Sunday, Aug 30th, 2020
by: Heidi Waleson
Music Accord: A History
By Heidi Waleson
In 1998, representatives from nine of America’s most prestigious presenting organizations signed an agreement creating Music Accord, the first entity of its kind. Every year, each presenter would contribute to a general fund from which Music Accord would commission several new works, pairing composers with selected chamber-music ensembles, solo instrumentalists, or singers. The presenters would agree on the projects to be commissioned, but put few constraints on the resulting works’ premieres and subsequent performances.
Since its inception, Music Accord has put an estimated $1 million into thirty-seven works from a remarkable variety of composers for an equally broad array of performers. From Elliott Carter’s quintet for pianist Ursula Oppens and the Arditti String Quartet to celebrate the composer’s ninetieth birthday to Jessie Montgomery’s nonet inspired by the African-American Great Migration and premiered during the 2019/2020 season by Imani Winds and the Catalyst String Quartet, Music Accord’s commissions have spotlighted distinguished veterans and exciting newcomers, expanding the landscape of chamber music.
Music Accord was the brainchild of Zarin Mehta, who ran the Ravinia Festival from 1990 to 2000, and Frederick Noonan, a programming director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. For Mehta, the reasons for founding the organization were practical. “I was very keen on making sure that solo recitals and chamber music continued as an important feature at Ravinia, and that the programming was interesting,” he recalls. Mehta not only wanted to create new works in the chamber-music genre but to ensure that these works would be performed multiple times rather than just once. A logical way to accomplish that goal was to have producers of chamber-music concerts join him in commissioning for particular artists and ensembles. Mehta had done something similar during his stint as manager of the Montreal Symphony: he partnered with the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) Symphony and the Toronto Symphony so that all three played the pieces commissioned with Canada Council funds, ensuring that each piece was played three times—and broadcast—instead of just once.
Mehta and Noonan assembled the consortium’s founding partners: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Tanglewood Festival, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), the Library of Congress, the Ravinia Festival, San Francisco Performances, Spivey Hall (Atlanta, GA), University Musical Society (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), and Wolf Trap. They had varied approaches to presenting—some focused on music only, some presented multi-arts—and different-sized venues; all were respected presenters whose leaders shared a vision about the importance of creating new chamber music.
Kenneth C. Fischer, who served as president of the University Musical Society (UMS) for three decades, from 1987 to 2017, was an enthusiastic charter participant of Music Accord. In the early years of his career, Fischer recalls, presenters were not doing much commissioning; rather, they were primarily focused on selling tickets. He saw the 1989 Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) report, An American Dialogue, as a challenge for presenters like himself to think more broadly about their role by commissioning works, diversifying audiences, and becoming more deeply engaged in their communities. Music Accord represented an excellent avenue for UMS to work on the commissioning priority.
The partners believed that several aspects of the consortium would make it stronger and more effective. Multiple presenters as commissioners would guarantee numerous performances, but no consortium member would be obligated to present any commissioned work, and no one member would have any exclusive rights to it. The range of venue sizes also meant that large- and small-scale projects could be accommodated. The consortium members also agreed to focus attention on the artists and the works, rather than the commissioners, keeping their participation more under the radar. The artists, who would be the primary drivers of the commissions, could perform the pieces as widely as they wished, taking them to presenters other than those in the consortium as long as each member had rights of first refusal for their audience area.
Fischer says, “We were all committed to supporting the creation of new work in these genres, and we had an understanding from the beginning that the most important thing was that it got out there, and we didn’t put constraints on its performance. We had seen circumstances in which commissioners insisted on things like `two years of exclusivity,’ and that bothered us.” Music Accord, Fischer stresses, makes new work a regular part of doing business, with all the presenters contributing the same modest amount annually. It has been an important part of UMS’s practice: one-third of the commissions UMS has been involved in since 1990 have been through Music Accord.
