MusicNOW festival explores mold-breaking classical music of today

'Moments of beauty and infectious music'
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-09 12:44:20-05

CINCINNATI -- Unless you're already a student of contemporary classical music, chances are you haven't loaded your playlist with Los Angeles composer Andrew Norman's 47-minute "Play," winner of the prestigious 2017 Grawemeyer Award. Or worked your way through composer Timo Andres' 23-minute tribute to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, "The Blind Banister."

It's OK. That's what MusicNOW is for.

Now in its 11th year, the music festival founded by National guitarist Bryce Dessner aims to honor the past while presenting young artists he believes "people will read about in 50 years."

Past editions have featured Dessner's indie-rock musical contemporaries such as Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Joanna Newsome and St. Vincent, alongside new and commissioned classical works from exciting new composers and performers, However, Dessner said his goal this year is to push the envelope in presenting more of the mold-breaking classical music being made today.

"A lot of my friends (in indie rock bands) who've come here to play have gone on to giant careers -- from playing for 600 people at Memorial Hall to 50,000 at Coachella -- and I hope people will come out and enjoy it because it's not just this heavy, avant-garde music," he said. "There are moments of beauty and infectious music in all of this."

We asked Dessner to preview this year's event and provide some of his expected highlights.

Thursday, Jan. 12

Bob Weir with the Campfire Band

Dessner grew up playing classical music, splitting his time equally between his sister's record collection (punk, post-punk) and his dad's (Beatles, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead), particularly embracing the creative adventurousness of the Dead. The National released "Day of the Dead," their five-disc tribute to Weir's band, earlier this year, and Dessner said the connection between their groups is closer than it seems.

"They were unrelentingly subversive and constantly reinventing," he said of the Grateful Dead. "A more distant cousin of an audience that likes more challenging contemporary music, there's a sense of risk in it, looking to be surprised in it."

MusicNOW has never had an artist from that fertile 1960s generation of rock, and Weir's Campfire Band basically consists of The National (minus singer Matt Berninger), which backed the hippie icon on his first solo album in more than three decades, this year's "Blue Mountain." Expect to hear some Dead tunes and the cowboy songs from "Blue Mountain."

Friday, Jan. 13

Andrew Norman: "Play"

This piece, which was commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, premiered in 2013. Musicologist William Robin dubbed the Grammy-nominated work the "best orchestral work that the 21st century has seen thus far." In a release, BMOP Sound said it "maps concepts from the world of video gaming onto traditional symphonic structures to tell a fractured narrative of power, manipulation, deceit and, ultimately, cooperation."

Norman, Dessner said, is one of today's "great young orchestral composers ... really forward-thinking, very experimental, challenging, but (an) incredibly playful, inventive composer who is really spearheading a renewal of this tradition."

Although MusicNOW typically asks young composers to perform a 10- to 15-minute piece sandwiched between two more traditional symphonic works, the 45-minute "Play" is one of the most ambitious works the festival has ever staged.

"This is music best heard live," Dessner said. "It's riveting in the way that if you like Aphex Twin, (there’s) that kind of kinetic energy about it."

Matthias Pintscher: "Idyll"

"Matthias stands on the tradition of amazing composers who are also conductors -- Pierre Boulez being the most famous example -- and the piece we're doing is mine that I wrote for him. This is the American premiere of that," said Dessner of the guitar concerto that he will perform with Pintscher.

Lisa Hannigan.

Lisa Hannigan

Hannigan will perform with Dessner and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Dessner’s brother, Aaron, produced acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter Hannigan’s most recent album, "At Swim." The brothers will arrange four of Hannigan's songs for the CSO, marking the first time she has performed her music in that format.

"She is really one of the great singers right now and one of Ireland's treasures," Dessner said. “Her voice is magical and has a kind of classical quality to it."

Saturday, Jan. 14

Timo Andres: "The Blind Banister"

Andres has performed at MusicNOW before; this time the pianist will play "Banister" himself for the first time in America, Dessner said.


Timo Andres.

"He has a really distinctive voice and someone called him a 'modern modernist,' with a complexity some might associate with post-war composition," he said. "But he has played with (minimalist composers) Philip Glass and Steve Reich, so it has elements of American, post-minimal feeling ... it's very active, conversational music."

Pekka Kuusisto and the CSO

"He'll be playing Ligeti and he's one of the greatest violinists in the world ... (Kuusisto) moves very easily between worlds," Dessner said of the Finnish violinist, who has performed with The National as well as German electronic artist Hauschka. "He can pick up an electric violin and play amazing loops but also play Stravinsky and Bach -- a great example of where classical music can go."

Music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Louis Langree hugs the artistic director for MusicNOW festival, Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner: "Wires"

After living in Paris for the past few years, Dessner said he has absorbed the musical vibe of the city, which he suspects comes through in his electric guitar playing on this piece.

"It's a really important piece for me. It's something that will be played once in America," he said of the composition, which he hasn't recorded yet.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: "Reflections"

"Anna is very influenced by Icelandic landscape. Her music has a sense of openness, vastness and a kind of density ... it's emotional but not in a nostalgic or overly sentimental (way)," Dessner said, noting that Thorvaldsdottir is a master at using engaging colors and timbres.

MusicNOW Festival 2017

When: Jan. 12-14

Where: Thursday, Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Downtown; Friday-Saturday, Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St., Downtown

Tickets: Thursday: $58.50 - $78.50; Friday-Saturday: $12-$75