The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA

University of 

University of Rochester

By Jan Fitzpatrick

Two down, one to go.

Elation pulses through the room as the six founding members of Ossia, the newest student ensemble at the Eastman School of Music, reflect on the first two concerts of their premiere season.

Both the October and December performances, devoted to uncompromisingly contemporary music, had won standing ovations from good-sized audiences. There had been articles in the local media, including a full-page congratulatory spread in City newspaper headlined "A kick in the pants." City, gratifyingly, had also named Ossia a "Pick of the Year" among new developments on the 1997 cultural scene.

And their Eastman professors were equally enthusiastic. "It's quite amazing that their first concert featured works to be performed by an orchestra, and that they came up with the 50 or 60 people they needed to make it happen," notes an admiring Bradley Lubman, assistant professor of conducting and ensembles.

For the moment, the Ossia team could bask in the afterglow of success. "Everything looked so smooth. It was the performers' moment to shine," says Nicolas Scherzinger, a second-year doctoral student in composition. "And that's what we wanted."

The shiny veneer, however, hid a gritty eight-month effort to launch Ossia as a class act.

Each of the six founders, they're not afraid to admit, made a prodigious effort to ensure the ensemble's success.

Gavin Chuck, a doctoral student in theory, was in charge of overseeing production for the first concert.

Ian Quinn, another doctoral candidate, handled publicity and created a "real kick-ass poster."

Doctoral student Cecilia Sun was the librarian, responsible for getting music scores to the performers.

Alan Pierson, a master's degree student in composition, was principal conductor.

Your players are where you find them, Cecilia Sun has learned. She recruited Ossia's strong string section by accosting every fiddle player who approached the desk where she worked at Sibley Music Library.

Eastman senior Kala Pierson (no relation to Alan), was personnel liaison, charged, she says, with "keeping players happy."

And Scherzinger was rehearsal manager, in charge of getting rehearsal space, acting as liaison with Recording Arts and Services, and--not least as he discovered--feeding the rehearsers.

The idea of pulling together a new student-run group began taking shape about a year ago, Chuck says. He was

looking for a vehicle to present his compositions, but he was disappointed in the "shabby performances of orchestral works by pickup orchestras," he had seen. "As a composer," he says, "you throw yourself on the mercy of players."

He talked it over with Quinn and Scherzinger. "It seemed to us that a better way would be to establish an ensemble that could really rehearse and bring more polish and professionalism to the endeavor."

As it happened, another group of Eastman students--Sun and the two Piersons--had also been thinking about a new ensemble that might showcase minimalist music and the work of composers such as Steve Reich who tend to be largely ignored by the academy.

The two groups began talking to each other.

They saw a link between their idea and the Eastman Initiatives, a set of ideas that is reshaping the way music is taught at Eastman. One of the major thrusts of the initiatives is to encourage students to think entrepreneurially about their careers, to reach out to new audiences and to create new performance opportunities.

Not that enterprising students have not for years been organizing their own ensembles and putting on their own performances. The difference is that the initiatives program puts its institutional imprimatur on that kind of thinking and has made it an important part of an Eastman education.

"What we're trying to prepare students for is to be musical entrepreneurs," affirms David Headlam, an associate professor of music theory who also happens to play bass guitar in a local rock band called Love Ritual. "You can't just come here, play your instrument, and get a position in an orchestra."

The six took their idea to Eastman's new director, James Undercofler '67E, who as Eastman's associate director for academic affairs had formulated the Eastman Initiatives. They talked about creating "a learning laboratory," an organization that would be run by students who would handle all the behind-the-scenes chores that go into making a concert series successful. Their plans struck an immediate chord.

When Undercofler was an undergraduate at Eastman in the 1960s, he had been one of the student founders of Musica Nova, a quintet devoted to performing music by modernists like Varèse and Stockhausen. He warmed to the idea of a new student-run ensemble, offered his blessing, and helped obtain financial support for a three-concert season from the Institute for American Music, a trust founded by the late Eastman School director Howard Hanson.

The experience students get from learning "the ins and outs of putting on a concert, setting up furniture, arranging the schedule, doing the publicity, is immeasurable in value," says Sydney Hodkinson, chair of the Department of Conducting and Ensembles.

Already comfortably fitted into his department's activities is another recently created student ensemble--the New Eastman Symphony. Formed in the fall of 1996 as an orchestral training program, the symphony is managed by a group of 10 graduate students. They have mounted a full slate of performances--about one a month--featuring a standard repertoire. In the season's finale, on May 3, Robert Shaw will conduct a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

Unlike the New Eastman Symphony, its younger sibling is dedicated to new music, and not necessarily the kind of "new" music favored by the musical establishment. Faculty member Bradley Lubman, for one, is full of admiration for Ossia's success in creating musical opportunities where none existed before. "Orchestras and their boards of directors can become very conservative over time, not wanting to take risks," he says, and Ossia's freedom to present new music is reason enough to celebrate its birth.

