A new model for promoting inclusion in the concert hall through a multifaceted collaboration among composers, performers, and educators reaches one of its first milestones this spring.
The inaugural orchestral concert of Composing Inclusion, a partnership of the Juilliard Preparatory Division, New York Philharmonic, and American Composers Forum (ACF), with funding from the Sphinx Venture Fund, takes place May 6 at David Geffen Hall.
At the concert, Music Advancement Program (MAP) students will join members of the New York Philharmonic to give side-by-side premieres of the first set of Composing Inclusion orchestral commissions, which offer a rare opportunity for emerging composers of color to develop and rehearse their new scores over the course of months of close exchange with performers and advisors.
The commissioned works were created with the unique intent for young and professional musicians to perform side-by-side. The composers have been asked to account for the fact that these programs often bring together young musicians with varying skill levels. MAP, for example, has about 70 intermediate to advanced students, ages 8 to 18.
Composing Inclusion was initiated by Weston Sprott, dean and director of the Preparatory Division, which encompasses MAP and Pre-College. The idea was birthed out of a panel discussion at the Midwest Clinic. Facilitated by the American Composers Forum’s executive director, Vanessa Rose, the panel was titled What About the Composer? From reflections on flexible orchestration, the complexities of writing for youth ensemble, and how side-by-side concerts are often less than fulfilling for performers, a concept emerged. Instead of adapting already existing repertoire to fit this need, Sprott proposed an alternative: “What if we had pieces that were composed with the initial intent of allowing players at different levels of development to participate in a way that’s meaningful and exciting for them?”
Building a More Diverse and Inclusive Repertoire
Sprott realized that the practical solution he had in mind to address this challenge could also be developed to further the Preparatory Division’s efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive repertoire for young musicians. The nine composers commissioned as part of the inaugural two-year partnership all identify as Black or Latinx.
As a result of the novel collaborative process that generated the three works premiering at the May 6 concert, each feels like “a custom-made, bespoke piece,” says Trevor Weston, a composer and Preparatory Division faculty member who has been advising the composers. In the course of preparing their compositions, they had opportunities to spend time with the MAP musicians and to consult with Catherine Birke, MAP’s music director, to acquire a better sense of what would work best for young players.
The chance to perform these new works side-by-side with seasoned professionals from the New York Philharmonic is a key part of the experience, says Weston, who likens it to the historical model of apprenticeship in which emerging young talent would perform with professionals to hone their craft. “This is really going back to how music used to always work,” he says.
Along with a contribution by Weston, the May 6 program (led by Paolo Bortolameolli, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s associate conductor) will premiere works by Jordyn Davis and James Díaz, who were chosen from a large and competitive pool of applications reviewed by Sprott, Weston, and Prep Division, New York Phil, and ACF colleagues.
“My piece, which is called As I Am, comes out of this journey I have been following of self-reflection and acceptance,” says Davis, who is from Detroit and is now based in Brooklyn. For this collaboration, she wanted to focus on “emphasizing and celebrating individuality and autonomy in a large ensemble setting.”
Davis contrasts her experiences of classical and jazz training, noting that, in jazz communities, “there’s so much autonomy in the music where you’re required to improvise and composition is encouraged. When I’m playing jazz, I’m constantly composing on the bass. So I wanted to bring a bit of that energy to the orchestra.”
Duke Ellington’s example of writing for individual players in his jazz orchestra served as an especially powerful inspiration, Davis says, “for approaching how to work with this particular ensemble.” Using a color-coded seating chart, she carefully mapped out where the MAP musicians will be situated vis-à-vis their counterparts from the New York Philharmonic (there will be about 90 players altogether).
Davis has inscribed the names of each of the MAP musicians on their score parts to highlight that the creation of this piece “is a collaboration between all of us. I want them to feel like they have been a true inspiration for the music and that they are a part of it.”
In contrast, Díaz conceptualized his work for the project, and does the Moon also fall, by treating the combined musicians “as a whole, hybrid orchestra instead of just individuals.” The result, he says, “is not a classic, transparent approach to orchestration but the opposite, with an emphasis on texture and color—almost like an abstract.”
Díaz, who comes from Fosca, Colombia, and is pursuing his composition PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, found inspiration for the piece while reading about the origins of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity and how it “changed everything.” The title refers to Newton’s famous epiphany after seeing an apple fall and looking up at the moon and wondering whether it also might be in the process of falling.
Díaz explains that and does the Moon also fall is about “how we perceive musical time.” While he scored it for acoustical instruments alone, his intensive involvement with synthesizers influenced its soundscape, noting that “it uses the idea of distortion through orchestration, with many sonorities and colors coming from syntheses of sounds.”
Trevor Weston’s Composing Inclusion piece, Subwaves, was prompted by MAP students‘ responses when he asked about their impressions of the subway system and “things they would want to do in a piece.” As a composer, he observes, “it’s a great experience to have this sort of connection with young musicians.”
Asked what he hopes participants will take from Composing Inclusion, Sprott says he would like to see them be inspired by it for many years to come. “These are transformational, game-changing moments. Whenever possible, we try to give these opportunities to our students.”
Thomas May, who writes about the arts for a variety of publications, is the English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival and has written books about Wagner and John Adams
Pictured, from left: James Diaz*, Megan Zhang and Weston Sprott (Prep Division), Lauren McCall*, Thomas Flippin*, Nicolas Benavides*, Andrés Soto*, Jordyn Davis*, Elijah Thomas*; Carolina Heredia (ACF director of artist support), Trevor Weston (Prep faculty), and Vanessa Rose (ACF executive director) at a November Composing Inclusion workshop. Not pictured: Jasmine Barnes.*
*Composing Inclusion composer