A Festival Within a Festival: Music of Today

June 3, 2022

photo of composer Timo Andres by Michael Wilson
story by Kyle MacMillan

Soon after Peter Oundjian took over as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2004, the Canadian-American conductor started an annual two-week festival dedicated to music by living composers that continued to the end of his 14-year tenure.

The highly successful event included on-stage interviews with participating composers, such heavy-hitters as Henri Dutilleux, Oliver Knussen, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and post-concert receptions where the composers, musicians, and audiences all had a chance to mingle.

“It created a wonderful buzz and had a great following,” Oundjian said in a recent interview, “and I discovered a tremendous amount about compositional style and about how to help people enjoy the experience.”

So, when Oundjian became Music Director of the Colorado Music Festival in 2019, instituting a similar kind of mini-festival was high on his list of priorities. “I said this is a no-brainer,” he said. “People love this. It’s really important to do it. We’re going to do great music, we’re going to discover new music, and we’re going to commission new pieces.”

He quickly received the backing of other Festival leaders, and funders stepped forward to help with commissioning costs. The first installment of the new series took place online in a reduced form in 2020 because of the COVID-19 shutdown, but it roared into full force in 2021 with an in-person mini-festival that revolved in part around esteemed American composer Joan Tower and her new cello concerto commissioned by the Festival, A Brand New Day.

This year’s edition of the Music of Today series runs July 12-17 and puts an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. It features works by more than a dozen living composers ranging from such well-established masters like Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov to up-and-comers Stacy Garrop and 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw to cross-genre talents like Steven Ellison aka Flying Lotus, a Los Angeles DJ and rapper.

Serving as composer-in-residence and co-curator with Oundjian is John Adams, who at 75 is one of the deans of American classical music. (See our full profile on John Adams.) A Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winner, the California resident first gained widespread attention with compositions like Harmonium (1980-81) and his opera Nixon in China (1985-87), which has become one of the few contemporary works in the form to gain a foothold in the standard repertoire. Adams made two visits to the Toronto Symphony when it featured pieces by him, and Oundjian recorded Adams’ Naïve and Sentimental Music and Absolute Jest with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 2018.

“I don’t usually attend summer festivals because it’s the best time for composing,” Adams said, “but Peter is a good friend, a devoted interpreter of my music, and what I’ve heard of the Colorado Music Festival makes me want to participate.”

Two of his major works, City Noir (2009), which evokes the spirit of vintage film noir, and the 2019 piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, anchor the two orchestral concerts during Music of Today, July 14 and 17 respectively, with Adams taking the podium to conduct his works. Unlike composers who casually pick up the baton sometimes, Adams is a frequent conductor and has led some of the most celebrated orchestras in the world, including a program with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2016.

The composer’s works are also being featured on the other concerts during the Music of Today, starting with a July 12 concert by the Attacca Quartet, which has made contemporary music a central focus. It features selections from John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994), a collection of 10 dances, six of which are accompanied by a recorded soundtrack. In addition, the Festival’s second-annual Kaleidoscope chamber concert July 15 showcases his Road Movies (1995) for piano and violin. This latter event includes special stage lighting and projection screens with up-close looks at the musicians in action. It brings together pianist Timo Andres, violinist Tessa Lark, saxophonist Timothy McAllister, and members of the Festival’s orchestra.

The other works on the two orchestral programs all relate to Adams in some way. The July 17 program, for example, features a 2014 piece by Gabriella Smith, whose cello concerto is set to be premiered in 2023 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Adams has known her since she was a teenager growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a “big fan” of her writing. “My wife and I commissioned Tumblebird Contrails from her for [conductor] Marin Alsop [and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music] about eight years ago and it turned out to be such a terrific piece that I’ve been programming elsewhere, including Cleveland, St. Louis, L.A., and I will do it again in Prague next season.”

Rounding out that program is the one work featured as part of the Music of Today by a composer who is no longer alive. Christopher Rouse, who died in 2019 at 70, was a good friend of Adams and a fellow baseball fan. “I really wanted to do the Sixth Symphony,” Oundjian said, “because it’s an extremely powerful piece.” It was premiered posthumously by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the festival’s presentation will be the first in a series of performances this year around the country.

Also, at Adams’ urging, the festival is presenting July 14 a world premiere by Brooklyn-based Timo Andres, who in addition to being a keyboard soloist also composes. The elder composer has known the musical double threat since he was a student at Yale University. “I’ve already conducted several of Timo’s pieces,” Adams said, “most recently at the Ojai Festival, and I was delighted that Peter took my recommendation to commission a work from Timo for this festival.” The other work on that program is the Chamber Concerto, a work for solo violin and chamber orchestra by Samuel Adams, the elder composer’s son. Oundjian enthusiastically programmed it after seeing a score and listening to a recording. “I completely fell for it,” the conductor said. “It’s just fantastic.”

Presenting a festival of this kind would have been considerably more challenging in the mid- to late 20th century, when an atonal style known as 12-tone music or serialism had a near stranglehold on the classical music world. “What’s happened now,” Oundjian said, “is that we’ve come to a point now where you can name all kinds of composers all over the world who write music that is actually really great to listen to and you don’t have to have a magically trained ear to enjoy it.”

And the Colorado Music Festival’s Music of Today mini-festival is an ideal opportunity to hear at least some of these new audience-friendly currents.

“I love the idea that you say, ’OK, this week this is the world that we live in,’” Oundjian said. “Let’s hear the music that is being written by our contemporaries.”

Explore the full week of Music of Today, July 12-17.

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