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UW-Madison composer premieres innovative work at Carnegie Hall

February 10, 2011 By Susannah Brooks

Using instruments such as a junked automobile and the “sonic canvas” of a concert hall itself, the American Composers Orchestra wants to re-imagine the scope of a modern orchestra. Next month at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the ensemble will fuse light and sound in a major new work by a University of Wisconsin–Madison composer.

“Shadings,” by Laura Schwendinger, professor of composition at UW–Madison’s School of Music, will receive its world premiere by the American Composers Orchestra. The program, titled “Orchestra Underground: Playing It UNsafe,” takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 4, in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

Launched in 2007, Playing it UNsafe is the first professional laboratory in the United States dedicated to the research and development of new orchestral works. The five commissioned composers — selected from a national pool for their ability to test the limits of the orchestra — helped develop their work in readings, discussions, open rehearsals and lab sessions during several months.

“The orchestra has rehearsed my work twice in a workshop situation,” says Schwendinger. “I could respond immediately with suggestions and try new approaches at the moment of first hearing. This rarely happens in our field.”

“Shadings” combines the sounds used by Laura Schwendinger herself and the lighting art of her cousin and collaborator, Leni Schwendinger. Drawing on Leni Schwendinger’s photographs of Japanese landscapes and architecture, the shimmery orchestral sounds and the pearlescent tones of projected images fuse to produce a score with two distinct personas.

The two cousins composed their individual contributions separately, then worked together across a table, using a laptop computer and a rainbow of colored pencils.

“We’ve had several very long, hard working sessions where we talked about the language of each discipline, and common ground, to discuss how to move forward,” says Laura Schwendinger. “We worked with her images and my score and found the connections and how they would respond to one another. It’s been a very collaborative effort.”

At UW–Madison, Laura Schwendinger is also the artistic director of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which will hold spring concerts at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 10, in Mills Hall.

Now in its 33rd season, the American Composers Orchestra is the only orchestra in the world dedicated solely to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers. Since 2004, the Orchestra Underground series has challenged conventional notions about orchestral music, deconstructing the symphonic experience with unusual instrumentations and multimedia collaborations.

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