5 Questions to Nick DiBerardino (composer)

This sponsored article is part of a paid partnership with the Curtis Institute of Music.

Composer Nick DiBerardino writes music that draws upon programmatic themes, like his percussion quartet Gossamer, a musical reflection on a Walt Whitman poem, or his string quartet Beet Juice, which explores how the vegetable increases our body’s ability to produce energy from oxygen. At the Curtis Institute of Music, DiBerardino is the Chair of Composition and Director of Ensemble 20/21, which focuses on music of the 20th and 21st centuries. In this role, DiBerardino creatively highlights different composers and contemporary music styles by curating programs that span the giants of the past century to living composers from all parts of the globe.

For the 2023-24 season, Ensemble 20/21 will explore Curtis’ macro-theme of “Music of the Earth” through the lens of ecologically-conscious composers such as John Luther Adams, Raven Chacon, Allison Loggins-Hull, Gulli Bjornsson, Luciano Berio, and Curtis alumna Gabriella Smith. The program looks at our world through folklore, culture, and natural themes, and offers a rich addition to Ensemble 20/21’s exciting upcoming season at Curtis.

What drew you to Curtis, and what do you enjoy most about leading Ensemble 20/21?

My first experience with Curtis was as an audience member. This was about a decade ago, when I drove down to Philadelphia to hear new music for orchestra by Curtis’ student composers. I expected the concert to be good, but I wasn’t prepared for what I actually experienced. I left with my jaw on the floor — I was stunned by the caliber of the orchestra, and I was also surprised to hear the wide-ranging aesthetic languages of Curtis’ composers. Each composer had something distinctly personal to say, and the orchestra brought all that music to life with a special energy and commitment.

I was moved by the music. I was even more impressed by the culture I witnessed. The hall was at capacity: standing room only, with me wedged in the back. The level of enthusiasm I felt from both the audience and the orchestra was infectious. At Curtis, musical excellence is a given. For me, it’s Curtis’ institutional culture — a clear coming together as a community, where everyone in the room radiates inspiration, support, and a sense of limitless artistic possibility — that has continued to bring so much fulfillment to every aspect of my work at the school.

Directing Ensemble 20/21 gives me an opportunity to bring those values forward. The most enjoyable part for me is working with Curtis’ performers as they engage with new works. These are immensely gifted and dedicated young artists. It’s a thrill to imagine what pieces might bring them challenge and enjoyment, an opportunity for artistic growth, and a chance to embody forward-thinking, innovative musical practices.

Nick DiBerardino speaking to the audience at the October 2, 2022 performance by Curtis’s Ensemble 20/21 in Gould Rehearsal Hall -- Photo by David DeBalko

Nick DiBerardino speaking to the audience at the October 2, 2022 performance by Curtis’s Ensemble 20/21 in Gould Rehearsal Hall — Photo by David DeBalko

How did you conceive of Ensemble 20/21’s upcoming season as a whole, and could you tell us more about why Curtis chose “Music of the Earth” as a macro-theme this year?

We’re living in a tremendously exciting moment of musical inclusivity, diversity, and stylistic openness. All my training as a composer happened in the context of a polystylistic, postmodern new music scene. I have always felt that no matter what kind of music a listener might like, there is a composer out there who is creating work that would resonate for them and their particular taste.

With that in mind, it’s been my goal to curate Ensemble 20/21 seasons that highlight a cross-section of many impactful musical voices of our time. Composers have a lot to say to the hearts of contemporary listeners. I see Ensemble 20/21 as a way to convey those messages, embodied expertly and enthusiastically by our Curtis performers, to local and global audiences.

For the 2023–24 season, Ensemble 20/21 will present concerts that explore three distinct themes: “Music of the Earth” (November 18), “Intersection” (March 30), and the music of George Lewis (April 13). Our portrait concert of Professor Lewis’ work continues Ensemble 20/21’s annual tradition of deeply engaging with the music of one of the great voices of our time. That program will include works from across Professor Lewis’ career, and I’m thrilled that our Curtis students will have a chance to work closely with him during his residency. The “Intersection” concert will center music by composers who explore the terrain between traditional genre boundaries, including Anna Meredith, Edgar Meyer, Courtney Bryan, Dmitri Tymoczko, Angélica Negron, Tyshawn Sorey, and György Ligeti.

