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For Grammy Award-Winning Composer Steven Mackey, Season Highlights Include Two Boston Premieres (Oct 19) and World Premiere of New San Francisco Symphony Commission to Honor MTT at 75 (Feb 7–9)

For Grammy Award-winning composer and electric guitarist Steven Mackey, the coming season brings a number of important premieres and performances. This Friday, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project pairs the Boston premieres of his orchestral piece Tonic and percussion concerto, Time Release, featuring dedicatee Colin Currie as soloist (Oct 19). In February, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony give the world premiere of Mackey’s new work Portals, Scenes and Celebrations, commissioned by the orchestra to celebrate the Music Director’s 75th birthday (Feb 7–9). A second world premiere follows, when Gustavo Dudamel leads Ensemble Berlin in the first performance of Mackey’s new work themed to “Art & Nature” at Princeton University (April 23). Following last year’s album release of his “wordless electric guitar opera” Orpheus Unsung, the composer-guitarist reunites with Sō Percussion’s Jason Treuting for live accounts in Dallas (Oct 24) and Portland, OR (Feb 20 & 21). Also on guitar, Mackey rounds out the season with performances of his double concerto, Four Iconoclastic Episodes, in spring concerts with violinist Eric Wyrick and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (May 16-19).

Boston premieres of Tonic and Time Release

It was the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its Artistic Director Gil Rose who made the first recording of Mackey’s Dreamhouse, scoring four 2011 Grammy nominations, including those for Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance. Now, again under Rose’s leadership, the orchestra launches its 2018-19 season with an evening of Boston premieres bookended by Mackey’s music. After opening with Tonic (2011), a 20-minute piece for strings, winds, and timpani, their concert concludes with Time Release (2005) for percussion and orchestra. Casting the marimba in a leading role, this was written for Colin Currie, arguably “the world’s finest and most daring percussionist” (The Spectator, UK). As Mackey said in his program note:

“Colin and I both wanted our collaboration to result in music that cast the soloist in a leading role but kept the musical story front and center. To be sure I want to showcase Colin’s formidable talents, but the quality that I find the most impressive is his deep musical understanding.”

Besides its world, UK, and U.S. premieres, Currie’s many previous accounts of Time Release include a performance at Carnegie Hall, where the work “offered a mesmerizing mélange of sounds and a convincing argument for the marimba as a virtuoso instrument” (Classical Source).

World premiere of new San Francisco Symphony commission

Michael Tilson Thomas has served as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony for almost a quarter-century, and looks forward to celebrating his 75th birthday next year. For Mackey, the conductor is not only “one of the most accomplished, influential and well-known musicians in the world,” but also “one of my closest musical friends.” Commissioned by the orchestra to celebrate the Music Director’s birthday and honor his legacy, Portals, Scenes and Celebrations – a series of contrasting but connecting miniatures – was directly inspired by Mackey’s correspondence with Thomas. The composer explains:

“The email in which MTT first extended the invitation to compose something for his 75th year contained a few provocative prompts. He suggested the working title be Easy Piece for Michael (it was), and added: ‘Easy, of course, can have many meanings.’ He recalled speaking with an esoteric Buddhist scholar who said that life offered four opportunities to make great spiritual leaps: waking up, falling asleep, orgasm, and death. He wrote: ‘All of them meant to be easy … and joyous.’ He asked me to consider writing him ‘an up-tempo, dazzling and joyous (in spite of everything) and/or inspiring piece, 17 minutes long.’”

Mackey describes how he went about interpreting these suggestions:

“The terms ‘up-tempo’ and ‘dazzling’ – along with the caveat about the term ‘easy’ – suggested that Michael wasn’t looking for a piece that was simple to execute, and gave me license to let the horses run, harnessing the virtuosity of the great San Francisco Symphony to bring off exuberant gestures, joyous play, and playful movement. My piece is made of five, short, contrasting but connected movements: ‘Fanfare/Portal,’ ‘Ayre,’ ‘Lift Off,’ ‘Ground/Sky,’ and ‘Fanfare/Finale.’ The journey through the piece is characterized by portals, leaps of faith, and lucky discoveries, rather than heavy lifting. It ended up being closer to 16 minutes long, but I think it is joyous and, I hope, inspiring.”

