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Pulitzer Contemporary Music Festival celebrates 10 years of the foundation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2012 - Art and music are said to be a conversation — a living, interactive experience — an exchange of perspectives, ideas, culture. The artist makes a statement, the composer writes a piece, the musician interprets that piece and makes it his own.

He sends that message out into the world. At that point, the art becomes its own entity. People who have never met or possibly even heard of the sender are introduced to the work.

Each audience member experiences the work individually, even if it is encountered collectively. Each rakes its depths, rides its crescendos, finds a personal message, for the piece now stands alone or as a part of series. Some may hear the artist’s whisper or cry, adapting it to their own experiences and perspectives. Others may be deaf to the artist’s song, finding instead their own communiqué, drawing the conversation in a new direction never considered by the work’s creators, interpreters, performers.

The Pulitzer Contemporary Music Festival

Members of the St. Louis Symphony present

  • George Crumb's "Black Angels" (1970) and
  • Frederic Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" (1975)

So Percussion presents

  • Steve Reich's "Clapping Music" (1972), "Four Organs" (1970) and "Mallet Quartet" (2009) and
  • David Land's "the so-called laws of nature" (2002)

Members of the St. Louis Symphony present

  • Franco Donatoni's "La Souris sans sourire" (1988),
  • Unsuk Chin's "Fantaisie mécanique" (1994, rev. 1997) and
  • Olivier Messiaen's "Visions de l’Amen" (1943) 

That is precisely the intent of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts as it marks its 10th anniversary with the reflective installation "In the Still Epiphany" which celebrates the Foundation’s first decade with works from the collection of Emily Rauh and Joseph Pulitzer Jr. curated by Gedi Sibony, whose own work provides settings for pieces.

As a part of the celebration, the Foundation is again collaborating with the St. Louis Symphony for The Pulitzer Contemporary Music Festival, "Retrospectives and Innovations: A Celebration of 10 Years of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts" on June 14, 16 and 17.

The performances involve the symphony’s renowned conductor David Robertson as well as some of its members. And Saturday night will feature the inventive quartet So Percussion, a Brooklyn–based group of Yale Conservatory graduates, that will make its St. Louis debut. So Percussion collaborates with contemporary composers to create original music, offering a truly unique experience.

“It is tremendously exciting when the St Louis cultural community bands together,” Kristina Van Dyke, director of the Pulitzer, said. “This is an opportunity for the audience to experience art. It is about the experience.”

The goal is not to necessarily to placate the knowledgeable, Van Dyke said, but rather the festival is designed to entice the “curious.” In many ways that is the goal of the Foundation as a whole, said Van Dyke.

As she said, the building, was designed by Pritzker prize winning architect Tadao Ando to house opportunity for experiential encounters with art. Founder Emily Rauh Pulitzer wanted visiting The Foundation to be an all-sensory experience, one that encourages interaction and contemplation.

As Pulitzer said in a press release, Robertson's "inventive and illuminating programs are a perfect marriage with our building and exhibitions," noting that the partnership with the Symphony "underscores and advances the Pulitzer’s commitment to and desire for innovation, collaboration and experimentation.”

Robertson recognizes the value of performing in such an experiential venue.

“One of the wonderful things about The Pulitzer Foundation is that it is not considered a concert hall, and so we do not expect to engage in the music the way that you would in a concert hall,” Robertson said. “The main thing we perform at The Pulitzer is new music. This year, we wanted to continue to bring new music and yet honor some of the best pieces from the past 10 years.”

This mean, audiences will have the opportunity to experience a wide range of musical pieces.

The So Percussion quartet -- Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Siliwinski and Jason Treuting -- take percussion from its place at the dramatic crescendo of the standard world of western classical music and recast it as the melody, the harmony that is the main event of contemporary symphonic music. Using everything from traditional instruments such as organs to flower pots and teacups to created instruments and their own hands, these four musicians bring vital evocative and haunting music to performance.

“We used wooden slats of walnut and cut them down shorter and shorter to make an instrument,” Treuting explains. While many people have discovered that everyday objects make sounds, So Percussion makes music.

People are surprised by the heart-breaking chorale that comes from ordinary flower pots, Treuting said. The addition of harmonies coming from porcelain teacups is unexpected, even when the audience understands in advance what is going to be a part of the performance.

“I had a friend who was crying after the performance and she could not understand how she was so moved by teacups and flowerpots,” Treuting said.

"It is a large scale work really serious beautiful complex piece of music.”

He explained that making music in this way is what he does. It is, as Robertson noted, the lens through which So Percussion members experience the world. And it is precisely what makes the quartet an appropriate feature of this year’s festival.

For Treuting and his fellow musicians, the collaboration and the venue make the work exciting. “I know with some chamber music audiences there is a certain fear about contemporary music,” Treuting said. “Sometimes they don’t understand it or don’t like it. Our advantage is that anybody can make this sound [of a teacup or a plumbing pipe or a flower pot] once, but it is how we turn it into music — that is the kind of conversation that is very interesting for us.”

The quartet will also perform three pieces by Steven Reich, the American minimalist composer whose inventive works include "Clapping Music," which Reich said he composed to “create a piece of music that needed no instruments beyond the human body.”

The Sunday afternoon performance includes the premier of "Fastasie mécanique," by Unsuk Chin, who  also composed the "Alice in Wonderland" that is playing at the Opera Theatre St. Louis. And Olivier Messiaen’s "Visions de l’Amen," an expansive work for two pianos, is expected to ring throughout the Ando building, making full use of its acoustical gifts.

That is what the Pulitzer is all about — opportunities. And no one understands that better than Robertson.

“What makes the experience at the Pulitzer festival so unique,” he explained, “is that audience members go to the Ando building and do not come out the same — the symphony is an aural element of that experience.”

Editor's note: Emily Rauh Pulitzer is a contributor to the St. Louis Beacon.

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