Oberlin Conservatory Collaborates on “Resonate” Commissioning Project

Seven-way partnership engages seven composers to create works that explore the African diaspora, with all works to be performed in Oberlin and Detroit.

October 14, 2021

Cathy Partlow Strauss ’84

Conductor leading musicians in performance.
Timothy Weiss leads the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble in a 2016 performance at Ganz Hall in Chicago.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

Oberlin Conservatory has joined a consortium led by the Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings (DCWS) and Detroit’s Carr Center to embark on a multi-year artistic partnership that will explore the African diaspora through the lens of contemporary American chamber music.

In addition to Oberlin, the consortium aligns with Bowling Green State University College of Musical Arts, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, Michigan State University College of Music, and Western Michigan University School of Music.

Titled Resonate, the project will result in performances of new works by seven composers at each participating institution and culminates in a symposium in April 2023.

Oberlin’s connection to the project is Professor Timothy Weiss, director of the conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and a longtime artistic partner with and conductor for DCWS.

Weiss was tapped last spring to participate on a panel of musicians from each of the collaborating institutions to select composers for commissions. The committee selected seven American composers who vary in age—from mid-20s to early 80s—and professional accomplishment.

“It was important for us to achieve a balanced field of composers, from the unknown to the long-established,” Weiss says. “And to create seven new works is a significant contribution to the contemporary chamber music art form.”

The commissioned pieces will utilize between three and nine performers in instrumentation drawn from woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, and piano.

Participating Resonate composers and the type of composition they have been commissioned to create include:

Courtney Bryan, work for piano and string ensemble

Michael Frazier, piece for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, and string quartet

Adolphus Hailstork, composition for trombone and string quintet/orchestra

Nathalie Joachim, reed quintet

George Lewis, brass quintet 

Patrice Rushen, jazz ensemble work for three saxophones, trumpet, trombone, piano, drums, bass, and guitar

Pamela Z, woodwind quintet

Courtney Bryan.
Courtney Bryan

Among the composers are three with Oberlin connections: 2004 conservatory alumna Courtney Bryan, newly appointed composition faculty member Michael Frazier, and former Visiting Professor of Composition George Lewis.

The composers represent a wide range of musical voices and aesthetic sensibilities that include a more mid-century American style, some that bend distinctly modernist, one anchored in jazz, and others whose work combines and blurs styles and genres.

Each of the commissioned works will be performed at every collaborating institution over the course of the next two years—a commitment that will generate a substantial performance history for each piece. All of them will then be performed at a culminating symposium—bringing together all seven composers with ensembles from each organization—in April 2023 at the Carr Center, the Detroit institution dedicated to promoting African and African American cultural experiences.

Michael Frazier.
Michael Frazier

For more than 25 years, Weiss has brought new music to Oberlin’s stages and inspired young musicians to champion works of living composers. Scores of Oberlin alumni careers have been generated by the fertile training ground of Weiss’ Contemporary Music Ensemble.

During the past year, Weiss’ work at Oberlin has been focused on amplifying the voices of underrepresented composers and expanding the repertoire performed within the conservatory’s large ensembles program, shaped in part by the conservatory’s Racial Equity and Diversity Action Plan.

This work squares beautifully with the purpose of Resonate, and Weiss is enthusiastic about Oberlin's participation.

“This will be a fabulous experience for our students to perform seven new works from diverse composers,” he says. “The project is a perfect fit for Oberlin—from how we celebrate the creation of new music to how our students are animated by the school’s small ensemble culture.”

Frazier’s piece Black Portraits will be the first of the commissioned works to be performed on Oberlin’s campus. It is slated for the Contemporary Music Ensemble concert on Friday, January 12, 2022 on the Fridays at Finney series.

George Lewis.
George Lewis

Weiss anticipates additional opportunities for Oberlin student involvement in conjunction with the April 2023 symposium in Detroit.

“It will be a great opportunity for our students to engage in community outreach through music and interact with the composers and performers from the other institutions,” he says.

DCWS President Maury Okun and Carr Center President Oliver Ragsdale note the strength of the collaboration in bringing this new music to life.

“Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings and the Carr Center have adventuresome audiences that approach new works with open minds and kind hearts,” they said in a joint statement about the project. “By collaborating with these great institutions throughout Michigan and Ohio, we can extend that spirit of artistic generosity and significantly leverage the impact of these wonderful composers.”

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