Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium: big tent

Biennial University of Oregon event offered performances, constructive creative feedback, and advice from veteran American composers

Story, photos and video by GARY FERRINGTON

When the 105 invited composers in last month’s 25th Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium asked the veteran composers in residence for advice about how to forge a career in music, over and over again one concept kept coming up: diversify. Be open to diverse cultures, search out new experiences and ideas through reading, travel, and collaboration (such as forming musical ensembles), explore other art forms like dance and theater.

“I created the symposium as a ‘big tent’ for an unbounded range of creators and performers of new music: we welcome participants from every part of the broad spectrum of the styles and ideas that constitute our new music culture today,” symposium founder and director Robert Kyr told ArtsWatch. “But that is not all. We are seeking to create a wealth of opportunities for the future of music, which from my perspective, must be rooted in the greatest diversity of creativity and co-creation possible.”

All 4 Sound (percussion duo) with Kathie Hsieh.

The University of Oregon symposium itself practiced what its mentors preached. The composer/performers who arrived in Eugene June 24 with musical instruments in tow and freshly composed scores in hand hailed from across the US and 10 other countries. Over the next three weeks at the UO School of Music and Dance, they became a cadre of individuals with diverse interests and cultural backgrounds, eager to share ideas, learn from one another, and form co-creative and collaborative relationships in music. They quickly found themselves engaged in a seemingly endless schedule of daily activities with on-going rehearsal sessions, numerous concerts, guest artist performances, small group mentoring sessions, master composer seminars, and late night brew and burgers at McMenamins East 19th Street Cafe.

Composers eagerly anticipated the opportunity to have their own vocal and instrumental music publicly performed. After hours of rehearsals and mentoring by guest artists, the pieces were presented in any number of events including the American Creators Ensemble afternoon concerts, Guest Artists Showcases, Vocal Fellow programs, Composers Film Festival with screenings of films scored by composers; some with live music, and the Wild Nights concert series that started at 10:00 pm! All together there were 22 concerts and live music events that involved 60 vocalists, instrumentalists and conductors performing 92 compositions — including 53 world premieres.

As a correspondent and advocate for new music, I was excited to attend my third OBF Composers Symposium. I knew right from day one, when participants were encouraged to explore collaborative and co-creative endeavors, that this wasn’t going to be a showcase for egos. The symposium proved to be a transformative experience as a diverse cadre of men and women ranging in age from late teens to early senior years, came together to create and perform new music here at end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

The size of the symposium might seem overwhelming, as no other such similar summer event brings together so many individuals at one time. But a team of SOMD graduate students, under the direction of Dr. Kyr, managed the multi-dimensional symposium with exceptional devotion to detail. My only concern was that public attendance for concerts of new music was limited given that Beall Hall was unavailable because of Bach Festival venue changes this year. Live streaming might be a future option.

For me, as illustrated in the report that follows, the symposium succeeded in weaving together supportive musical relationships that will continue well beyond this summer. Gleaned postings from social media, following the symposium, seem to confirm this. “It’s become so clear to me that these are my people and how important we are to each other in the music community,” read one. Another: “I’m so happy to have made so many amazing new musical friends and colleagues … looking forward to continuing those relationships online and off.”

New Sounds from Across the Pacific

Diversity was apparent from the outset, with the arrival of seven guest composers and three performers from the Society for New Korean Music (SINAKHOE) who enthusiastically presented sessions about traditional Korean music, instruments, aesthetics, and today’s contemporary music.


Gayageum class at Composers Symposium.

The sounds of the haegeum, a Korean string instrument, and the zither-like geomungo and gayageum instantly created a surprising (for Western ears) new acoustic world for symposium composers to consider. Each instrument, with its own musical characteristics and performance requirements, was masterfully demonstrated, as in this clip of Sooeun Lee (Ewha Women’s University) performing on the gayageum.

Perhaps the most intriguing of Korean musical traditions was pansori, a form of Korean musical storytelling traditionally performed by a singer and a drummer.

A contemporary pansori composition, Lost Happiness, by HyunJung Ahn, tells about the suffering of Korean “comfort women” enslaved and raped by the Japanese military between 1932 and 1945. It is an emotionally charged piece that leaves a deep feeling of sadness, even for listeners unable to understand the Korean text as heard in this excerpt.


