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New composers score with fresh work

October 29, 2010

If you think the job market is tough in your field, imagine what it would be like if you were competing for work with a few centuries worth of dead people. That's what classical composers are up against in trying to get their work performed by professional orchestras, which tend to set aside most of their season for works by folks like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler.

But several young composers make inroads into American concert halls every year, and a fortunate septet of them were able to have pieces performed by conductor Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra on Friday. It was the concluding concert of the 10th annual Composer Institute, a week of workshops, career advice and music making that showcased seven talents at various stages of development, but all with something interesting to say musically.

The influences that emerged in each of the works were admirably diverse, but a theme that came through was how confident some of the composers were in expressing their sense of cultural identity in their music. Hybrids of eastern and western musical traditions could be found in "Namaskar," the concert-opening work by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen, as well as in the First Symphony of Chinese composer Wang Jie. And the conflict that raged through much of Clint Needham's "The Body Electric" subsided to expose a calm center that sounded like a stroll through a Japanese garden.

Were there any familiar classical composers whose influence emerged over the course of the evening? Well, the shadow of Dmitri Shostakovich darted in and out of many of the works, with plenty of low menacing chords, scurrying fast figures that sounded like desperate fleeing, and jarring explosions from the percussion section, which was given quite a workout by each of the composers.

Will any of the works be "future classics," as the Minnesota Orchestra has annually dubbed this concert? Well, each of the composers showed a lot of promise, but the women among the seven — Wang Jie and Polina Nazaykinskaya — seemed the most self-assured about the sound world they wished to create. Wang Jie's First Symphony traveled a fascinating arc over its 14 minutes, with a simple interval of two notes providing the foundation for a work that grows from innocent inquiry to roiling tension to a deep sense of loss.

Nazaykinskaya's "Winter Bells" may have been the most conventional work in tone and structure, but this young Russian composer is clearly inspired by the religious and folk traditions of her native land, as well as the lush orchestral colors the great Russian romantics unleashed upon the world. "Winter Bells" proved so evocative and cinematic that it wouldn't be surprising to see this composer's name on a major film score very soon. And those might be the most lucrative jobs a composer can get in the current market.