Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Albany Symphony Orchestra's American Music Festival

Celebrating the ground-breaking works of living American composers, the Albany Symphony Orchestra is one of the most celebrated orchestras in the United States. Grammy-award winning conductor David Alan Miller has led the orchestra to prominence over the course of his 25-year career with the musical powerhouse. “Twenty years ago it began to occur to me that it would be fun to have a festival,” Miller explained. This small hunch 25 years ago turned into what we know today as the American Music Festival, a five-day event highlighting the works of living composers. This year the festival is focused on “water music,” inspired by the bicentennial of the Erie Canal. Here’s Miller on how “water music” has been interpreted for the festival, the challenges of putting on such a festival, and the beauty of programming works by living composers.

NEA: Can you give me a brief history of the American Music Festival? Why did the Albany Symphony decide to create the festival?

DAVID ALAN MILLER: The Albany Symphony is an orchestra that has, for the last 45 or 50 years, played more American music—new and recent, than pretty much any other orchestra in the country. This is my 25th season. About 20 years ago, it began to occur to me that it would be fun to have a festival. Because it was a risky endeavor to do a whole festival of American music, we originally put it in the month of March, and did it as a loose bunch of different concerts that weren't that connected. I think maybe eight or nine years ago, we moved it to one weekend at the very end of our season and started turning it into a real festival feel, where we have programming [that] lasts four or five days with lots of different events. We reconfigured our season so that all of our concerts point to the festival. We'll play new works by living composers earlier in the season, then have them show up again for the festival. So it's become this central element of what we do and we're very proud of it. We usually feature 35 or 40 new and recent works by living American composers. We have composers all over the place—young composers and old composers, and medium composers. All sorts of neat composers hanging out for the whole week with us.

NEA: Was there a particular need that led you to create the festival?

MILLER: I don't know if it serves a special need, but it is a way of embracing our mission. Like a lot of orchestras around the country, we play a lot of dead European composers. But unlike a lot of orchestras, we weave music by living composers into every one of our concerts, and record them, and commission them, and premiere them. It gives us a new focal point; a place where we can celebrate this core mission that we have of championing living composers and the music of our time.

NEA: This year is focused specifically on ‘water music.” What does that theme mean, and why that theme at this point in time?

MILLER: It turns out that this July is the bicentennial, the 200th year of the very first shovel [of dirt] dug for the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal spreads all across New York State, 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo. It is important because it really opened the West to the Eastern United States and created all of this trade and travel and allowed people to really being able to go in and settle Buffalo and Ohio and beyond in the Midwest. In a certain way, it made the America that we live in possible. Before the Erie Canal, the U.S. was really just the Eastern seaboard; the Erie Canal really opened the entire interior of America to be settled. So it’s an important thing in New York history, and the fact that the 200th anniversary is this summer was something we wanted to celebrate. Then it turned out, that the very same month 100 years earlier—July 1717—was the year that George Frideric Handel, the great baroque composer, composed his Water Music, which it was called for King George I. It was a very famous piece of classical music, and it was performed on a barge in London on the Thames River, while King George I and his courtiers were on another barge enjoying [the performance].

We've created a whole musical boat trip where 32 members of the orchestra and I are going to sail the entire Erie Canal, from Albany to Buffalo, and stop in seven towns along the canal to play brand new pieces commissioned from emerging composers that have collaborative pieces with those towns. We’ll also play some of the Water Music and things like that. We wanted to tie our festival in June, exactly one month before the boat trip, into that bicentennial and the boat trip. So while not all that programming is related to the water theme, there are a lot of water-related pieces and a lot of new pieces we've commissioned that connect one, to our water music project, and two, to this idea of how water and rivers connect different people…. It's something that actually Yo-Yo Ma, the great cellist, talks about a lot, and we've actually talked with him a lot about this idea of how individual communities are linked to each other in a beautiful way by water. I mean, they're linked to each other in different ways, but the evolution of community and communities happened through our rivers and such. So it's really celebrating the connections between communities that rivers and bodies of water serve. We're commissioning a percussion concerto with our new music ensemble, Dogs of Desire, that’s actually four percussionists playing wine glasses filled with water and tapping on them. It's called Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine, and it's all about making music out of water, essentially. So we have a lot of different kind of water themes flowing, so to speak, through our festival.

All of the different short pieces, from the larger works, that are going to be played on our boat trip a month later are all water-themed pieces. The composers are creating the artwork now, so it’s a little hard for me to know what's going to come out or what's going to happen. But in addition, there are lots of other pieces that don't necessarily connect to the water music theme. For example, a young composer, Reena Esmail, iswriting a clarinet concerto for this incredible traditional Hindustani, Indian clarinetist, Shankar Tucker. So we're going to have a world premiere of a new Hindustani clarinet concerto, which in itself is a sort of cool, unusual thing. It’s not connected to the water theme necessarily, but it’s connected to this idea of new and interesting approaches to music and also bringing in different kinds of music… into the concert hall where it normally doesn't reside. So we're doing a lot of reaching out to different kinds of music as we build our festival.

NEA: I like the fact that you're incorporating Indian music as traditional music is not usually associated with symphony orchestras.

MILLER: Exactly. That's kind of a commercial for next year's festival, the 2018 festival, which we're already planning. It’s going to focus entirely on [going] beyond the traditional borders of what orchestras do. So we’re bringing in all sorts of folk musicians, and different kinds of musical traditions—Latin-American, African-American, and Eastern European. Different kinds of musical instruments. Next year, the festival is about how you make an orchestra bigger than just the traditional repertoire that orchestras have generally played [and embrace] diversity and inclusion.

NEA: What are some of the challenges and opportunities of programming new works?

MILLER: Well I would say the greatest opportunity is you can get a composer to write about something that's relevant to now and to us. You know with dead guy composers you can’t tell Beethoven you want a piece about something to do with the Erie Canal because he simply won't write it for you. The wonderful thing with young composers is you can ask for a piece about water, you can ask for a piece about the town of Little Falls in central New York, and it somehow connects to them. Living composers can write pieces that really amplify the themes that we're wanting to explore, whereas dead composers won't as readily do that.

In terms of the challenges, I suppose the challenges are the obvious challenges when you're dealing with new art. You never quite know what you'll get when you commission a new piece of work. But you hope you have a good sense of who's a good composer so that if you commission a new piece from them it'll come out interesting, if not brilliant, and hopefully [it will also be] brilliant. We used to say the challenge was getting people interested in the music, but I don't think that's really a challenge anymore. I think our community and the larger community are as interested these days in new art as they are in traditional art…. Creating new art is a very exciting and daring thing, but I think it's ultimately every bit as exciting and satisfying as playing the classics.

NEA: Finish this sentence: The arts matter because …

MILLER: The arts matter because they make us see the world beyond our day to day and they take us out of ourselves and build a spiritual community. So much of life is gray in the middle. We're going on and doing our thing whatever it is, and art matters because it takes us out of that and makes us see the world more brightly and brilliantly and makes us remember why human beings exists and what make us so special.

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