Q&A with composer Julia Adolphe, 2015 Toulmin Commission Winner
Julia Adolphe’s music has been described as “alive with invention” by The New Yorker, “colorful, mercurial, deftly orchestrated” by The New York Times, and displaying “a remarkable gift for sustaining a compelling musical narrative” by Musical America. Julia’s works have been performed across the U.S. and abroad by renowned ensembles and orchestras. Her awards include a 2016 Lincoln Center Emerging Artists Award, a 2016 OPERA America Discovery Grant, and a 2015 Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Julia participated in ACO’s EarShot New Music Readings in 2014 at the New York Philharmonic and subsequently won the League of American Orchestras’ Women Composers Commission in 2015, administered by ACO and supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. Her commission, a new concerto Unearth, Release for viola and orchestra, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic and principal violist Cynthia Phelps on November 17-19, 2016. Julia is a native New Yorker living in Los Angeles. She was kind enough to answer these questions about her experience.
Composer Julia Adolphe
American Composers Orchestra: What was it like to receive a world premiere at the New York Philharmonic? What surprised you about the rehearsal process? What did you think of the performance?
Julia Adolphe: It was a shocking, humbling, inspiring, and invigorating experience to hear the New York Philharmonic bring to life music that I have lived with intimately. Composing is such a personal, emotional process and to hear your musical dreams realized by one of the greatest orchestras in the world is incredibly surreal. What surprised me the most about the rehearsals and the performances was how relaxed I felt. I knew that I was in the most capable hands and had complete faith in the orchestra, Maestro Jaap Van Zweden, and violist Cynthia Phelps. Even though I worked closely with Cynthia for over a year, she still brought new expressivity and a deeper interpretation to my music with each performance she gave, and that was really special. It was also amazing to hear Van Zweden shape the piece in ways that I found new and exciting. To hear a piece that you know backwards and forwards sound fresh is a great gift.
ACO: What opportunities and experiences do you think helped lead to such a momentous moment in your career?
JA: I am so grateful to ACO’s annual EarShot New Music Readings, a competition where selected works are read and performed by some of the country’s leading orchestras. I just happened to apply during the cycle where ACO partnered with the New York Philharmonic as part of the inaugural NY Phil Biennial. As one of three winners, I received my first New York Philharmonic premiere in 2014 when Alan Gilbert conducted Dark Sand, Sifting Light. A short viola solo intrigued principal violist Cynthia Phelps and she introduced herself to me following the concert. A few months later, I heard more good news from ACO’s President Michael Geller: the New York Philharmonic and League of American Orchestras, with support from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, would co-commission a viola concerto for Cynthia Phelps.
While the EarShot readings were the most direct opportunity that connected me with the New York Philharmonic, I know that many that other experiences led to this moment. My teachers Steven Stucky and Stephen Hartke inspired and encouraged me constantly and taught me a tremendous amount about orchestration. I also think that the process of writing my chamber opera, Sylvia, which premiered in 2013, gave me experience in writing on a bigger scale with larger forms. I learned to think about my music in terms of an overarching narrative, movement, and drama. All of these techniques are important when writing for the orchestra.
Listen to an excerpt of Julia’s Dark Sand, Shifting Light:
ACO: What opportunities and experiences do you think best prepared you for writing this viola concerto and working with the New York Philharmonic?
JA: The greatest preparation came from the New York Philharmonic itself. As early as January 2015, I was working with Cynthia Phelps and studying what makes her sound unique. I asked her many questions, such as: What are your favorite concertos and why? Which concertos do you hate and why? If you could choose any instrument to play a duet with, which would it be? I even asked her what she wanted to express and communicate to her audience through the concerto. Cynthia was amazingly generous and available to me whenever I wanted to hear her play through a passage. Before our first preview concert in May, I had heard Cynthia play through every single note and we discussed fingerings and bowings for the more difficult phrases. I am lucky that Cynthia was honest with me about what passages were challenging because they were virtuosic and required time to master, and which passages were not idiomatic and needed slight adjustments.
Then, there were the preview concerts that the New York Philharmonic so generously arranged. The first preview was in May 2016. Cynthia played through my recently completed concerto with a piano reduction for an audience in Los Angeles. To hear the piece from start to finish and feel the response in the room informed my subsequent revisions. Knowing that the piece was not yet “set in stone” freed my writing and allowed me to experiment with my language. In July, Gerard Schwartz premiered the concerto with the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina. I made revisions to the orchestration, thinning out textures where the viola was overpowered and adding clarity to some of the tutti lines. More cleaning, more proofreading, and finally, I submitted the final score to Van Zweden in August. There was one last preview concert in October with Don Crockett conducting the USC Thornton Symphony. By the first rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic, all potential questions had been answered and the piece was ready to go! This is why I was so relaxed at the premiere!
ACO: What’s next for you?
JA: I am currently writing a twelve-minute work for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, scored for 20 musicians, to be premiered by Jeffrey Kahane. The commission is part of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment program, where patrons contribute to a new work and in exchange, gain exposure to the composer’s creative process. Speaking publicly about my music while in the midst of composing the work has proven clarifying, and I was able to hear a few of LACO’s musicians read-through excerpts of my music. I know I will not always have the luxury of hearing my music before the premiere, but I hope it becomes more and more a part of the commissioning process as it leads to incredible growth for both the artist and the composition itself.
American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is dedicated to the creation, celebration, performance, and promotion of orchestral music by American composers. With commitment to diversity, disruption and discovery, ACO produces concerts, pre-college and college education programs, and emerging composer professional development to foster a community of creators, audience, performers, collaborators, and funders.
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