Mike Ross, who heads Krannert Center, another charter member, describes Music Accord as “the most selfless model that I’m aware of in the performing arts commissioning realm.” Each presenter, he says, “is putting an investment into a pool that might or might not produce an outcome that the institution will be able to put on stage. It’s like basic science research—we explore pure creativity in the realm of artistic expression. Commissioning resources are the hardest funds to find in any institution, and it may end up that even if you sorely want to present the work that comes out of a given composer-artist pairing, there may be sheer logistical obstacles that prevent you from doing it. However, you have invested in its creation, and that’s the core of the model. Again, this is about selflessness: contributing to the greater good, which is the evolution of an art form, recognizing the importance of living composers, and helping performers who are committed to the ongoing creative process associated with the classical-music tradition.”
Over the two decades of Music Accord’s existence, some presenters have left, and others have joined, but the overall number has been kept small (currently it numbers eleven), to allow for an intimate process that gives all the consortium members a voice in the artists and composers to be chosen. The artistic committee, aided by the group’s professional, part-time administrator, takes suggestions from the membership. “We all share information, find out about everybody’s passion, and note the artists they are excited about,” says pianist Wu Han, who became co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 2004, and serves on the artistic committee. “The committee’s job is to do a lot of listening and to find out what kind of commission best serves the whole organization, not just oneself.”
In-person discussion happens at an early-morning meeting during the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference, now held in January, and the conversations continue by email during the rest of the year. “I love what we do together,” enthuses Amy Lam, the artistic programmer of Celebrity Series of Boston, which joined the consortium in 2003. “That’s what keeps me in this group. We all sit down during this busy conference to talk together about works and artists, and we all learn from each other. And the beauty of Music Accord is that you don’t have to agree with every single project. What we agree on is the idea that we are supporting the future of the field.”
Marna Seltzer, who heads Princeton University Concerts, which joined in 2016 and is one of the newest consortium members, agrees. “One of the nicest things about Music Accord is that everyone is on same page at a very basic level,” she says. “People feel as strongly about putting this work out in the world as they do about putting it on their own series. Many of us will go several years without putting on any of the projects we are paying for. But that’s fine; this is a very service-oriented group that sees service to the field as part of mission. That brings us all together, and makes it a pretty congenial group in a world where there can be exclusivity issues or just territorial behavior.”
Judith Hurtig, who represented Hancher Auditorium during the consortium’s first decade, recalls, “The Music Accord presenters represented programs of very high quality but with different aesthetic profiles, so there was a spectrum of interests, ranging from people who wanted to commission edgier kinds of music to those who wanted new music that was more accessible. That was a tension in our discussion, but it never threatened peace in the organization, because the presenters were all very friendly and had respect for each other. I wasn’t being forced to present any particular piece, so I could be generous with financial decisions.”
A Music Accord commission may start with one of the presenters suggesting a particular artist or ensemble. George Trudeau heads the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State University, which joined the consortium in 2004. He calls Music Accord’s method “a semi-collective approach—any of us can make suggestions about composers as well as artists.” Trudeau is always looking for possibilities. “When I present an artist, I almost always ask what they are looking forward to in the way of commissions; and if there is someone they’d like to work with.” For the presenter, the prospect of a commissioned work can be a good way to bring an artist or ensemble back to their series earlier than they might otherwise. The artistic committee, a rotating group of three or four, takes the membership's input and comes up with a slate of proposals covering a variety of genres: solo, string quartet, mixed ensemble, vocal, and instrumental.
The committee then proposes a slate to the entire membership. “We make sure that there are enough partners—four or five—who want to support any given project,” says Ed Yim, who has served as Music Accord’s administrator since 2010. Music Accord commits to two or three projects each season, and generally offers the membership six or eight options twice per year for review. It then invites the chosen artist or ensemble and involves them in the composer selection. The artist may have their own wish list of composers, or be open to suggestions from Music Accord. The consortium commissions composers who are US citizens or who reside the United States. “It is a very organic process driven by consensus and by artists, because they must be invested in the composer,” says Yim. Since the pieces are commissioned for performance in future seasons, Music Accord may have four to six projects on the drawing board at any given time, working out relationships and schedules.
