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Newly created art, newly created music meet at the Contemporary

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2012 - It is difficult, even for the most keen-eyed connoisseur or aurally sensitive music lover, to know precisely the origin of a particular work of art, be it a painting or a symphony, a magnificent building or brilliant work of sculpture. The minute you think, "A-ha! that’s where it came from," some new and intriguing wrinkle appears that throws you off course.

If it is true, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, that the rich are different from you and me, it is most certainly true that artists are quite different from us as well. They see and hear the world in special and very different ways. What is more, they have the will to express their observations and the moxie required to stick with their formal aesthetic declarations.

In connection with this will to art, there is a long and important tradition of philanthropy populated by men and women willing to help to make the art proceed from whatever its origins are, and to help to make the artist’s life somewhat easier by providing financial support.

In Missouri, major support for musical composition has come from Jeanne Sinquefield and her husband, Rex, and their Sinquefield Family Foundation. They and the foundation have provided financial support, along with extraordinary creative nourishment, for young musician-composers through funds given to the University of Missouri-Columbia. This money established the school’s New Music Initiative.

Some of the students in these programs are accomplished near-professionals in graduate school. Some of them, believe it of not, are children in kindergarten. There are summer camps for talented young composers; there are new music festivals and there are chamber music concerts at the Sinquefield Reserve, the family’s idyllic country place in Osage County Missouri.

Jeanne Sinquefield recently, however, made the journey to St. Louis from the farm. Her purpose – in part anyway – in being in the city was to talk up the Mizzou New Music Initiative and its relation to the Great Rivers Biennial at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Both the Sinquefields have interests that spread all over the place, starting with finance, economics and politics and extending into the complex and challenging world of chess, and from there on to the fine arts, to the visual arts and to music. (They also are financial contributors to the St. Louis Beacon.)

Music is of particular interest to Jeanne Sinquefield. She plays the string bass in several orchestral ensembles and also entertains a less formal and entirely robust group that plays bluegrass music and drinks wine. The only rule, apparently, is that the musicians must put their glasses under their chairs, the better not to knock them over. It sounds like fun.

Fun is important, certainly. But arching over the fun is a serious pursuit aimed at creating more opportunities for young Missouri composers to have their work supported, appreciated and performed. The Mizzou New Music Initiative aims to bring together “a diverse array of programs intended to position the University of Missouri School of Music as a leading center in the areas of composition and new music.”

Sinquefield was bursting with enthusiasm and information the other day about this compositional and performance passion of hers. The specific focus was on serious music commissioned for the Biennial at the Contemporary, but the conversation ranged all over the place, reflecting her involvements in contemporary music, its creation and its legitimacy as a pursuit in the state’s preeminent public educational institution.

The Sinquefield Family Foundation gave $1 million to Mizzou to support the work of new music composers and performers. One way of reaching out beyond Columbia has been this collaboration with the Contemporary.

The museum initiated its biennial in 2003. Two years ago, it took on a new dimension, which is new music, music that is composed in response to specific works of art in the exhibition, music that forms a collaboration and a dialogue in the dynamic and ever evolving world of contemporary art.

The winning artists of the Biennial are David Johnson, Asma Kazmi and Mel von Trad. All three live and work in the St. Louis region. Just as the Sinquefields’ program provides young, emerging composers the chance to hear their work performed, the biennial offers Missouri artists a prominent place for showing their work in an appreciative atmosphere. The show opens during the Grand Center Art Walk Friday (May 11, 2012) and is sponsored by the Gateway Foundation of St. Louis.

The judges represent prominent museums and galleries. They are Lisa Dorin, associate curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago; Jeffrey Grove, Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art; and Lydia Yee, curator, Barbican Art Gallery, London. There were 120 entries.

The work of artists chosen by them will be paired with New Music Initiative composers. On Saturday, May 19, from 2 to 3 p.m., the music will be performed together in the galleries with the works of art. David Johnson’s work will be accompanied by music composed by Grant Fonda called “subliminal coercion.” Asma Kazmi’s art will accompanied by a composition titled “Between Words and Images” (2012) by Joseph Weidinger. And Mel von Trad’s art will meet “Naturally Synthetic” (2012) by composer Joe Hills (b. 1987)

These three pieces will be performed by the Mizzou New Music Ensemble conducted by associate professor Stefan Freund. The ensemble will also perform another work inspired by an artist, Paul Klee, called “Ad Parnassum.” In a prepared statement, Freund said, “There is a historic link between the visual and musical arts, and we’re glad to be able to continue that tradition.”

Alex Elmestad, public programs and interpretive technology manager at the Contemporary Art Museum, said, “Missouri is bursting at the seams with artistic energy. The Great Rivers Biennial showcases the talents of local contemporary visual artists and the continued collaboration with the Mizzou New Music Initiative highlights those of Mizzou composition students. This New Music, New Works event will allow the public to connect both with the visual and the musical talents of these local artists.”

This show was organized by the Contemporary, and curated by assistant curator Kelly Schindler. It is sponsored by the Gateway Foundation of St. Louis, which besides its sponsorship of the biennial also created Citygarden, one of the region’s greatest aesthetic assets.

Composing is something of a rare bird – lots of youngsters take up the clarinet or the trumpet but only a very, very few members of the music-student population set themselves to actually writing the music the trumpets and the clarinets play. Jeanne Sinquefield speaks with a certain sense of awe about the kid from a rural Missouri town whose composition is performed in concert by serious musicians. “He’s heard it in his head all the time,” and now the young composer can hear his or her music in the concert hall, performed by “real” musicians.

“What a kick for this kid,” she said. She is aware not every work by the young composers in the various programs is going to be Mozart, or even appreciated, but the important thing, she said, is that it is performed and heard.

“You can like it or hate it, but that doesn’t change the fact it is there,” she said. “And how,” she asked, “are you going to get better if you don’t hear your music and have the opportunity to think about it?”

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