Oberlin and Contemporary Music

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Oberlin and Contemporary Music

Post by Ralph » Thu Feb 22, 2007 9:08 am

From The New York Times:

February 22, 2007
Far From Music Capitals, an Ohio Conservatory Fosters Contemporary Sounds

“It’s a little like Haydn must have felt at Esterhazy,” said Lewis Nielson, a professor of composition at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, explaining some of the factors that make the institution a hotbed for new music. “We aren’t isolated any more than he was, but just isolated enough to focus our energies.”

In recent years Oberlin has produced some of the top names in contemporary music, including the innovative ensembles International Contemporary Ensemble and Eighth Blackbird and soloists, like the violinist Jennifer Koh, who champions new repertory. Oberlin students are encouraged to experiment by Timothy Weiss, director of the conservatory’s respected Contemporary Music Ensemble.

The ensemble will perform the high-tech American premiere production of “Lost Highway,” the opera that Olga Neuwirth, the Austrian modernist composer, based on David Lynch’s film of the same name, at Columbia University’s Miller Theater tomorrow and Saturday.

It’s a risky production, said David H. Stull, dean of the conservatory, but Oberlin fosters the idealism essential to encourage risk taking in an industry where the prevailing wisdom is often that music students are teetering on the precipice of a jobless abyss, or even a classical music Armageddon. But because the school is primarily an undergraduate institution, students can freely experiment without the job worries facing musicians doing graduate degree work elsewhere.

Ms. Koh, who received a degree in English from Oberlin College while taking violin lessons at the conservatory (the two institutions share a campus), said that the conservatory gave her “the freedom to explore different things.”

“I was so naïve and idealistic,” she said, “that I didn’t even think about making a living, and maybe that was due to the incredibly low rent out there. In that sense it is a protected place.”

Dan Lippel, a guitarist and member of the International Contemporary Ensemble and Flexible Music, a quartet focusing on new repertory, studied at Oberlin for two years and attributed the culture of contemporary music to the “overall vibe of the school.”

“It’s very activist and encourages entrepreneurial attitudes,” he said, “in contrast to other conservatories, which teach you how to fit into the orchestral box.”

That spirit of adventure pervades the programming at the conservatory, which was founded in 1865. For instance Lisa Kaplan, a pianist and member of Eighth Blackbird, said that although she loves Bach and Beethoven, for her senior recital she played an all-contemporary program that might have met with resistance at other schools. She added that at other schools often the contemporary music ensemble is “the lowest on the totem pole,” and that students all want to be concertmaster in the orchestra. At Oberlin, meanwhile, the highest honor is to be asked to play in Mr. Weiss’s ensemble. (The conservatory also has an excellent orchestra, which gave a successful concert at Carnegie Hall last month.)

Mr. Weiss, who agreed that his ensemble has a certain “sex appeal” on campus, encouraged his students to help with programming. “In an orchestra you play what you’re told, when you’re told and how you’re told,” he said. “But in new-music groups the choices are made by the players.”

He also pointed out that new music requires extraordinary technical skills, the development of which are an important part of Oberlin’s training. “New music is almost elitist in that the technical demands prevent every player from getting involved. You have to have chops, especially in area of new complexity,” he said.

Composition, Mr. Nielson said, is an integral part of Oberlin’s music scene, “instead of just cranking out soloists for 19th-century repertoire.” And composers have plenty of willing students to try out their pieces, said Huang Ruo, a New York composer and founding member of International Contemporary Ensemble.

“It’s a great place with a lot of experimental ideas and a free environment to do whatever you want, he said. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, and no one cares what you are doing. You can be as noisy as possible.” He added that because there are fewer professional concerts at Oberlin than in major cities, students frequently get together to create their own events, often focusing on new music.

Given the number of young musicians applying annually to conservatories around the country, warnings about the purported demise of classical music seem to be exaggerated. Oberlin’s rural experimental haven has resulted in successful music careers in a cutthroat marketplace.

But perhaps it’s not so surprising. In any industry the best way to penetrate a saturated market is to offer a high-quality product. Mr. Stull aims to train musicians to take risks professionally. “Previous to Eighth Blackbird’s success,” he said, “if we had said that we thought a small group of students would make a living commissioning new works and performing nationally, people would have laughed. But we let students dream.”

The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble performs “Lost Highway” tomorrow and Saturday nights at 8 at Miller Theater, Broadway at 116th Street, Morningside Heights, (212) 854-7799; millertheatre.com.

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