In addition to selecting artists that interest a critical mass of members, Music Accord also tries to vary the kinds of works commissioned, making sure to balance the number of string quartets with pieces for solo instrument or voice, or other ensemble configurations, spreading them out over the seasons. Sometimes, the impetus for a commission has to do with a particular repertoire need. Joseph Hallman’s short stories, for example, was born as a companion for the Brahms Clarinet Trio: the presenters knew that cellist Alisa Weilerstein, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and pianist Inon Barnatan wanted to perform together, and the commission was an opportunity to fill out the program for that ensemble. Similarly, Caroline Shaw’s Narrow Sea (2017)—commissioned for Sō Percussion, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and pianist Gilbert Kalish—was envisioned as a programming companion piece for George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny.
In the early years of Music Accord, the presenters focused on well-known artists and ensembles—cellist Lynn Harrell and the Guarneri Quartet were charter participants—in order to give the program credibility and reach. Many of the composers of those early years were also well-established. William Bolcom received an early commission for From the Diary of Sally Hemings (2000) written for mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar; Lukas Foss wrote a piece for the Guarneri Quartet that was performed that year as well. Other composers were just starting out: for one of the first four commissions, the renowned mezzo Frederica von Stade tapped Jake Heggie to write Songs to the Moon, which had its premiere at the Ravinia Festival in August 1998. Two years later, his first opera, Dead Man Walking, would premiere at the San Francisco Opera and put him on the map.
The program would soon expand into less traditional chamber music genres. Michael Daugherty’s Bay of Pigs (2006) was Music Accord’s first commission for guitar (Manuel Barrueco) and string quartet (Cuarteto Latino Americano); it was a project championed by Ruth Felt at San Francisco Performances, where Barrueco was a resident artist.. Two women (Joan Panetti and Augusta Read Thomas) were commissioned in the program’s first decade; the percentage of women composers selected has since increased.
Once established, Music Accord began to offer interesting younger artists the opportunity to commission, resulting in some exciting partnerships. Violinist Benjamin Beilman’s wish list included several composers he assumed would turn him down; his first choice was the reclusive octogenarian Frederic Rzewski, whose large-scale, unconventional style appealed greatly to him. “Ed Yim thought it was worth a try, so my agent and I approached Fred through [pianist] Igor Levit,” Beilman recalls. “Fred came to my concert at Carnegie Hall, and we had dinner afterwards. He said, ‘I particularly enjoyed your resonant, dark G-string sound. I’d like to feature it in the piece.’ We had no idea that he would say yes until that concert.” Rzewski consulted Beilman about content: “He asked me if I had any specific material or themes that I wanted to feature—he often leans on some element, like folk music or a spiritual, something primal, and blows it into masterwork size. I knew he excels at great statements.” Beilman left the choice up to the composer, who was inspired by Dostoyevsky and Angela Davis to write a piece about the forces of self-destruction still present in society. Beilman was captivated by the grandeur of the result. “The biggest challenge of this piece [for the performer] is showing the longer thread, the scope of his imagination,” Beilman says.
Beilman and pianist Orion Weiss gave the premiere of Rzewski’s Demons in March 2018 at Shriver Hall, in Baltimore; a few days later, they played it in Boston on the Celebrity Series, where it made a powerful impression on Amy Lam. “Ben and Orion played that piece as if they’d been playing it together for ten years. The musical conversation that happened between the two of them was partly Fred’s genius; and it was very gratifying for a commissioner to see two young musicians so completely take ownership of this piece.”
As was the case with the Beilman/Rzewski pairing, the ideal outcome is when a Music Accord commission results in a profound connection between artist and composer, and a piece that the ensemble will embrace and champion. The Pacifica Quartet chose the Israeli-born Shulamit Ran, whose music they had played when they met her during their residency at the University of Chicago two decades earlier. The quartet expressed interest in a piece connected to visual art. Shortly thereafter, Ran became fascinated by the work of a young German-Jewish painter, Felix Nussbaum, who perished in Auschwitz in 1944, leaving behind, Ran writes, “powerful, deeply moving art that spoke to the life that was unraveling around him.” Ran originally told the Pacifica that the commission would take her several years. “Six months later, she had finished it,” Brandon Vamos, Pacifica’s cellist, recalls. “She got so invested in it. And as soon as we read it, we knew that it was a great piece, and a special one.” The Pacifica worked intensively with Ran on the four-movement quartet, spending more time than they had with any other composer. “It was important to her that her notation for exactly what she wanted in the music was clear,” Vamos says. “She felt so strongly about this, and wanted to get it right.”
