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Carnegie Hall Exclusive: Q&A with George Manahan, Music Director and Conductor, American Composers Orchestra

George Manahan conducted his first concert as Music Director of American Composers Orchestra in October 2010 in Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, commencing his tenure with "vibrant, polished, playing" (The New York Times). In advance of ACO's December 3 concert, Mr. Manahan took time to answer some questions about ACO, music, and Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie Hall: What is your first memory of Carnegie Hall?

George Manahan: I was a teenager and had just moved to New York to study at the conservatory. I bought a single ticket in the first row and heard The Cleveland Orchestra with Raphael Kubelík conducting. I still remember the program: Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with John Browning, and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. I was left breathless after the concert.

CH: What makes performing here special for you?

GM: Performing at Carnegie Hall is special for many reasons. The tradition of the hall is part of the history of classical music in this country, so to be part of that is amazing, and to carry it on by bringing new music to the stage with an ensemble like ACO is also a great pleasure and honor.

CH: There are four world premieres in the December 3 concert. As Music Director and Conductor, what are the challenges associated with presenting/performing so many world premieres with ACO?

GM: The challenge of presenting so many world premieres is also the fun of it! When other orchestras perform new music, it's usually only one piece on the program, and it's usually a relatively straightforward concert "opener." So, we are unusual in that there are often four premieres on our concerts. Not only is it new music, it is often "outside the box"—in ACO's Orchestra Underground concerts, we are trying to shake things up a bit aesthetically and with the composition of the orchestra. There are electronics, sampling, amplification, and even video. It's a lot to cram into one production!

CH: What is the significance of entitling the December 3 concert "A Time and a Place"?

GM: Each composer on this concert is describing in his own way a moment in time, whether it's the sermon of a gospel preacher or the sounds you hear in the distance on a summer night in Central Park. Each of them has painted a musical portrait of this moment, frozen in time. Two of the works happen to be about parks in New York City: Ives' Central Park in the Dark, by far the oldest piece on the program (and the only non-premiere,) which harkens back to pre-industrial times, and Ryan Francis's High Line, a brand new piece about New York's newest post-industrial park. Jerome Kitzke's piece is literally and figuratively about tending fire, as part of Native American ceremonies at four o'clock in the morning. Christopher Trapani has a concerto for a computerized "hexaphonic" guitar that is a kind of rumination on the West in all its senses: from Country Western to West Coast Rock and experimentalism. Douglas Cuomo uses a "fire and brimstone" sermon from the 1920s as a kind of digitized vocal track that he juxtaposes with the solo cellist (the fabulous Maya Beiser) and the orchestra.

CH: What goes into programming a typical ACO concert, and how does ACO choose which composers to feature?

GM: I meet with my colleagues, ACO Artistic Director Robert Beaser and ACO Creative Advisor Derek Bermel, on a regular basis throughout the year. We each have our own "spheres of influence," and I think our collective experience and knowledge covers a tremendous area of music. We start by just having bull sessions on music we like and even don't like. These are off-the-cuff and fun. We throw out ideas, and then we start making lists of works and composers. Then we try to match up composers who would complement each other and yet be contrasting. We're looking for composers who have something to say, and the skills to say it. A lot of our efforts go into finding new, emerging composers, particularly those "outside the box." We're really aware of trying to create opportunities for these composers, and we want to shake things up a bit in the orchestra world. This leads us in a lot of wonderful new directions. It's a very eye- and ear-opening process. And it's always something of a surprise, right up until the performance, since so much of what we do is quite literally brand new! We also have an array of "scouting" programs in place, like our annual Underwood New Music Readings and national EarShot Network, which are bringing us the best young composers for readings of their work. In addition, we try to listen to what composers are telling us their challenges are and what hurdles they face. Then, we try to create programs that attempt to address those issues. That's the central thinking behind programs like our Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, and our "Playing It UNsafe" project that will culminate at Zankel Hall on March 4. All of these programs keep us in touch with the composer community, and the music they are creating.

CH: What is your vision for ACO?

GM: My vision for ACO is to continue its great tradition of promoting, performing, and being an advocate for new American composers and their works, as well as combining new music with the American masterpieces of the past century. We are also looking for new and unique ways to bring our music to the public, and we want the experience for the audience to always be a visceral one.

CH: What's on your iPod?

GM: There's a lot of jazz, but it's pretty eclectic, from Lukas Foss to Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans."

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