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What's the score?

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The Minnesota Orchestra. For its annual Composer Institute, the orchestra invites up to nine promising young composers from across the country to spend a week at Orchestra Hall. The orchestra also performs a reading of each composer's work. (MPR photo/Chris Roberts)
Imagine writing classical music and but not being able to hear it performed properly. That's one of the biggest challenges facing young composers. For the last several years, the Minnesota Orchestra has been trying to address the problem by holding a "Composer Institute." Recently, seven promising young composers spent a week in Minneapolis, immersed in the world of a top-flight orchestra. Not only did they hear their work played in Orchestra Hall, they also were schooled on how to make composing their livelihood.

Minneapolis, Minn. — David Plylar stood quietly in the middle of Orchestra Hall, gazing up at the stage. As he watched conductor Mischa Santora wave his baton, there must have been some part of him that couldn't believe his ears. The Minnesota Orchestra was performing his piece, "Classical Walpurgis Night."

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Image David Plylar

The work is a stormy, raucous musical tribute to Goethe's Faust. Occasionally, Santora would stop the musicians and give instructions, glancing over his shoulder to see if Plylar was in agreement. Plylar, a doctoral student at the Eastman School of Music, would jump up on stage, nod somewhat hesitantly, and the music would resume.

After the orchestra finished a complete run-through of his piece, Plylar had a post-performance huddle with noted composer Aaron Kernis. Kernis gently encouraged him to be more assertive with the conductor and the musicians.

"Eventually, as you do this hopefully more and more, you'll become comfortable with what you absolutely need to say, (and)what you sort of need to say but it's a second level, you know there are levels" Kernis says.

Plylar was one of seven young composers chosen to take part in this year's Composer Institute. The Institute is sponsored by the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum, and the American Music Center in New York. Aaron Kernis is its driving force.

Kernis says he had one of his pieces read by an orchestra when he was 23, and it launched his career. Most of the participants in the Institute have advanced degrees in composition, but, according to Kernis, are wholly unprepared to find their way professionally.

"There's so much practical information, both about working with musicians, about how to write for the orchestra, about how to go out into the world and just deal with all the logistical things that we deal with that composers simply do not get as part of their education," he says.

Orchestral readings or performances of an emerging composer's work are at the core of the Composer Institute. Participants also get to discuss their work with individual musicians. There are seminars on the business and marketing aspects of being a composer. They touch on copyright law, licensing, public speaking, grant writing, even web sites.

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Image Beth Cowart and Aaron Jay Kernis.

Lyn Liston is the American Music Center's Director of New Music Information Services. Liston says college music programs and conservatories tend to sniff at career oriented topics, to the chagrin of their students.

"A composer who participated in the Institute came up to me recently and told me that he wished he hadn't gone to grad school and that he had just come to the Institute instead," she says. "I'm sure that what they're teaching people in college is more the artistic side, and I'm think there's this sort of ivory tower belief that that's all schools should do. But I'm hoping that our schools can move towards presenting composers with the tolls that they need to function in the real world."

When the Minnesota Orchestra launched into his work, Andrew Norman needed no coaching on when and where to interject his opinion. Norman did it early and often. His rather blustery piece, entitled "Sacred Geometry," was inspired by the gothic cathedral architecture of France.

At the first pause in the music, Norman, who just received a masters degree in composition from the University of Southern California, bounded up on stage to chat with conductor Mischa Santora.

"Tempo was okay from the beginning?" Santora asked.

"Yah, it could be a little slower," responded Norman. "And actually the tempo at G, the other fast section, could also be a hair under. And here there's just a bunch of stuff not in the right place. Particularly the piano solo here is very very important."

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Image Andrew Norman

While Norman seemed caught up in the inner workings of his piece, he also sensed the drama of the moment.

"It's unlike anything else," he says. "I don't know where to begin to describe. There's a whole tumult of emotions going on. At one point, you have to try to keep your distance emotionally from what's going on up there and say in your mind, 'Okay what am I hearing?, And how is it different than what I imagined? And is there a way that I could communicate to them in 30 seconds or 15 seconds? What it is that I imagined?'"

"But at the same time, how many times do you get the Minnesota Orchestra to play your piece?" Norman says. "You just have to sit back and enjoy it too, and there's a really tricky balance there."

What was invaluable to Norman and fellow composer David Plylar, was the chance to interact with a highly regarded professional orchestra. Plylar says it was his first exposure to limited rehearsal time, and having to work on the fly.

"This is only a reading session so it's not exactly a typical situation, but at the same time you get a very good sense of the time constraints and the practical elements of writing for a large ensemble that you need to keep in mind as you're writing pieces," Plylar says. "And for those of us who have less experience, there's nothing like a trial by fire in this sort of situation."

There's one troubling aspect to the Composer Institute, at least to Aaron Kernis. Participants get a recording of their work being performed by the Minnesota Orchestra. However union rules prevent them from making copies or using it in any way without paying the musicians. That baffles Aaron Kernis.

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Image The 2004 Composer Institute.

"Who's going to lose?" he says. "Are you going to lose 50-cents if a work is played on the radio without your permission? But anyway, even if composers just have the ability to use tapes for grants, just to promote the work alone, that's all we really ask for."

Despite this roadblock, Kernis says several Composer Institute alums have moved on to greater success. Some have been commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra to write pieces for its youth and family concerts.

Kernis says the strength of the Minnesota Orchestra's commitment has made the Composer Institute unique in the country. He admits it's not entirely altruistic. He says the orchestra understands that by building the careers of talented young composers, it's contributing to its own future health.