Pansori singer Sumi Kim performing ‘Lost Happiness’ with Eunah Noh (haegeum) and Soojung Lee (piano).

SINAKHOE’s two-day visit concluded with the premieres of ten intercultural compositions written by both visiting Korean composers and OBFCS participants blending western and traditional Korean instruments. The Korean performers were joined by members of the Oregon Woodwind Quintet as seen in this clip from Willamette Flavor by Myungwon Yoon (2018 premiere). Performers included Molly Barth (flute) Wonkak Kim (clarinet), and Eunah Noh (haegeum). A second piece that bridges cultural soundscapes is Wings of Sapphire (2018) by Michael Fleming, again with Eunah Noh (haegeum) and the OWE.

Intercultural performers take their bows after Composers Symposium performance.

The Korean performances and the symposium’s concluding concert, featuring music composed by OBFCS participants using western instruments and traditional Balinese gamelan, set the tone for the symposium’s exploration of new musical possibilities.

Music and Mentoring by American Masters

Composers-in-residence Martin Bresnick and Robert Kyr, along with Oregon Bach Festival guest artists Richard Danielpour and Philip Glass, held engaging seminars throughout the symposium in which they shared the backstories to their careers. These often humorous and anecdotal tales of a composer’s life provided insight into creating life-long careers in music. Glass, whose own early career benefited by his jobs composing for theater and dance, suggested exploring options beyond the concert hall including the allied arts such as dance and theater, which he has found remain open new music by young composers.

Martin Bresnick talks to participants at the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium.

Bresnick and Kyr led small group focus sessions in which each of five symposium participants had the opportunity to share a recorded composition that either Kyr or Bresnick discussed while others followed along with scores in hand.

A highlight of the symposium was the opportunity by participants to hear two new works: the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s powerful 90-minute oratorio The Passion of Yeshua, for chorus, orchestra, and four soloists, commissioned by the festival, and Philip Glass’s new Piano Concerto No. 3, performed for the first time in the Northwest by Simone Dinnerstein (piano). I was able to attend the Danielpour premiere. Being seated under the projected text board prevented me from reading the Hebrew translation and English text so my response was not to the story, but the music itself, which I found quite theatrical, in a good sense, and which moved me emotionally in its passionate and dramatic soundscape.

Richard Danielpour at an OBFCS seminar.

A performance of Bresnick’s own piano music and that of Leoš Janáçek by celebrated pianist Lisa Moore was one of several Showcase Concerts that featured guest artists Molly Barth (flute) a former UO School of Music faculty member and original member of eighth blackbird, Oregon Symphony members Nancy Ives (cello) and James Shields (clarinet), and University of New Mexico’s David Felberg (violin). These performances included new works written by symposium composers such as Una mariposita tremenda by Martín Quiroga Jr. and performed by Linda Jenkins, a former graduate student of Molly Barth.

New Voices from the Symposium

“The symposium provides musicians from around the country (and the world) the opportunity to rally around a piece, rehearse it for two hours, and then perform,” participant Daniel Daly told ArtsWatch. For many, participating as a co-creator and collaborator through performing or conducting created a sense of community with networking opportunities that might result in future endeavors beyond the symposium itself. (See Oregon participant and Cascadia Composer Christina Rusnak’s ArtsWatch report.)

Here are five video excerpts of solo and ensemble instrumental music filmed in rehearsal.


Solo and ensemble rehearsal clips.

The participants’ music received performances by a diverse range of outstanding performers including previously mentioned guest artists and the resident American Creators Ensemble (AMC) whose members included fellow OBFCS musicians and singers. Also performing were guest ensembles such as Sound of Late, a new music group based in Portland and Seattle, All 4 Sound, a percussion duo from Eugene, and Emergency Stopping Only, a mixed chamber ensemble from the University of Idaho. Here’s a fun piece, Gersh (win or lose) (2018) by Celia Llona Ojakangas performed by Post-Haste Reed Duo, Portland State University’s Sean Fredenburg, saxophone, and Javier Rodriguez, bassoon.

World premiere of “Dawnsong: Vocalise” by Robert Kyr, performed by Sarah Brauer, Estelí Gomez, and Vocal Fellows Chorus with Robert Kyr, piano.