The Pacifica Quartet premiered Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory in May 2014. Music Accord was joined in the commission by Wigmore Hall in London and Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and in less than two years, the Pacifica performed it 20 times all over the US as well as in Europe and Japan. The quartet recorded the work in 2019 and says that it always evokes a powerful audience reaction: silence. Vamos explains, “We will be playing it for the rest of our career. I hear that younger groups are playing it now as well, and it has a life outside of us, which is very satisfying.”
When Imani Winds was offered a Music Accord commission, they had just launched their Legacy Commissioning project and planned to celebrate the group’s tenth anniversary with new works by ten composers of color. “We had always realized that there was only so much repertoire that we could do before we ran out of pieces that we wanted to play,” says Toyin Spellman-Diaz, the oboist of the group. “There are plenty of terrible woodwind quintets, not so many good ones. To be a full-time touring ensemble, we would have to produce more.” Imani also wanted to “expand the color palette of the wind quintet,” both sonically and in terms of the composers writing the music.
“We were stunned when we heard we would be part of Music Accord,” Spellman-Diaz recalls. “To see this list of ultra high-level presenters who were interested in being a part of it—it was a highlight moment in all of our commissioning activity.”
Imani chose Stefon Harris, jazz vibraphonist and composer, with the idea that he would perform with them. “At the time, Stefon was perfecting the technique of teaching improvisation to classical musicians, and he tested his theorems on us, while helping us get better at it,” Spellman-Diaz says. The resulting work was Anatomy of a Box: A Sonic Painting in Wood, Metal, and Wind. “Stefon was inspired by a log drum—a box with little grooves in it, and modal tuning—and he built the piece on that. To be able to improvise in this different mode and work with Stefon was like a master class in improvisation and performance.”
Charles Swanson, who heads Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa, recalls the Harris premiere in September 2009 as one of the most memorable Music Accord commissions he has presented. “Stefon had been to Hancher a few times prior to this, doing amazing work, so we were excited for his return,” he says. “Imani Winds spent a few days in residence and connected with many University of Iowa students.” The Hancher building had been destroyed in the summer of 2008 by a flood, so Anatomy of a Box was performed at City High School in Iowa City. “The collaboration between the musicians was impressive, and they created an experience that will be remembered by everyone who was in attendance,” Swanson says.
Spellman-Diaz remembers that “the performances were always super high-energy, and there was such comradeship on stage. Stefon always thanks the audience for coming, and it’s a concept that stuck with us—to be grateful and to speak to the audience from a personal place.” Imani Winds and Harris performed the piece a dozen times that season, including concerts at Music Accord members San Francisco Performances, Penn State, and Celebrity Series of Boston. However, because of its specialized nature, and the need for Harris’s participation, they have not performed it since that initial run. There may be a solution, however, since only certain sections are improvised. Spellman-Diaz says, “We’ve talked about making a recording of the percussion part and playing along.”
For Mike Ross of Krannert Center, projects like the Harris piece are important even if they only get a few performances, for whatever reason. He also cites works like Augusta Read Thomas’s Purple Syllables for Chanticleer, Mario Davidovsky’s Septet for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Elliott Carter quintet. “Some of those projects are by nature almost certainly going to be of interest to a very thin slice of the presenting community, but for various reasons, in my view, they are all highly worthy of the investments we made in them.” Not every commission works out for the artists, either; the consortium members view those as an inevitable part of the process.
Music Accord commissions have been highly significant for many of the composers. Steven Mackey’s commission—one of the first four, for the Borromeo Quartet—became the catalyst for what he feels is one of his most important works. The genesis of the piece, Ars Moriendi, was Mackey’s presence at his father’s death several years earlier, in 1993. What had been a vague idea took concrete form once the commission was set. “I woke up one morning and heard the sound of his breathing,” Mackey says. “It had been haunting me, this wheezing. It had become notes, orchestrated for string quartet.” The commission, Mackey feels, brought the work together in his mind. “I don’t usually wake up with divine inspiration. Now, I had this auspicious commission for a great group, so what’s the most important thing I have to say? A string quartet is where you do important things. I think part of me was waiting for that opportunity, that medium.”
