“The 49th John Donald Robb Composers’ Symposium is being held this week,” August March said with energy and growing anticipation as he pored over his notes.
That’s right, I told the local music critic. The event is being held Feb. 2 through 5. This year it features an opening performance at Chatter that first Sunday, followed by free daily workshops at the UNM Department of Music and evening concerts at Keller Hall.
This year’s symposium features the work of Wave Dash—that’s Camilla Hoitenga and Magdalena Meitzner—as well as special guest composers Anne LeBaron, Lei Liang, Amy Williams, Blair Hiller and Juan Salvidar Jr.
The work of UNM alums and world renowned artists Raven Chacon and Panaiotis will also be performed, along with compositions by UNM composition professors Richard Hermann, Karola Obermueller and José-Luis Hurtado.
“That’s one heck of a lineup,” quipped March. “Weren’t you there for some of those early historic encounters with great musicians?” he asked mysteriously.
Oh yeah. I was the guy moving chairs around the stage and raising and lowering the lights between acts for at least 5 symposiums in the late-1980s and early 1990s.
In 1986, symposium organizer and head brainiac Professor Scott Wilkinson brought Lou Harrison, one of the most important musical voices of the 20th century, to the forum. The UNM Percussion Ensemble, under the baton of UNM Distinguished Professor Christopher Shultis—and with the assistance of legendary Albuquerque violinist Leonard Felberg—performed Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion.
“He was very important in the composition of modern music for percussion, from what I recall, and studied with Arnold Schoenberg,” March added.
“Well, to top that all off, the next year Wilkinson brought John Harbison, a Pulitizer Prize winner whose work Twilight Music was played by a trio of UNM faculty members, including Felberg, pianist Evelyne Brancart and hornist Kristen Thelander.”
“I always dug Thelander’s performance of the Brahms horn trio. Who else came to the symposium in those early, halcyon days?” March asked curiously as he blew smoke rings toward the window and discursively added, “Thelander eschewed the vibrato that some in her generation controversially used whilst playing the piece that Brahms wrote about his mother’s death. Back to your point though.”
Under Wilkinson’s direction—as well as the growing influence of percussion professor Christopher Shultis—the symposium began embracing the work of New Mexico’s women composers like Muriel Roth and Adelina Timofeyew while also encouraging seminal multi-media work by composers like Jeffrey Stolet.
Well, in 1989 the symposium featured John Cage. Cage is credited with driving art music forward into the age of Postmodernism. Cage’s take on music can be summarized with the following quote: “And here, more and more in my performances, I try to bring about a situation in which there is no difference between the audience and the performers. And I’m not speaking of audience participation in something designed by the composer, but rather am I speaking of the music which arises through the activity of both performers and so-called audience.”
During that year’s convocation of musicians from all over the world, Professor Shultis performed Cage’s Child of Tree and 12-year-old Albuquerque piano student Raven Chacon met Cage at a symposium workshop. Cage spent the week hanging out with students and faculty at UNM, even taking his meals in the Student Union Building. Shultis went on to succeed Wilkinson as the event’s artistic director, a post he held until 2012.
“What’s the story with this year’s symposium, March wondered aloud as I typically began to discourse about the past.
This year’s featured composers are Camilla Hoitenga, a flautist, and Magdalena Meitzner, a percussionist. Their project is called Wave Dash; they’ll be performing the work of local and guest composers.
There will also be a performance by UNM alum Blair Hamrick, who will perform John Donald Robb’s modernist masterwork, Variations on a Chromatic Line.
Additionally, among a plethora of awesome encounters, Panaiotis will present a transcendent musical intallation beginning on Monday, there will be a lecture on Luigi Nono’s Frangmente, Stelle, an Diotima titled Utopian Dimensions on Tuesday and most importantly, there will be three absolutely essential concerts of new music throughout this latest four-day sojourn through new art music, Albuquerque-style.
“And they’ve been doing this work for 49 years now? That’s amazing.” March then shouted the words “show up” with new vitality as the past vanished and the present continued to materialize. Afterwards he disappeared back into the fictive fog from which he came, leaving a half-filled cup and an old pipe on my desk as he dematerialized for another week.