Kyr, who has taught composition at the UO since 1990 and written many works for voices, told participants that vocal and choral music in the 21st century is undergoing a cultural renaissance with many new ensembles forming in communities throughout the country. The gift of song has always been an important symposium component and this year it took the form of the Vocal Fellows program. Under the mentorship of Grammy Award winning soprano Estelí Gomez, symposium vocalists rehearsed and performed 13 new vocal works written by fellow OBFCS composers, many of whom are also vocalists as seen in this video sampler of three works for soprano.


Rehearsal clips hint at the range of new vocal music premiered. 

New Sound Worlds in the 21st Century

What does the music heard at the symposium indicate about the future of music here at the beginning of the 21st century? That’s a question ArtsWatch asked of participants and OBFCS director and founder, Robert Kyr. The answers all converged on the concept of diversity.

• Expressivity. For Portland composer Christina Rusnak, the symposium “showed an increased emphasis on expression in music, an acceptance of melody while not sacrificing experimentation. Traditional form still matters, but we no longer need to be tethered to it.” she said.

Cellist Stephen Mitton’s ‘Albatross‘ was performed by guest artists and AMC performers. Next to Mitton is Caleb Wenzel conductor, Sarah Brauer (mezzo-soprano), Molly Barth (flute), James Shields (clarinet), and David Felberg (violin), with Mack Grant (piano). 

EclecticismStephen Mitton, a Utah based cellist and composer, also observed a growing diversity in music. “There is such an eclectic blend of styles that it is sometimes difficult to pin down new trends or stylistic directions. I, for one, find that aspect of today’s new music tremendously exciting.” He thought the most successful pieces have been the ones “that seamlessly blend materials traditionally viewed as opposites, such as free atonality and tonal harmony, or thematic simplicity and complex atmospheric textures.” And, he suggests, that whereas 20th century composers often felt pressure to write definitively toward particular schools of thought (e.g. serialism, minimalism), “21st century composers generally don’t recognize such constraints, which seriously widens the creative palette. That kind of eclecticism was definitely on display throughout the symposium.”

Individuality. “Even just a few years ago, it seemed that there was a pressure to compose a certain genre/stream of music,” noted Joseph Vranas, “but now people seem to be somewhat free to venture into whatever vein they connect most with. There’s been a resurgence of neo-romantic composition, an abundance of intercultural composition, and the film and popular music industry has definitely affected and been affected by new classical music.”

Oregon composer Daniel Daly also observed this trend toward the use of diverse forms of multimedia, as evident in Martin Bresnick’s music video, Parisot, a piece for multiple cellos all performed by one cellist with multi-layered audio tracks

Personal storytelling. Portland composer Stacey Phillipps recalls Dr. Kyr’s reminder that “we are currently living in a time of musical fusion in which one style does not predominate and many styles, influences, and traditions are cross-pollinating fruitfully.” She observes that she “heard everything from last-century atonality to metal-influenced art song to flute choir to prepared piano and celeste to piano for eight hands and whistler, and about a hundred more vocal and chamber ensemble combinations.” One recurring theme she observed was “truthful storytelling: art song lyrics that were deeply personal, intense instrumental responses to the current political climate, unadulterated joyfulness and wonder in harmonic language, and more.”

Philip Glass at an OBFCS seminar.

Kyr intends the OBFCS to contribute to this diversity of American music, “to inspire the exploration of emerging approaches and genres, including collaborative forms of music and art (“co-creation”), intercultural composition, fusion music, multimedia and interdisciplinary art, and the development of sustainable musical cultures that extend beyond social and geographical boundaries so that new communities of creative engagement may arise in ways that are essential and deeply relevant to our lives today,” he explains.

As participants were driven to the airport, bus or train stations to begin their journey home, Kyr hoped that they were leaving with a sense of community. “We are seeking to inspire our participants to collaborate with each other beyond the boundaries of the symposium and to present concerts of each other’s music in their home regions,” he said. “We are aiming to do this both on the national and international level, and to use the symposium as a ‘launching pad’ for the continuing collaboration of our artists with each other, and by extension, with new collaborators in the home regions of each other. My vision is to create a continually expanding community of creators (in all art forms) that extends outward from the initial engagement and interaction of our participants at the symposium.”

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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