Ars Moriendi, which had its premiere in 2000, has since been performed by numerous quartets, as well as recorded. It is very personal for Mackey. “It’s one of my most important pieces. It’s frequently programmed if I do a residency, and I’ll often choose it I’m asked to give a lecture, because of how clearly it shows how a composer can musicalize life.” The piece had one unexpected effect: Mackey was commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, and the Yellow Barn Festival to write a quartet commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in 2013. “I think I was asked because I had written a good string quartet that deals with death,” he says. “It’s funny—I write wacky stuff for electric guitar, and my music has a lot of humor, but maybe my three best pieces [including Beautiful Passing, about his mother] are about death.”
For Joseph Hallman, the Music Accord commission to write short stories for the trio of Alisa Weilerstein, Anthony McGill, and Inon Barnatan premiered in 2017, represented an enormous boost for a young composer. “The history, the heritage of Music Accord!” he exclaims. “Being part of a collection of commissions that includes such amazing artists and composers—Caroline Shaw, Jessie Montgomery, Fred Rzewski, Libby Larsen—is not only a personal affirmation but an external confirmation. Also, Music Accord is a mother lode of performances because of the consortium element—which is much more common in the field of orchestra commissioning than it is in chamber music—and the extremely high level of the presenting organizations.”
Hallman, who knew Weilerstein from their student days at the Cleveland Institute of Music, was particularly excited to have the opportunity to write for such exceptional players. “It’s a relatively difficult work. It calls on their extra-musical personalities,” he says. “They are immensely gifted performers, and I knew I could get away with a lot. I’d send them clips of the score as I was working; the clarinet part especially was pretty difficult, and I didn’t want to do anything that Anthony couldn’t put together in the time they had, but every thing I sent was okay with them! You couldn’t ask for better representatives for your music.” As a result of this high-profile commission, Hallman says, “A lot more people know who I am.”
For the consortium members, Music Accord supported works become some of the most memorable events on their series. Amy Lam has especially fond memories of the east coast premiere of William Bolcom’s Suite No. 2 for violinist Gil Shaham, which took place at Jordan Hall in February 2013. “There was a huge snowstorm, and we didn’t even know if we could have the concert,” she says. “Bill debated about whether he would come. Boston managed to clean up from the storm just in time, Gil got there, and so did Bill. It was such a great concert—after a snowstorm, everybody coming together for some heartwarming music. It felt like this warm, intimate gathering, and having Bill in the audience was delightful. Gil played a good portion of his pieces solo, and at the end, he did Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag as an encore, and Bill came onstage to play the piano with him!”
Bolcom first met Shaham when the violinist played his concerto in Toronto. He was delighted to hear Shaham take an “almost opposite approach” from the iconic, jazz-infused interpretation by Sergiu Luca, for whom the piece was written. The nine-movement second suite that he wrote for Shaham was thus very different from the “flamboyant and mercurial” first one, which was also written for Luca. Suite No. 2 refers back to the Baroque dance-suite form, and, in typical Bolcom style, includes a movement called “Lenny in Spats,” written in high harmonics with a blues feel, and, for the composer, evokes Leonard Bernstein dressed like Fred Astaire and dancing with a cane.
So far, Bolcom is the most commissioned Music Accord composer. Asked by Florence Quivar for a piece about Sally Hemings, Bolcom was dubious about the project until poet and playwright Sandra Seaton crafted a text that sensitively and accurately depicted the complex, thirty-eight-year relationship of this enslaved woman and Thomas Jefferson. From the Diary of Sally Hemings (2000) has since become a recital favorite with singers, and was recorded by soprano Alyson Cambridge and pianist Lydia Brown in 2010. Bolcom’s Octet: Double Quartet (2007) celebrated the final year of the Guarneri Quartet, and their artistic bond with the Johannes Quartet. It is also Bolcom’s homage to the Mendelssohn Octet, and since its initial season, when it was performed on half a dozen Music Accord series, among others, it has become a concert companion for that earlier work for other quartet pairs.
