Ditson Festival Showcases Boston's Contemporary Music

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International Musician
November 1, 2008

Boston, Massachusetts, is home to a tremendous amount of new music and composers. This fall Boston's new music ensembles joined together at the new Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) concert hall for a four-day festival. The Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music ran September 18-21 and featured eight cutting-edge concerts, with seven world premieres, supplemented by multimedia works, visual art collaborations, and special events.

The festival was supported by the Alice M. Ditson Fund with additional funding support from the Boston Musicians' Association, AFM Local 9-535 (Boston, MA). It was co-produced by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

Gil Rose, curator of the festival, artistic director and conductor of BMOP, and a member of Local 9-535, joined MIT composer Tod Machover to make the modern music festival a reality, explains John Grimes, vice president of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA). "Machover, professor of Music and Media, MIT Media Lab, early on envisioned an ICA collaboration, but Gil was the mover and shaker who made the festival happen," he says.

Rose explains that usually new music compositions are presented as a part of a performance, so the festival was important because it only featured contemporary music. "It was kind of a new animal actually," Rose says. "I think, for all the ensembles, it was a great experience because they were all featured together. I think for the composers, it’s always great to have something high-profile that is only new music."

Most new music groups have to fight for survival, Rose explains. So the ensembles were happy to perform at the festival. Part of the struggle for new music groups is attracting audiences. "Contemporary music has a lot of challenges in front of it with the general public," he says. "The core supporters are very loyal, but there’s just not a lot of them. Consumers of music are comfortable with the familiar, music evokes a desire to hear what you know. Consequently, new music has the added challenge in that it’s unfamiliar."

Boston has enjoyed a long tradition of contemporary composers affiliated with its many higher-level teaching institutions. But also, it is blessed with a music performance community comprised of not only established but newer ensembles, Grimes explains. As students transition out of university and conservatory into the workforce, the union sees these younger ensembles as a means for them to perform difficult and challenging new works, while at the same time being encouraged to join the AFM.

"Given the tough economic times facing our nation, as well as changes in the Music Performance Fund, it was important for the Boston Local to make a strong show of support for our struggling freelance musicians," Grimes says. "The arrangement ensured everyone paid the prevailing wage scales and 11% [AFM Employers' Pension Fund] AFM-EPF contributions."

Grimes adds, "Tapping into the long tradition of world-class composers of contemporary music from the Boston music scene, as well as the works of younger, relatively unknown upstarts, Rose believes it essential to remind audiences of works not just important to 20th-century music history but to reveal harbingers of ideas, possible trends, and young performers on the rise."

Catherine Stephan, executive director of BMOP, explains the Ditson Fund provides money every other year to different cities in an effort to support modern composers and performers. In its first year, the fund went to Boston. "It really became a collaborative effort between Gil and the Musicians Association," she says. "It was an opportunity to not only support what Boston composers and instrumentalists have to offer, but also to give conductors an opportunity to do things at a slightly higher level."

The venue for the festival was the recently completed ICA concert hall located on the waterfront. Sensing the hall would be a great fit as the centerpiece, in a bold stroke, Machover and Rose convinced the ICA's leadership to place the largely untested venue at their disposal. In the end, it proved ideally situated for all ensembles.

The ensembles included Boston Musica Viva (celebrating its 40th year), Callithumpian Consort, Cantata Singers, Collage New Music, Dinosaur Annex, Firebird Ensemble, solo cellist Matt Haimovitz of Local 406 (Montreal, BMOP, and George Russell honorary members of Local 9-535 (Boston) and a member of Local 802 (New York) and The Living Time Orchestra. Russell is a National Endowment of the Arts "Jazz Master." There was great cultural diversity in the music performed, explains Grimes. Performers and composers ranged in ages from 20 up to 85 years old and works composed were from as early as 1944 to as recent as 2008.

"I think what really happened though, was the festival put a positive spin on new music," Stephan says. "There is always a sense that new music is constantly in a struggle to keep going. As everything else is shrinking, there’s the possibility it will be the first thing to be overlooked. Audiences often consider it an added bonus. There’s a sense in the community that this is something we really need to fight to keep alive. I think everyone came away feeling positive about the prospects of the future."

"Boston is a hotbed of world-class composers, such as Gunther Schuller (Local 9-535), and established new music ensembles that have collective bargaining agreements with the Boston Musicians Association and participate in the AFM pension plan," says Pat Hollenbeck, president of Local 9-535.

"The community was overjoyed," Stephan says. "It was great because a lot of people attended all the events. It had a real sense of collaboration. The audience was intrigued by it, the press really promoted it, and I think the festival had a residual effect."

Rose says he plans to meet up with the people who run the Ditson Fund in December to tell them all about his experience organizing the festival. While there is no immediate plan for another contemporary music festival, Stephan says there is definitely an interest to continue promoting modern music. The biggest issue is finding funding for an event. "It would be great if it would happen," she says about another festival. "The one missing element is identifying the donor. The potential will always be there."

Each day of the festival featured an early prelude, followed by a main event later in the evening. Saturday's performances included a prelude by Callithumpain Consort, while the feature performance of the evening was by the legendary George Russell and The Living Time Orchestra, featuring music by Russell, who recently celebrated his 85th birthday. His work spans a period of six decades and is an international treasure. The festival proved that contemporary music is alive and well in Bean Town.