40th Birthday Concert & Gala – Q&A with Artistic Director Derek Bermel

Grammy-nominated composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel has been hailed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity. An “eclectic with wide open ears” (Toronto Star), Bermel is acclaimed for music that is “intricate, witty, clear-spoken, tender, and extraordinarily beautiful [and] covers an amazing amount of ground” (San Francisco Chronicle). As a performer, “There doesn’t seem to be anything that Bermel can’t do with the clarinet” (The Boston Globe). Since 2013, Derek has brought his creative strength and engagement with myriad musical cultures to American Composers Orchestra as Artistic Director. 

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert & Gala – Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center – will feature Derek as soloist in Leonard Berstein’s Clarinet Sonata (orchestrated by Sid Ramin). Derek spoke to us about the piece, the program, and the broader picture of ACO.

Composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel. Photo by Richard Bowditch

American Composers Orchestra: Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata (later orchestrated as a concerto) is his first published work, written when he was just 25 years old. Can you talk about the piece and its character, and why it was chosen for the program?

Derek Bermel: I’ve played Bernstein’s Sonata since I was in high school; still have my copy that Lenny signed when I was a teenager … I waited an hour to meet him backstage after a concert at Lincoln Center! It’s a joyful, brilliant work for such a young composer. You can hear the strong influence of the composition teachers with whom he studied at Tanglewood; the first movement recalls the austere, academic lyricism of mid-century Hindemith, and the second movement echoes Copland in its embrace of Latin rhythms, but with a jazzy grace that presages Bernstein’s emerging voice. The sonata contains that special sound which would become so personal in later works like Candide and the Serenade; you can hear them in this early work, adapted by Bernstein’s long-time orchestrator Sid Ramin.

ACO: What about the other works on the program? Can you talk about why they were chosen to be a part of ACO’s 40th anniversary celebration?

DB: Everything in this concert relates to our 40th Anniversary and to ACO’s mission, which is to champion great American works and the creators of the future. We’re celebrating our founder Francis Thorne, and so we’re performing an imaginative work that Frannie wrote for ACO – Fanfare, Fugue, and Funk. ACO is also honoring long-time supporters James and Ellen Marcus, whose love of opera and the American Songbook leads naturally to Gershwin, Arlen, and Ellington. As a tribute to the Bernstein family, and in honor of Lenny’s 100th birthday this season, we’re performing his orchestrated clarinet sonata. And in a tip of the hat to our co-founder Paul Dunkel, who relentlessly championed work by emerging composers, we’ve programmed an operatic excerpt by Paola Prestini and a U.S. premiere by Elizabeth Ogonek, showcasing ACO’s commitment to the music of our time and beyond. We’re lucky to have our superb music director George Manahan AND our founding Music Director, the great Dennis Russell Davies, conducting this concert, as well as two rising-star singers, Mikaela Bennett and Jakub Józef Orliński, as soloists – an embarrassment of riches!

ACO: When did you first learn about the American Composers Orchestra? Do you remember any initial impressions you had about the group, and the path that led you to become Artistic Director in 2013?

DB: I’ve been lucky to be involved with ACO for more than two decades. Back in 1994, when I was still a masters student at the University of Michigan, I was lucky enough to be selected for the Underwood New Music Readings. The readings were a formative experience in my musical career – breathtaking in a way that was simultaneously traumatizing and deeply inspiring. Over the years, first serving as ACO’s Music Alive Composer-in-Residence (2006-2009), and later curating programs as ACO’s Creative Advisor (2009-13) and artistic director (2013-present), I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with so many wonderful composer colleagues, including Tania León, Robert Beaser, George Lewis, Anna Clyne and James Newton, to name a few. Some of the highlights were curating the 2011 and 2015 SONiC Festivals, which featured the work of more than 200 emerging composers; mentoring at the Underwood Readings and at EarShot orchestral readings across the U.S.; and helping design and implement JCOI (Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute), which launched in 2011 and continues to this day. Throughout these years, I have developed the deepest respect for the heart and soul of the ACO – the musicians of the orchestra – and for Maestro George Manahan. I can’t emphasize enough what a special group of artists this is; we composers are lucky to have them as partners and inspirations.

ACO: In additional to being ACO’s Artistic Director (and your other esteemed positions) you are an accomplished composer and clarinetist. Can you talk about any specific instances when your work with ACO has influenced your composing and/or performing?

DB: ACO has had a lasting effect on my compositional output. In 1995, ACO offered me my first orchestral commission.  I had an idea to make the orchestra sound like voices – a huge conversation.  I had developed a rather complex system of notation to express my ideas, but I wondered how could I communicate all this to a big orchestra in a short rehearsal period? My solution was to write a concerto, devising a musical conversation between the orchestra and me that would help the musicians to intuitively interpret my notation. Plus, it was a great way to play as a soloist in Carnegie Hall (and without too much practice, practice, practice)! You can read more about it here.

ACO: What is your biggest hope for contemporary classical music in the US in the next few years, and for ACO?

DB: I’d like to see ACO continue to grow and serve the needs of composers in all genres and styles, partnering with a range of collaborators throughout the art world and beyond. There’s a great need for orchestral music and composers to connect with communities in all sorts of ways, and ACO can be a catalyst in making that happen. I’m excited to work alongside our new President Ed Yim, George Manahan, and the musicians as we begin writing a new chapter in ACO’s story!


Hear Derek perform Berstein’s Clarinet Sonata (orchestrated by Sid Ramin), plus works by Prestini, Ogonek, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music – Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Learn more about Derek at www.derekbermel.com
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