly pruned traditions and a three-octave vocal range. He sang live in operatic German to his subtitled music video “Goth Song,” and presented two of the songs from his recent project Train With No Midnight, which premiered at the 2019 PROTOTYPE Festival. Misbehaving technologies and bicoastal relationships fuel an acerbic and sincere take on daily modern life. His work is a bedazzled razor and effing good, a proper fulfillment to the promise from Composers Now Executive Director Mary Madigan that “interesting is how things are done here.” That was an understatement. This is diversity when coupled with sincerity and habit: generous honor and musical wonder.