“Music of the Earth” is a macro-theme that is close to my heart. I chose it in part to participate in Curtis’ All-School Project, an initiative that we like to think of as an “extravaganza” of interdepartmental collaboration. The idea is to align classroom learning, thinking, and writing with performance activities, inviting our students to explore one common theme from many different angles. In my view, Music of the Earth is an especially potent theme because of the way it highlights music’s ability to connect each of us to our communities, spaces, places, and the broader culture and environments around us. It also offers an exciting opportunity to program music by composers who are championing the work of environmental justice, bringing their creativity to bear on one of the most pressing issues we face.

Nick DiBerardino -- Photo by Gene Smirnov

Nick DiBerardino — Photo by Gene Smirnov

How did you settle on specific pieces and composers as you curated Ensemble 20/21’s “Music of the Earth” program?

There are several values that drive my programming decisions. One is to celebrate excellent new music, of which there is no shortage. Another is to enhance the total performance curriculum at Curtis, affording meaningful opportunities for our performers to learn from many innovative and distinct musical languages. Perhaps most importantly, I am deeply committed to the project of increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in our art form. That mission-driven work constantly offers me inspiring opportunities to engage with the music of many world-class composers from many backgrounds.

This year’s Music of the Earth program comes close on the heels of a similarly-themed Ensemble 20/21 concert last year. In that first concert, we highlighted works by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, Kaija Saariaho, Gabriela Lena Frank, Tania León, and Olivier Messiaen. I’m glad this season’s concert will build on that cross-section of composers concerned with the natural world.

This year, our Music of the Earth program includes Three High Places by John Luther Adams, a natural fit not only because of Mr. Adams’ music, but also because of his background as a full-time climate activist. Gabriella Smith’s Anthozoa and Gulli Bjornsson’s Landslög are philosophical cousins to Adams’ Three High Places: all three offer musical depictions of spaces in the natural world. Allison Loggins-Hull’s Homeland considers Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico and how our country’s response to climate events impacts national identity. Raven Chacon’s The Journey of the Horizontal People depicts a Navajo creation story, in which clans traverse the land to converge in the homelands they inhabit today. Berio’s Folk Songs round out the program, gorgeously reflecting musical influences from around the world.

What do you hope students at Curtis will gain from working on a mix of 20th-century repertoire and music by living composers? Will they get the opportunity to work with any of the composers?

In my view, our art form is best understood as a living tradition. All the repertoire we program comes from a long history of interconnected compositional voices. Performers are at the vanguard of this tradition: the music they choose to champion throughout their careers makes a lasting impact.

As our Curtis performers engage with the music of our time, they become ever more connected to the many musical perspectives of contemporary composers. Establishing a technical, aesthetic, and emotional connection to the rich tapestry of contemporary music can enrich our students’ overall performance practice, whatever they’re playing. It can also help them become more effective ambassadors for our art form, balancing the best of tradition and innovation as they build new audiences into the future.

Ensemble 20/21 frequently offers Curtis performers the chance to engage directly with composers. Many of the composers on our Ensemble 20/21 programs come to Philadelphia to coach rehearsals of their work. We are especially excited for Professor Lewis to be in Philadelphia for an extended period in the spring for his portrait concert residency.

What is next on the horizon for you? What projects and themes do you hope to explore next?

As a composer, I have all kinds of exciting projects in the works. It’s just about time for me to start my concerto for the Dover Quartet and orchestra. I have also somehow found myself in a collaboration with John de Lancie and other members of the Star Trek cast for a forthcoming hour-long, Trek-inspired concert music experience. That’s been a special thrill for this Trekkie.

Next year’s Ensemble 20/21 season planning is well underway. It will be a special year, since 2024–25 marks Curtis’ centennial. Among the concerts we have in the works for 2024–25 is a double feature of the music of Amy Beth Kirsten. We will present Savior, Dr. Kirsten’s hour-long theatrical work inspired by the mystical life and death of Joan of Arc. After intermission, we’ll present the world premiere of a new companion piece, commissioned by Curtis. Dr. Kirsten’s new piece will center on Gilles de Rais, a leader in Joan of Arc’s army who may have been the person who inspired the stories about Bluebeard.

Whatever we program afterwards, I’ll remain incredibly enthusiastic about the chance to shape the repertoire through Ensemble 20/21. The thrill of hearing Curtis’ incredible performers bring new music to new audiences never does get old.


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