Feted Youth 

The California Symphony's young composers-in-residence win the prestigious Rome Prize again... and again and again.

How is it possible that, since the 1990 inception of the California Symphony's Young American Composers-in-Residence program, all four of its composers-in-residence have won the prestigious Rome Prize? After all, the California Symphony, headquartered in Walnut Creek, is not a full-time ensemble with a long track record like the San Francisco Symphony; rather, it is a young symphony, composed of freelance musicians. Gearing up for its fifteenth season, it only gives a handful of concerts each year.

Winning the Rome Prize is no mean feat. One of the most prestigious fellowships of its kind, it grants a composer (and family) an all-expenses-paid year in Rome, giving him or her an opportunity to perform in a city filled with history and music. At a time when it has become increasingly difficult for classical composers to get by without spending the majority of their time teaching, conducting, playing music, or cleaning houses, the creative freedom granted by the Rome Prize is extraordinary.

What are they doing right in the suburbs?

Much of the answer derives from the incredible dynamism and drive of Barry Jekowsky, the symphony's founding music director. Fifteen years ago, just prior to Jekowsky's debut conducting the London Philharmonic, he was asked to step in and conduct an East Bay Symphony. The concert was such a success that he was asked to become the symphony's director. When Jekowsky learned that the organization was $100,000 in debt, he instead chose to dissolve it and start a new organization.

From the start, Jekowsky ensured that the California Symphony would, in his own words, "have a real purpose other than just giving a conductor and musicians a chance to play." He laid down four guiding principles, from which the symphony has never wavered:

The California Symphony would become a truly "American Orchestra," playing at least one piece of American music every concert.

The symphony would nurture young, gifted artists by presenting one each year. Explains Jekowsky, "You can present the Itzhak Perlmans of the world, which costs $25-60,000, or you can present extraordinary prodigious talents." At its very first preview concert, whose critical success gave Jekowsky the impetus to fully implement his vision, the symphony presented the great violinist Kyoko Takezawa. Sarah Chang fiddled when she was nine years old, and Leila Josefowicz when she was ten. Cellists Alicia Weilerstein and Daniel Lee, both of whom just won the prestigious Avery Fisher award, also performed. Pianist Helen Huang performed when she was nine and so tiny that she had to use a box under the pedals so she could reach them. (Huang won the New York Philharmonic Competition by playing the first movement of Beethoven's first piano concerto; she then played the entire piece with the California Symphony). Most recently, pianist Joyce Wang, a mature thirteen, played the demanding Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with such virtuosity that the audience jumped to its feet after the first movement, interrupting the performance with cheers.

"We've been lucky," Jekowsky says. "I've chosen carefully. I'm very proud of the reputation we now have across the country for choosing young artists."

The symphony would contain "the cream of the crop of musicians in the Bay Area who were committed to the highest quality of musical excellence. I wanted each performance we gave to be an event in itself, introducing less often heard music and constantly attracting new audiences."

The symphony would provide a role model for young kids by creating a cutting-edge Music in the Schools program, at a time when music programs were vanishing. Over 4,000 elementary school children are served by this program.

There was yet another part to Jekowsky's vision. Although he did not ask for it when the symphony was first formed, he always intended to establish a Young American Composers-in-Residence program that would nurture composers and give them opportunities to experiment. Five years later, the program was born.

"I wanted the orchestra to be a laboratory for young composers," Jekowsky explains. "In order to become a good composer, you need an orchestra to practice with. At Juilliard and most other institutions, if composition students are lucky, they get one day when their composition is sight-read and recorded. The best they get is a mediocre, inaccurate performance of their work. Instead, California Symphony offers the only program in the world that gives young composers the chance to experiment, renovate, rework, and have polished performances by a first-rate, thoroughly rehearsed, and totally committed orchestra."

The California Symphony finds its young composers via a national search conducted by a prestigious committee consisting of A-list contemporary composers John Adams, John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, and William Kraft. During its last search, over ninety American composers applied. "Their resumes were amazing," Jekowsky says.

Jekowsky makes the final choice. "We want composers just on the verge of a brilliant career, people who are advocates for music, who can work with kids and who can briefly speak about their piece at a concert for even three or four minutes in a way that draws people in. The concerts at which we perform these composers' works have become extremely popular."

Once composers receive their commissions, they meet with Jekowsky. Rehearsals start as early as October, and take place three or four times before the piece premieres in April or May. Musicians give the composer positive feedback, and remain available between rehearsals to supply information about what works best for given instruments. Thanks to grants from foundations that believe in the program, the musicians work overtime if necessary. Recordings are made of each run-through, as well as the final performance. By the time of the premiere, the piece is ready to be played without post-performance revision.

"When Debussy premiered L'après-midi d'un Faun, he had the support of musicians and rehearsals on this order," says Jekowsky. "This is so unique in the world today."

California Symphony's first two Young American Composers-in-Residence, Kamran Ince and Chris Theofanidis, each worked with the symphony for two years. Kevin Puts, who worked for three, just won the Rome Prize; he will go to Rome just as the symphony's current Composer-in-Residence, the extraordinary Pierre Jalbert, 33, returns from Rome to continue his Walnut Creek residency. Premieres of works by Theofanidis, Puts, and Jalbert will be heard during the symphony's forthcoming season.

Jalbert is about to receive international attention. After winning the Rome Prize for In Aeternam, the short work he composed for the California Symphony, he submitted it to the BBC's Masterprize Competition. On June 6, Jalbert learned that, out of 1,200 entrants, he is one of five finalists for the prize. This means that his piece will be recorded by the Budapest Symphony, broadcast worldwide, distributed this summer on a BBC Magazine CD, and performed in August by the London Symphony. This extraordinary honor should bring further attention to the California Symphony's unique programs.

Interviewed in Rome, Jalbert declared, "Of any position that a young orchestral composer can have, the California Symphony residency is the position. Being able to work so closely with an orchestra is a dream. I received instant feedback even before I finished writing. In every instance, I was able to make changes that instantly improved the piece. It's a chance you don't get anywhere else."

Thanks to his time in Rome, where he lives on the site where Galileo made many of his discoveries, Jalbert was able to compose his longest work to date, the 27-minute, three-movement Symphonia Sacra. Jekowsky raves about this piece, which was just performed by the California Symphony. Next season, a new work by Jalbert will be heard on a program that also includes Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 with Kyoko Takezawa, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10.

"As a composer," says Jalbert, "this is what you live for: the ability to write a large-scale work and have it performed in concert. I can't say enough about Barry Jekowsky and how great it is that he is such an advocate for new music. He really gives the music the time it needs in order for all of this to work."

The California Symphony has so far issued only one recording, Lou Harrison: A Portrait. Featuring vocalist Al Jarreau, violinist Maria Bachmann, and the premiere recording of Harrison's Symphony No. 4, the disc was honored with a Gramophone magazine "Recording of the Month" and high praise from the composer.

"We choose quality over quantity," says Jekowsky. "It's important to be committed to our great heritage of American music."

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