At Penn State, George Trudeau has built on the Music Accord commissions to create a larger-scale project that involves his audience in multiple ways. Trudeau brought his organization into the consortium in 2004, when he took the job, and he has presented at least one Music Accord commission in nearly all of the fifteen seasons since joining. He usually brings the composer for a residency as well, a project that started with a grant from Mellon Foundation to raise the profile of the classical-music program, and particularly to engage more with the Penn State students. “We are a relatively isolated campus, without the distraction of big city,” he says, “and in this hermetically sealed environment, there’s an opportunity to get students to explore outside their course of study, and discover other aspects of what it is to be human, to live a fruitful enriching life.” Trudeau began bringing in composers and having the performers stay for longer periods of time. He has been able to sustain core elements of the program even after the grants ended.
As a result, Trudeau’s audience has come to expect and appreciate the new pieces. Recent presentations include the 2017 world premiere of Caroline Shaw’s Narrow Sea. “I love Caroline Shaw, and this work, designed to have the same instrumentation as the Crumb, was quite an undertaking for us. We’d had the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which Shaw is a member, the year before, performing her Partita for 8 Voices, and it was great to have her back on campus. This piece featured Sō Percussion; we had been working to find the right spot to bring them, and they were in residence for several days. The percussion requirements are extensive, and it was a lot of fun for the audience to experience this massive array of percussion onstage, along with Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. Those are opportunities that really stretch everybody.”
Another memorable event at Penn was the 2018 world premiere of Libby Larsen’s You, performed by the male vocal octet Cantus. The piece was unusual: it was six short movements woven into a full-evening program, Alone Together, which mixes popular and classical works and explores themes of isolation and connectedness in the modern world. As Chris Foss, a member of Cantus, explains, “This Music Accord commission was a landmark opportunity to work with Libby, whom we know well, and to create something adventuresome, unique, and challenging—in a good way—for the audience. It was a great way to make something special happen, not just produce a piece that can be sold as an octavo for lots of choirs to buy.” Instead of isolating one narrative in the program, Foss says, “it was more interesting to have her pieces be the tent poles that hold up the fabric of the tent, underlining each of the story moments and driving it home.”
Trudeau was enthusiastic about the result. “Libby’s pieces became sort of a touchstone for people, grounding them in the work. Her voice kept coming back, as each movement grew in intensity, and your ear got used to it. It was a different approach, and she was a little nervous about it, but it worked very well.”
Cantus’s intense touring schedule includes anywhere from forty to sixty performances of its main program each season, so Larsen’s piece has been heard widely. Audiences have been intrigued. Foss says, “After the concerts, we go into the lobby and speak with audience members—it becomes a kind of informal focus group—and we ask what their favorite song was. Libby’s music is challenging; it’s very avant-garde in how it uses our voices and builds sonic textures, and the audiences have really responded to this different sound that a choir can make. We got responses like, ‘It wasn’t what I expected, but I liked it. It made me think.’ And you hear this from people who are attending a series on which we were preceded by a juggler and followed by theater piece.” While You was designed to be part of Alone Together, Foss and Trudeau both feel that the movements could stand on their own—indeed, the choir performed several of them at Penn State’s informal Classical Coffeehouse the night before the premiere, and felt they worked well.
After more than two decades, thirty-seven commissions, and countless performances, the Music Accord consortium members feel that their bond and their mission are as essential as ever. The landscape has changed somewhat in twenty years. Mike Ross points out, “The case for commissioning in general is better understood—there was a time when the notion of commissioning carried first and foremost a prestige element.” Commissioning is now more common, he says, if not necessarily more robust; the challenges to funding remain. And many presenters are still hesitant to present new pieces. George Trudeau understands the basically conservative approach of those presenters who, he says, “often have a very small organizational setup, running a very lean operation, so the level of your ability to take risks is limited. You have to be comfortable in presenting work you have never heard before.” His experience with his own audience reflects the need for commitment and patience. “They let you know what they think. Some pieces get great reviews, some are mixed, but it’s a healthy conversation with people who have been with us for a lot of years. It always comes down to the fact that they understand the importance of doing this, for students to hear work that isn’t two hundred years old, to understand that chamber music is still a vibrant art form.”
