Fifty-four composers, including Elliott Carter, Steve Reich, Joan Tower, Chen Yi, Stephen Sondheim, John Zorn, Wynton Marsalis and Meredith Monk will convene in New York for an unprecedented nine-concert festival.
"A Great Day in New York," which will take place at Merkin Concert Hall and Alice Tully Hall in January, will celebrate composers who have drawn inspiration from living in the city and have played a role in its musical life.
The series was partly inspired by the classic 1959 photograph "A Great Day in Harlem" which brought together some of the great jazz players of the day. The idea for the concert series began when cellist Fred Sherry, its director, was approached by Vicki Margulies at Merkin Concert Hall about two years ago to come up with a weekend's worth of programming.
"So I went home and I started thinking about what would be fun and started thinking about all these New York composers whom I knew and had worked with," Sherry said. "I started realizing what fun it would be if Milton Babbitt, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, John Corigliano, Joan Tower and all these different kinds of composers would be together on one weekend and play their own music."
At first, Margulies wasn't sure of the project, but she soon began to see its possibilities and the idea just kept growing. Then one night, Sherry was watching television and caught Jean Bach's documentary about "A Great Day in Harlem."
"It's a great little movie. And I thought if Jean Bach could do it..." Sherry said. "I was talking to Ned Rorem who said 'Jean Bach's a wonderful person why don't you give her a call.' So I did and we started talking about the thing and she was giving me various kinds of advice."
At this point, Sherry was seeing his weekend grow beyond the capabilities of Merkin Hall. He decided to turn to the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society where he had been artistic director from 1989 to 1992 and they got involved. He also sought help from music licensing organizations ASCAP and BMI.
"I poured over the lists of composers in New York and its metropolitan areas and believe me it was thousands of names," Sherry said. "When I got done I had a long, long list of composers. There might have been 200 names on there. And at that point, it was really hard.
"The point I stress about this thing is that there was nothing about trying to pick the best composers. What I was trying to do was pick composers who were all different from each other. I tried to pick some who were originally from New York and some from different countries who had settled here and some who were actually from here and left."
Sherry mentioned Gunther Schuller, who no longer lives in New York but played an important part in the city's musical scene. The Englishman Richard Rodney Bennett has lived in New York since 1982 and Sherry thought he had to be in the series as well. And then there were natives like Charles Wuorinen and Elliott Carter, who were born, raised and still live in the city.
"I started looking around and realizing that all these people live in the same city and some of them see each other on a regular basis at concerts and some of them are friends and some of them don't even know each other," said Sherry. "And that was a thing that struck me about it; that it would be great to get everyone together for one day and celebrate this kind of golden age which is not about one style but about the proliferation of styles.
"I've worked with so many of the composers that it's not really fair for me to pick my favorite because I love working with so many of them and for different reasons even. They've meant different things in my life and on a totally personal level it's about the entertainment and enrichment of my musical life which I've gotten from all these composers. They've all added something important to me. I've played music by at least three-fourths of the composers [who are performing]."
As Sherry started organizing the concerts, he began to notice various relationships between the composers student/teacher relationships abound in the series.
"Ellen Zwillich is Elliott Carter's student; Stephen Sondheim was Milton Babbitt's student; Aaron Kernis and Tobias Picker were Charles Wuorinen's students; Chen Yi was Mario Davidosky's student; and Michael Hersch was John Corigliano's student. There are echoes here," Sherry said. "I didn't even know some of these things when I started doing it. It just turned out that way."
The hardest part, Sherry recalled, was trying to program the performances.
"It was nightmare," he said. "One of the ways in which it was done is that I just had my wish list for how I wanted everybody to be next to everybody else so that everything would sound fresh in comparison to the pieces around it. So I tried not to put the 12-tone guys all in a row, put the tonal guys all in a row and the minimal guys all in a row.
"And I don't really like any of those words. Yet there are some similarities among the composers about the techniques that they use to write the music. So I tried to put dissimilar techniques next to each other and I had a whole way that I had the program [worked out]. But then as reality set in things had to change because certain people weren't available on certain dates and timings of pieces turned out to be a certain way and it was changed from there... I'm pretty happy with the way they turned out."
Another aspect of the series is a set of symposiums with various composers discussing such issues as "What is a New York composer?" For Sherry, the answer to that question is "absolutely nothing and everything."
"We all eat at the same restaurants, take the same subway trains, yet it all comes out different," he said.
Sherry gives the example of Chen Yi who was raised in China, where she studied the violin. When she came to New York to study at Columbia University Yi found herself drawn to the traditional music she had left behind and her compositions became, in a sense, anti-influenced by her New York experience.
"I've talked to Carter and Wuorinen both about this, since they were the ones really born and raised here and what the city means to them," Sherry noted. "And they say it's the panorama of it and seeing the change in the architecture and the landscape of New York and seeing the different immigrant groups come in and affect the city, seeing their friends live and die, move in and move out, and all that. They're sort of the constants and when you hear their music it does have a kind of big city flavor to it. It has a certain iconoclast quality 'I live in a city with 7 million people but I don't care because I sound like this.' And it strengthens their music. The one thing that galvanizes the whole group is how the city forces you to be an individual."
A Great Day in New York kicks off on January 13 at Merkin Concert Hall with Peter Schickele, Philip Glass, Tan Dun, Lukas Foss, David Del Tredici and others. It ends on February 9 at Alice Tully Hall with Richard Danielpour, Aaron Jay Kernis, Melinda Wagner, Lou Karachin, Steve Mackey, Wuorinen and others.
"It's like a tour of New York through these composers' ears," Sherry said.