The Next Festival Presents a Radiant Concert of Works that Explore the Here and Now

When conductor and composer Peter Askim talks about the importance of aligning your values with your music making, he’s serious, and The Next Festival of Emerging Artists concert on June 8 at the Kaufman Music Center was a blazing example. Conducted by Askim and performed by the festival’s string orchestra, five radically different pieces came together in an evening that felt truly tuned into the key of now.

The opening piece, Askim’s new work Soar, had a hoedown feel, rife with catchy, rhythmic asymmetry and colored with sparkling harmonics and open fifths. There were smiles on the faces of the musicians as they leaned into the wild-driving peaks and earthy valleys. Askim told the audience that the music was inspired by a long-ago audience member’s reaction to another work of his: she felt like she was flying during that performance, and he achieved this again and again with Soar.

Curtis Stewart joined Askim and the ensemble on stage for the world premiere of his Essay #1: Leave the People. Commissioned by the festival, the work added to the recent slew of genre-shattering offerings by Stewart, who is quickly becoming one of the most powerful voices of our time for racial equality in classical music. Stewart intoned repeated spoken phrases over waves of texture throughout the ensemble – from snap pizzicato to loudly whispered tutti and solo “shh!”. It was as if he was encouraging these words to become a mantra for the audience, that in these repetitions, we’d begin to absorb these words and their deeper meanings.

Curtis Stewart and Peter Askim -- Photo by Danie Harris

Curtis Stewart and Peter Askim — Photo by Danie Harris

The work acts as a timed, visceral meditation on how music by Black artists is just now being given a deserved spot in classical music prime time. Yet Curtis’ Essay points out that this is an act of non-regenerative harvesting if the product of Black music is cherished without its source — Black people — being cherished and valued just as highly. Phrases of this tangible aural essay included: “What are American Conservatories Without Blackness?” “What is American Music Without Blackness?” “Who Would We Be…Without the Blues?”

The world premiere of “…there is yet beauty” by Michael R. Dudley Jr. was so pure in its delicate radiance that it nearly felt holy. The work is inspired by a moment from last year: walking outside after a rehearsal in New York City and seeing orange smoke in the air. According to the program notes, a particularly breath-taking section towards the beginning of the piece is meant to feel like “the moment when a bird (or a human in an airplane) arrives at the place where the clouds become “firmament.” This piece was beautifully carried out by the ensemble, and the solos from principal viola (Philip Rawlinson) and principal cello (Jaemin Lee) were some of the most luscious and memorable parts of the whole evening.

Featured artist Seth Parker Woods joined the ensemble for Rebecca Saunders’ Ire: Concerto for Violoncello, Strings and Percussion. Rebecca writes in her program note that the work “explores the sonic potential of a tiny fragment of sound, the trill,” and indeed much of the work feels like observing the components of a trill through a magnifying glass, the music savoring one facet fully before moving to the next. Wood’s elusively lush and exquisitely controlled playing led the ensemble through eerie soundscapes where the music lingered on sonorities like a tutti sul ponticello long enough to truly see it blooming. The percussion, marvelously performed by Reed Puleo was frankly charming, lending metallic charisma and ear-catching drones. Saunders’ writing primed my mind to hear all types of sound as music, and the decrescendo on the final note was so eloquently executed that I heard it seamlessly merge into the tone of the air conditioning above us. It took me more than a moment to realize the piece had ended: what a lovely bit of music magic.

Reed Puleo -- Photo by Danie Evans

Reed Puleo — Photo by Danie Evans

Andrea Casarrubios’ Herencia takes its title from the Spanish word that means both “heritage” and “inheritance.” The Sphinx Virtuosi originally commissioned this piece, and Andrea’s program note discussed how she envisioned the many performers of that ensemble on stage and “how each individual has trailing behind them a unique history of unfathomable complexity; an epic that they bring to bear in every moment of performance.” There is always a deeply earnest quality in Andrea’s music, a sense of human truth that runs in arborescent veins throughout its warm exuberances and tangy dissonances. Casarrubios’s work was the perfect choice to round out a concert of music about now: music about today, just yesterday, and tomorrow. Carefully curated and unapologetic in its investment in the present and future of art, the Next Fest is one to watch and watch again.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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