Both Trudeau and Amy Lam, who are multi-arts presenters, think that the Music Accord model could translate to other genres. “It’s hard for some mid-tier organizations to comfortably commission works; when you have co-commissions, it makes the cost easier, you get a certain number of public performances, and the works start to have a larger life,” Trudeau says. “There are a number of different approaches to commissioning, but in this shared model that Music Accord has, we all give up a little in terms of artistic control, but if you are working with reputable, established organizations that have great leaders, and aligned taste sensibilities, it’s pretty easy to feel comfortable with that.”
Wu Han appreciates the work of Music Accord from two perspectives—as a performer (pianist) and presenter (Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center). “A new piece of music needs time—to have one performance is very depressing!—so having a group of presenters supporting you and giving you all these opportunities for a new piece that you slave over is encouraging and exciting,” she says. “And it gives you a great sense of responsibility to bring a piece to life. Nobody takes it lightly. And from the presenter’s point of view, when you go through the commissioning process and the torture of waiting for delivery, [it’s hard to have just] one performance. It’s great to know that when you mount a Music Accord commission, that the piece has a much longer life. Music Accord is a great way to bring our American composers forward, put gas in the tank, move art forward, and support artists—and hopefully a beautiful baby comes out!”
To Ross, the endurance of the project speaks for itself. “Looking at the membership of this cohort, I think it’s a pretty powerful indicator that the group has remained intact and expanded a bit. The intention has been to keep it on an intimate enough scale to have meaningful conversations about performers and composers, with everyone at the table having a voice, not one among hundreds. That was part of the original concept: a group of strongly committed presenters who cared about the art form continuing as a creative enterprise. The fact that that has stayed intact says a lot.”
The additions have also been significant. Marna Seltzer pushed for Princeton to join because, she says, “The concert series has never done much commissioning, and I thought it was an important part of our mission, especially since we are at a major institution and a music-only presenter. So I knew it was an important role for us to play, not just in our community, but in the field. This was a great way to do it. Music Accord has given us such a nice, collegial relationship with other presenters, colleagues who care about the same thing. It was not a hard sell to my board—in fact, the visibility and the contact with these larger presenting organizations was as important as the commissioning.”
The variety of the oeuvre produced through Music Accord commissions is the fruit of the members’ open dialogue and shared values. The most recent commission, Music Accord’s thirty-seventh, a nonet by composer/violinist Jessie Montgomery, commissioned for Imani Winds (their second Music Accord project, a decade after their first) and the Catalyst String Quartet and premiered in September 2019 at Penn State, speaks to its ideas about the future. In recent years, Music Accord has increased its commissioning of women and people of color; with three dozen new works to its credit, Imani Winds wanted to include more women in the quintet’s commissioning program as it celebrated its twentieth anniversary.
Montgomery’s piece is inspired by personal family stories of the African-American migration during the early 1900s, around the time of World War I, seen through the lens of her great-grandfather, Sergeant William McCauley, who traveled from Mississippi, out West, to the Dakotas, and back to Georgia. The piece is an extension of a song cycle that includes spirituals and work songs; Montgomery is excited to explore this migration narrative through the special timbral effects afforded by the instrumentation of strings and winds. “It’s the story of America in one nonet,” Spellman-Diaz says.
For Ross, this kind of commission is the essence of what Music Accord is. “I love how the expanding framework of the aesthetic embrace of composers and performers has developed,” he says. “We’ve been very responsive to emerging issues of significance that are relevant both to the field and more broadly, including commissioning women and people of color. It’s also important that we be flexible in our thinking about the stages of professional maturity, both of performers and composers.”
The endurance of the consortium speaks to its ability to grow and change, as well as the continuing need for it. Says Ross, “I don’t think any of us assumed that the project would still be underway this many years after its inception. We thought it would be a fabulous pilot project. Instead, it is one of the most highly impactful and under-the-radar endeavors that has been afoot in our field. It has gone so much more beautifully and expansively than any of us expected.”