Each year Peter Askim, composer, conductor and educator gathers 20 or so young string players to introduce them to contemporary music at a two-week festival, called the Next Festival of Emerging Artists, held at Music Mountain; he invites a well-known soloist as a mentor. This year the soloist was violinist Miranda Cuckson, no stranger to Music Mountain, nor to this reviewer.
The Saturday night concert opened with a premier composed by Askim that was a flowing cloud of string music entitled “Over Shifting Skies" that showed how well these young players could make music. Violins and especially cello had passages of solo work that displayed real talents.
Composer Reena Esmail who “works between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music” wrote “Teen Murti” that refers to the residence of the First Prime Minister of New Delhi according to the program. Ragas are combined with gentle yet poignant western music. She has degrees from Yale and Julliard, and worked with the players as they learned this piece. I thought it beguiling.
Toshio Hosokawa is a talented young Japanese composer whose “Hika for violin and string orchestra” became a stunning vehicle for the talents of Miranda Cuckson. The solo violin freights themes of deep introspection and emotional tension that seem to test the extremes of human endurance. Indeed, Miranda told us afterwards that the piece was written after the composer had visited the scenes of the disastrous and ongoing Fukushima tsunami. This was music at its most expressive, well played by this young orchestra who often sounded like one instrument. The togetherness of the playing was perhaps the main point of Toru Takemitsu’s nostalgic piece by that name that was a sweeping gesture of togetherness overlaid with solo violin again played by Miranda Cuckson.
The final piece was “Sarabanda in memories” by Aaron Jay Kernis, one of the deans of contemporary music who had worked with the orchestra as they learned this piece and who was on hand to say a few words. This was music of contemplation on the passing of a good friend. It is moving, poignant, and held my attention through every measure.
The festival players are mostly graduates of fine music schools from around the country, many with advanced degrees. There is a depth of talent here, and it is a privilege to hear them. They will play the same program Sunday at National Sawdust. What this program shows is that contemporary music can be rich, expressive, and testing of talent; it can also make for a most enjoyable listening experience.
A short video about the Next Festival appears below.