Dudamel and Ensemble Berlin give world premiere at Princeton

Mackey is now at work on another new composition for performance at Princeton University, where he is Professor of Music and has served on the faculty since 1985. Alongside music by Schubert and Wagner, the new piece will grace a program exploring “Art & Nature,” curated by Gustavo Dudamel during his present three-part residency at the university. To give its world premiere performance, the conductor will be joined by Ensemble Berlin, a group comprising handpicked members of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Performing Orpheus Unsung in Dallas and Portland, OR

Mackey, who started out playing electric guitar in California rock bands, has been incorporating the instrument into his concert music since the 1980s. He is a regular performer of his own work, including Orpheus Unsung, about which he says:

“The hour-long narrative is driven by the music – solo electric guitar and drums – which traces the myth of Orpheus (“O”) in the underworld. … Some of the features that characterize the music are the use of two guitars, one tuned normally and the other tuned microtonally, which gives the harmony an other-worldly sound, or rather an ‘underworldly’ sound. The guitar uses effects to inhabit different voices and suggest antiphony. Loopers that record and play back material in real time are used to multiply and stratify layers of activity. It is an orchestral conception of the electric guitar and the virtuosity lies not only in the fingerplay but also in the footwork on the pedals, which coax the loops into being responsive chamber partners rather than drones. The drum part was co-created with Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion, who teases out the layers of polyrhythm and adds some of his own. The drums are expanded with a large array of tuned gongs.”

It was with Treuting, his regular collaborator, that Mackey first premiered the work in spring 2016, and with whom he recorded it for an album released last fall on the New Amsterdam label. This prompted the New Yorker’s Alex Ross to marvel:

“Mackey’s and Treuting’s fantastic musicianship and seamless teamwork effectively bring O to life, illustrate his dramatic story, and highlight a concept that is definitely something new for the world of new music.”

Performing Four Iconoclastic Episodes with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Mackey has also served as soloist in almost two dozen performances of Four Iconoclastic Episodes, his double concerto for violin, electric guitar, and string orchestra. This draws inspiration from music ranging from late Schubert to Chicago blues, jazz-rock fusion, African pop, and Radiohead. Mackey writes:

“It is music driven by energy, motion and the joy of playing, … music that loves music. One of the great benefits of being a composer is the opportunity to interact with interesting music in a more active way than one can as a listener. Like my nine-month old son who consummates his relationship with interesting objects by putting them in his mouth, I like to swallow music that interests me in the hope that it will become part of me. Each of the four episodes was written in response to some music that excited me.”

After a performance with London’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Classical Source pronounced the concerto “an enchanting score that manages to suggest the rhetoric of popular music – repeated chords; simple harmony – with the means of classical without compromising the latter,” before concluding: “I can’t wait to hear Episodes again.

High-resolution photos can be downloaded here.


Steven Mackey: 2018-19 engagements

Oct 19
Boston, MA
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory
Boston Modern Orchestra Project / Gil Rose
Tonic (2011; Boston premiere)
Time Release (2005; Boston premiere, with Colin Currie, percussion)

Oct 24–Feb 21: Concerts on electric guitar with Jason Treuting, percussion
Orpheus Unsung (2015)
Oct 24: Dallas, TX (Nasher Sculpture Theater)
Feb 20 & 21: Portland, OR (Third Angle New Music at Holocene)

Feb 7–9
San Francisco, CA
Davies Symphony Hall
San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas
Portals, Scenes and Celebrations (world premiere of San Francisco Symphony commission)

April 23
Princeton, NJ
Princeton University
Ensemble Berlin / Gustavo Dudamel
New work, title TK (world premiere)

May 16-19: Concerts on electric guitar with Eric Wyrick, violin, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra / Xian Zhang
Four Iconoclastic Episodes (2009)
May 16 & 18: Newark, NJ (NJPAC)
May 17: Princeton, NJ (Richardson Auditorium)
May 19: New Brunswick, NJ (State Theater)


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© 21C Media Group, October 2018

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