American Composers Orchestra Celebrates 40th With an Exciting Gala Concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center

ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel
ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, October 31, 2017

It is true, the American Composers Orchestra has been “innovating right before your ears” for four whole decades.  Yup, it’s true: this essential cutting-edge-of-everything organization, which justifiably bills itself as “the only orchestra in the world wholly dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promotion of music by American composers,” will celebrate its 40th birthday on November 7, with a concert and gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall.

Performers include ACO music director George Manahan, laureate conductor Dennis Russell Davies, artistic director Derek Bermel wearing his other hat as a Grammy-nominated clarinetist, and rising vocal stars Mikaela Bennett and Jakub Józef Orliński, all under the direction of Kevin Newbury, whose production of Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers was such a sensation at Cincinnati Opera last season.

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek
Composer Elizabeth Ogonek

The program includes the American premiere of Elizabeth Ogonek’s Sleep and Unremembrance and the New York premiere of a prelude and aria from Paola Prestini’s opera Gilgamesh. Celebrating the life and service of ACO co-founder Francis Thorne, who died earlier this year at the age of 94, the concert pairs Thorne’s Duke Ellington-tinged Fanfare, Fugue and Funk with Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige. Other modern American classics include Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata, in an orchestration by Sid Ramin, and songs by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen.

Composer Paola Prestini
Composer Paola Prestini

The gala honors ACO benefactors Ellen and James S. Marcus, co-founders Thorne and Paul Lustig Dunkel, the family of Leonard Bernstein (celebrating another noteworthy anniversary!), and Prestini in her role as founding CEO of National Sawdust.

Even given the proximity of The Big Four-O, it’s startling to realize how much the ACO has accomplished so far: performed works by 800 composers, including 350 world premieres and commissions; won ASCAP’s Adventurous Programming Award more than 35 times; set up an invaluable program of reading-sessions for emerging composers, now in its twenty-seventh year; and just this season inaugurated a Commission Club, through which members can support the entire lifespan of a commission, from the initial composer’s fee, through printing and engraving costs, to rehearsal and production costs for the concert premiere, and in return learn directly from the source about the composer’s vision, hear excerpts of the work-in-progress, and experience a full orchestral rehearsal of the piece before its premiere.

Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński
Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński

Looking forward, the 2017-18 season explores the theme of dreams as “an inspiration for both music itself and a community created through music” that embodies a distinctively American breadth of “geographic, stylistic, gender, and racial diversity.”  Highlights include a concert with Philip Glass (more anniversaries!) and two young composers he has mentored, and a new production of Fellow Travellers as part of the PROTOTYPE Festival.

Mikaela Bennett
Mikaela Bennett

But getting back to the 40th-birthday bash, it’s on November 7 at 7:30, at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, Broadway at 60th Street. Tickets are available through CenterCharge (212-721-6500) or at www.jazz.org.

There’s even an after-party in the Ascent Lounge, beginning immediately after the concert.  There are still some tickets left, so if you want to kick up your heels with some of America’s edgiest and most productive forty-year-olds, contact Lyndsay Werking at lyndsay@americancomposers.org or 212-977-8495 (extension 204), and she’ll let you know if you’re spry enough.

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Christopher Johnson writes frequently for ZEALnyc about classical music and related performances.

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