“A Fantastic Opportunity for Any Composer”: Saerom Kim and Alex MacDonald on This Year’s Roche Young Commissions

Marianna Liik (to the right), winner of the Roche Young Commissions, in conversation with the conductor Ruth Reinhardt (Photo: Manuela Jans/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

This coming Sunday, the Orchestra of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY will premiere two new orchestral works by Marianna Liik and Josep Planell’s Schiaffino which were composed as part of the Roche Young Commissions series. To give you some preliminary impressions of what to expect, we spoke with two members of the orchestra – the violist Alex MacDonald and the clarinetist Saerom Kim – who became familiar with the first drafts of both new scores a year ago.

In the summer of 2018, Marianna Liik and Josep Planells Schiaffino rehearsed preliminary versions of their new orchestral pieces with the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY. And this year they are ready to present the completed versions. You played in the orchestra during both phases of the work. How have the pieces evolved?
Alex MacDonald: After a year it is difficult to remember two sessions on pieces that you weren’t preparing for performance! I do remember a few of the techniques they were experimenting with. The thing I definitely remember is that Marianna Liik’s Kurzschluss was just a few fragments and is now a full piece. Josep Planells’ Torna was a more formed work a year ago, and has been extended, with many more vertical layers added, and refined the existing material.
Saerom Kim: Last year, I had an opportunity to play Planells’ piece (I didn’t get to play Liik’s piece last year). He originally titled his piece “Work in Progress,” and two thirds of it was ready when the Academy first got a chance to play the piece. This year, as he completed the piece, he changed the title to Torna. He keeps the main musical idea in the beginning of the piece. In the middle of the piece, there is a very quiet moment where certain instruments are playing sparsely. The composer expands this particular moment, which increases tension. There are some moments where instruments introduce different musical ideas, and at other times the majority of the instruments unite by playing the same rhythmical ideas.

Josep Planells Schiaffino during the rehearsals for his new orchestral piece Torna (Photo: Manuela Jans/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

How would you characterize the two new works? How do they differ from each other?
Saerom Kim: Planells Schiaffino and Liik’s pieces are very different. Liik’s music contains very strict rhythms and brass and woodwinds sparkle with short notes in alternations. She assigns two or three groups to play the same note, but with different dynamics and articulations. This musical idea creates a variety of colors with different layers on top of each other. Planells Schiaffino uses the musical idea of “Hauptstimme” (German for primary voice), which is a term is used primarily by composers from the Second Viennese School. Planells Schiaffino’s music can be very lyrical, and it can be rhythmically active throughout the piece.
Alex MacDonald: Planells’ is a luscious and almost more traditional piece – with lots of melody and harmony. Liik’s is a departure from that tradition, searching for very specific sounds that aren’t established in orchestral music (even within the normal contemporary music scene).

Have you otherwise worked closely with contemporary composers – perhaps even given input into the creation of a new work?
Alex MacDonald: I’ve worked with dozens of composers; a major part of me deciding to study music was performing a piece that my friend wrote for me. I was quickly inducted to that community in Auckland and then invited to play often for new music concerts and workshops. Ever since I’ve been magnetized to collaborate with composers on some level. There is a lot of academic literature on composer-performer relationships, with differing levels of co-creation or more strict division of labor between creation and realizing. I’ve always been afraid of straying too near the creation musical things, I feel busy enough playing composers’ music for an audience. I’ve also been involved in several premieres of new orchestral works, both in Australia and New Zealand. There’s not often much interaction in these settings.

David Fulmer rehearsing with the orchestra of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY (Photo: Manuela Jans/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

And have you ever had such a close exchange with a composer with regard to a large orchestral piece such as those for the Roche Young Commissions?
Saerom Kim: This is actually my first experience working closely with composers on a large orchestral piece. I think this model of the Roche Young Commissions is a very good opportunity for both composers and musicians. I’m very much enjoying this process because it is very interesting to see how these composers developed their musical ideas throughout the year.
Alex MacDonald: No. It’s a fantastic opportunity for any composer to be able to try out the massive instrument without having to commit to having a piece performed! I think the composers approach this in their own way. There are so many things you can’t know unless you experience it!

A question about your personal work: Why are you so intensely dedicated to contemporary music?
Alex MacDonald: It has been a part of my music making for as long as I’ve considered myself a musician. When it comes down to it, I enjoy playing any kind of music. But I think that playing music of this moment in time has a particular importance that old music can’t ever have. It is something that a person has devoted their lives to, who against the global social and political time we are in still choses to make music.
Saerom Kim: The world is constantly seeking for something new, and everything changes very quickly. I firmly believe that it is also important for musicians to move forward by creating and suggesting new musical ideas. It is of course very significant to preserve the traditions of classical music, and at the same time, musicians should be able to interpret new music for the audience.

Questions: Malte Lohmann

Sunday, 1 September | Symphony Concert 14
KKL Luzern, Concert Hall
Sir George Benjamin, David Fulmer (Planells Schiaffino) and Ruth Reinhardt (Liik) conductors
Reinhold Friedrich trumpet
Robyn Schulkowsky percussion

Marianna Liik
Kurzschluss for orchestra | world premiere Roche Young Commissions

Josep Planells Schiaffino
Torna for orchestra | world premiere Roche Young Commissions

Wolfgang Rihm
Marsyas. Rhapsody for trumpet with percussion and orchestra

George Benjamin
Palimpsests for orchestra

Dieter Ammann
glut for orchestra

Main Sponsor: Roche

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