On Campus Musical Explorations Culminate in Free Public Concerts

August 1, 2014
music workshop in Houghton Chapel

Walking around campus over the last two weeks, you might have caught strains of chamber music wafting through the corridors of the Jewett Arts Center. One might be just as likely to hear violins playing in Houghton Chapel, or flutes warming up in Pendleton Hall.

Wellesley is currently hosting the Composers Conference and Chamber Music Workshops, an annual event with a dual purpose: to further the potential of emerging, young composers and to develop the talent of amateur chamber musicians through instruction with nationally-renowned faculty. Both provide opportunities for performance, to the delight of audiences who enjoy the free performances of the participating musicians.

Both programs are highly selective. Approximately 60 skilled musicians participate in each of the two weeks of the chamber music program, coached in small ensembles by the Conference’s distinguished faculty. A typical day consists of professional instruction, optional large-group ensemble readings, ad hoc sight-reading, workshops, master classes, concerts, and special events.

On the professional side, the Composers Conference invites only 10 of the 100-150 qualified applicants each year to participate. Once selected, those composers immerse themselves in a two-week program that includes composition workshops in the morning, followed by intense rehearsals in the afternoons, and culminating in several evening concerts. Concerts are recorded for the composers’ use, such as postdoctoral or competition applications.

The workshops are comprehensive, covering everything from the building blocks of music, like rhythm and harmony, to conceptual discussions on topics such as what a composer is trying to communicate. Composers share their own works, and benefit from the critiques of the Guest Composers who lead the workshops, and from the examination of their peers’ work.

Wellesley has been home to the conference for many years, and it is often familiarly referred to as the Wellesley Composers Conference. As Martin Brody, Catherine Mills Davis Professor of Music at Wellesley, has said, “This is a unique environment for the performance of contemporary music by the top performers of that repertory in the country.” The facilities and the "picture postcard" campus are much appreciated by the visiting musicians, as former composer participant Andrew Sigler has written for New Music Box. From his description of the conference, it feels as though Wellesley's culture of immersion in new, diverse, and even conflicting ideas with the spirit of exploration and collaboration also permeates the conference.

Each year’s two Guest Composers are notable leaders in their field who are often alumni of the program themselves. Such is this case for this year’s Guest Composers, Augusta Read Thomas and Steven Mackey. Thomas explains that she studied with Conference Director Mario Davidovsky during her time as a fellow, and is proud to continue the cycle, knowing that some of her current students will be leading another generation’s workshops in years to come.

Thomas says that she is “very honored” to be part of the program, which is led by “a hero of mine,” in reference to Davidovsky, who has guided the Conference for nearly 40 of its 70 years. He is one of the most esteemed composers in the world—a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Guggenheim Award, Naumburg Award, and National Endowment for the Arts Award, among many others honors.

The success of his Conference’s alumni honors Davidovsky as well: Guest Composer Steven Mackey’s awards include a Grammy, several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, and numerous others. He is currently composing a large multi-movement orchestral work co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Sydney Symphony, the National Symphony and the New World Symphony, which will premiere in 2015. He is also a professor of music and chair of the Department of Music at Princeton University.

Augusta Read ThomasAstral Canticle was one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. She is the former composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New Haven Symphony, and her works have been performed by major symphonies around the world. She has received prizes and awards from the Siemen’s Foundation in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy of Arts of Letters, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and others.

Mackey and Thomas are in good musical company among the acclaimed program directors and artistic faculty.

Guests are invited to experience the final product of their collaborations, as performances are free and open to the public. The program’s final concert will be hosted at 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 2, in Jewett Auditorium at Wellesley.