On Sunday evening, after grabbing a bite at Zabar’s, my childhood friend Mike and I strolled towards Mannes College The New School for Music for a little night music. “Visionaries: A New Generation of Composers,” presented by the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, was to be performed. Hosted by composer Eric Ewazen, “Visionaries” featured nine musical compositions written by nine respective composers. Our good friend, Ben Morris, was one of the featured composers. I found myself moved by the unique power of each composition, the superb skill of the performers, and, above all else, the freshness and talent of each emerging composer.
Mannes College is housed in a brick-faced prewar building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The musty lobby, with its black and white tiled floors and marble staircase, evoked a quintessentially New York nostalgia. Upon entering the concert hall, I was struck by the casual and intimate atmosphere, where composers mingled with guests. (No jacket required!) Before the performances began, the composers sat onstage poised for questions. Eric Ewazen introduced them all with glowing enthusiasm and admiration which quickly proved to be infectious; at this point, I knew I was going to be impressed.
The composers included: Ben Morris, a New Jersey native inspired by the beauty of nature; David Arend, a Pennsylvania born Civil War enthusiast; Jess Hendricks, a New Englander with a penchant for the Native Americans of South Dakota; Alon Nechustan, an Israeli art enthusiast; Matthew Recio, a Long Islander inspired by the silver screen; Nicholas Virzi, a New York-based lover of poetry; Alex Weiser, a New Yorker with a passion for music from an early age; Chen Zhangyi, a Singapore-born Renaissance man, and Leanna Primiani, a Californian with a peculiar fascination with all things Shaker. This small group was rich in diverse interests and backgrounds, resulting in an eclectic selection of ensembles.
Although each performance fell under the umbrella of “chamber music,” the compositions were quite different in style and execution. The influences of each piece ranged from jazz to Renaissance art to the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Jess Hendrick’s “Pahá Sápa,” inspired by Native American spiritual dances, incorporated an alto sax evoking the traditional Ghost and Sun Dances. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the tune sounded coming from an instrument so far removed from Native American culture. Leanna Primiani’s “Thursdays, Saturdays, and Twice on the Sabbath,” a nod to Shaker prayer sessions, included stomping and shuffling of feet alongside several wind instruments — a composition reminiscent of the quirky work of John Adams. I thoroughly enjoyed each performance from start to finish; I found the composers’ introductions - including the inspirations for the pieces — particularly charming.
After the concert concluded, I had the pleasure of dining with composers Chen Zhangyi and Ben Morris over antipasto and spaghetti at a nearby trattoria. Zhangyi’s passion is not limited to music; he also dabbles in the visual arts, specifically calligraphy. Ben radiates with warm enthusiasm for his music. In addition to chamber music, Ben composes film scores, specifically in collaboration with his father, filmmaker Scott Morris. Ben was awarded the New Jersey Music Educators’ Association Young Composers award for a jazz ensemble titled “Mutual.” His adoration of jazz piano colors most of his work, specifically his featured ensemble, the lovely “Orange Sky Silhouette.”
Skipping “Visionaries” and attending a concert of a recognizable composer, say Bach or Mozart, would have been a routine decision. Yet, making the effort to attend this concert of emerging artists was a rewarding experience on many levels. Aaron Copland once said, “To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.” Keeping your eye on up and coming composers actively contributes to Copland’s musical flow. Who knows, you might be sitting next to the new Gershwin on the A-Train...