Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium

Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium: concentrated wisdom

An Oregon composer's experience of the biennial University of Oregon music composition incubator


Editor’s note: this is the second of our two-part coverage of the Oregon Bach Festival’s Composers Symposium. Read Gary Ferrington’s story here.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium (OBFCS) led by renowned composer and University of Oregon professor Dr. Robert Kyr. Over the course of two and a half weeks, from June 25 to July 13, more than 100 composers like me, performers, and conductors – many wearing multiple hats – converged for a unique experience of collaborative performance and learning. Geared toward emerging composers, attendance represented a wide range across the age and experience spectrum. Many of us wrote new pieces specifically for the Symposium.

Christina Rusnak’s new composition was performed at the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

One of the most enticing aspects of the symposium for us composers was the opportunity to both attend concerts by and have your work performed by guest artists of the highest caliber, including musicians from the New Mexico Philharmonic, Juilliard School, Oregon Symphony and more, as well as the star performers at the University of Oregon. (See Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch report on this aspect of the symposium.) We were immersed in a diversity of pieces that included everything from vocal works and guest artist’s solo performances to chamber pieces, collaborations with Korean Instrumentalists, and improvisation.

We heard 53 premieres by participating composers in 22 concerts performed by a mix of participants, guest artists and Sound of Late, the Northwest-based ensemble in residence. There was so much to do! Like with any other conference one can’t do it all, though some people – very sleep deprived by the end— certainly tried!


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 Passion of Yeshua’ preview: resurrecting the Jewish Jesus

Oregon Bach Festival presents the world premiere of American composer Richard Danielpour’s new oratorio, which puts the focus on the females in Jesus’s life


Richard Danielpour first heard J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the impressionable age of 17. The experience helped to confirm for him that he was “put on this earth to write music.” Bach’s Passion planted the seed. As a young man, Danielpour asked himself who Jesus really was and why we are still talking about him after 2,000 years.

Danielpour began seriously thinking about writing his own Passion 25 years ago. He waited until the time was right to create The Passion of Yeshua, which premieres this Sunday afternoon at the Oregon Bach Festival, which commissioned it. In this major new American composition, Danielpour reaches back to Jesus’s time to give us a more personal Passion that resurrects elements obscured by Bach’s interpretation, including the prominence of Jewishness and women in Jesus’s life.

Composer Richard Danielpour works with the Oregon Bach Festival chorus in preparation for the premiere of his ‘Yeshua Passion.’

Danielpour began writing the music in July 2016 and finished the full score for his Passion, which is set up in two parts of seven scenes each, in July 2017. This month, in two presentations to over 90 composers and performers participating in the OBF Composers Symposium and in an interview with ArtsWatch, Danielpour discussed the creation and musical structure of The Passion of Yeshua.


OBF Composers Symposium: Collaboration, co-creativity, community

University of Oregon program shows composers how to build connections and reach audiences 

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

When Shannon Lauriston, a student at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia,  checked in on first day of the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium this summer, she felt an “instant sense of community.” Lauriston and 90 other composers and guest artists were about to set course on an intense 12 day journey of collaboration and co-creativity that would culminate in the preparation and public performance of 76 compositions — 55 of them world premieres.

Since 1990, the biennial University of Oregon symposium has brought together composers, composers who perform, musicians who compose, vocalists, instrumentalists, conductors, and emerging directors of music ensembles to participate in a new kind of culture for the creation and performance of contemporary music.

“We provide a creative context for our participants to interact and engage in creating and performing new works, but equally important, to deeply connect with each other in order to develop future projects and collaborations across the boundaries of their cities, states, and nations,” symposium director Robert Kyr explains. “We are not merely a composing and performing organization: we are committed to stimulating and encouraging new kinds of collaborations, and a wealth of future opportunities for co-creation, creative interaction, and community-building.”

Composer/performer Rebecca Larkin (flute) plays "Monkey Puzzel" by Nathan Engelmann.

Composer/performer Rebecca Larkin (flute) plays “Monkey Puzzel” by Nathan Engelmann.

The symposium envisions the composer as an individual who can take on various tasks needed to pull off collaborative performances of new music: conducting, performing in an ensemble, curating, administering, presenting and more. Such skills are essential today, when audiences who want to hear contemporary music and composers who want to be heard face limited opportunities to do either.

“Today, the most prominent emerging composers are wearing all of these hats and they understand that collaboration and community-building are essential to the artistic (as well as professional) success of their creative endeavors,” observes Kyr, who also chairs the UO music school’s composition department. He sees this as a welcome change from what he experienced in the latter part of the last century when there was often a “painfully strict divide between composers and performers.” Now, Kyr suggests, “many composers are more complete musicians, who are committed to building strong, collaborative communities of composers, performers, and listeners. And in the future, nearly all composers will probably be engaged in this way.”


Oregon Bach Festival Symposium: Composing a Career

Composers Symposium panel offers career advice


“In the past several weeks since my college graduation, I have become progressively more “lost” (for lack of a better term). Many of the hopes and dreams I had prior to completing my undergrad education have slowly diminished, and I feel as though I am at the point where I have no idea what my dreams are anymore.

I’ve been composing less and less — I haven’t touched my manuscripts or opened up Finale in close to a week now. Not because I don’t have the time, but because I feel no motivation to work on the craft for which I earned a bachelor’s degree.”

Career Development Panel with L-R FearNoMusic members Nancy Ives and Paloma Griffin Hebert, Duo Damiana (Dietter Hennings and Molly Barth), and Dr. Robert Kyr, panel moderator. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Career Development Panel with L-R FearNoMusic members Nancy Ives and Paloma Griffin Hebert, Duo Damiana (Dietter Hennings and Molly Barth), and Dr. Robert Kyr, panel moderator. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

College graduation is a time of transition, which isn’t always easy, especially for those majoring in the arts. Having just left the nurturing environment schools provide, many graduates find themselves unsure about the future. This apprehension was well expressed in a recent Facebook posting, quoted above, by a music composition graduate and used here by permission of the author.

Trying to answer the question, what to do after graduation, was the task of a recent career development seminar at the 2014 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium at the University of Oregon in Eugene. A panel, including cellist Nancy Ives and violinist Paloma Griffin Hebert of Portland’s FearNoMusic, Duo Damiana members guitarist Dieter Hennings and flutist Molly Barth, and symposium director Robert Kyr, who heads the University of Oregon’s music composition program, shared their own transitional experiences to provide insight into this process.