The birthing hasn't been easy.

Right at the beginning, Ossia nearly broke up over the choice of a name for itself. Chuck and Quinn proposed "Sounds Like. . . ." Alan Pierson hated it. The group searched for other names that would suggest newness, energy, and breaking boundaries. They thought about "Gamut," "Horizons," and "Synergy," but ended up giving thumbs down to all of them. They turned to Grove's Musical Dictionary for inspiration. "Senza Misura" (literally "without measure") implied freedom, but was "way too pretentious." Finally, the one that stuck was "Ossia," the Italian word for "or," suggesting an alternative musical choice.

The name is correctly pronounced oh-SEE-ah, which has given rise to a laugh or two, as when members leave a practice session saying, "O See Ya Later," or when they hear the name mispronounced to sound like OSHA, the federal agency charged with worker safety. (After Quinn's arms hurt one evening from nonstop percussion practice, the association with OSHA took on fresh meaning.)

Though Ossia members like to pop off irreverently, it's clear they take their new roles seriously.

"We feel a strong sense of duty," says Quinn. "We've received money from the Hanson trust to serve as a training ground for people wanting to put on concerts. We're training them for the rough and tumble world of contemporary art music, so we need to provide a good learning experience for the performers."

That commitment to creating a good environment for players has been consuming, members have found. "We've all been in ensembles that were poorly organized, and that's frustrating," says

Scherzinger. "So we've made an effort to be really organized. It's been horrible for us, but great for the players."

"For every rehearsal, we did reminder calls," says Quinn. "And we fed them salsa, soda, Cheetos. All the major categories in the junk food group: sugar, fat, and salt."

"Yeah, the first item we made room for in our budget was 'food for the players,' " says Sun.

"If you want slick performances, the devil is in the details: Get the salsa and chips," Chuck jokes. "You can't just casually walk into the rehearsal hall a few minutes before the practice session. You have to have your act together."

Scherzinger says he has had to juggle more roles than ever to pull it off. "I'm a full-time student, and a husband, and I run a computer lab. When I'm thinking of administrative things like programming--where a piece of music really belongs on a 45-minute program, what an ensemble might think of the piece, where I'd place it if I were a conductor--I still have to find the time to go pick up food for the next rehearsal."

Aside from the food, Ossia's organizers also have had to scramble to cope with other problems they never anticipated. One of the glitches threatened to kill the first concert before it ever got off the ground.

The music had been chosen, press releases and posters were in production, players were being recruited. That last was where the hitch came. They had a strong wind section but the strings were anemically thin. "If players see empty chairs at rehearsals, they'll drift away," says Alan Pierson. "I said we'd have to cancel the concert if we didn't get more string players."

Sun, who has a job at the Sibley Music Library reference desk, began asking everyone who came by if he or she played a string instrument and, if so, would they consider joining the new ensemble. It worked: Ossia recruited a strong string section, and the first concert, in October, went off smoothly.

Another nail-biter loomed about a week before the December concert. Rather late in the planning by anybody's standards, Ossia management learned that two key performers for one piece in the program were also scheduled to play with the Eastman Symphony Orchestra--on the same evening.

It was ohmigod time: "We began wondering," says Sun, "how long could we make the first piece last so the players could finish their performance in the Eastman Theatre and then dash to Kilbourn Hall to join us for the second piece." It was a tense moment, but in the end they didn't have to do it lentissimo after all. Deft juggling of the order of the program resolved the impasse.

Ossia's founders have learned a lot from producing their first two concerts, says Chuck. "We now know that you don't try to develop a rehearsal schedule after you've got the players. You set the rehearsal schedule first and then ask people to commit to it. Before we found that out, we were scheduling some of our rehearsals at 7:30 in the morning to avoid conflicts."

They've also learned more about themselves and the uses to which they can put their musical training. Until Ossia came along, Kala Pierson expected she'd get a doctorate and then go into teaching. Now, she says, she realizes that there are "lots of arts organizations" she might join instead. "The idea of making real things happen that don't depend on the supervision of those in power is a thrilling idea," she says.

A year ago, Alan Pierson thought he'd probably write music, get his Ph.D., and teach. "Now that track feels a little narrow. There are so many other possibilities." The heady experience of selling the idea of Ossia to others, getting funding, and making things happen is invigorating, he says. "We have money to work with, an ensemble of enthusiastic players, and a group of people ready to put it all together. So now all we have to do is decide what we want to play. It's a position I've never been in before, and its enormously exciting."

Managing their responsibilities for Ossia while keeping up with their Eastman studies has been grueling at times, but these students are already tasting some of the rewards. "As we got into planning these three concerts, we experienced so much good will over what we were doing that we were really buoyed by it," says Chuck. "We realized that Ossia could go on, long past the time that the six of us are here at Eastman."

Robert Fink, a member of the musicology faculty, is sanguine about Ossia's future role at the school. The ensemble's willingness to devote its December concert to minimalist music, for instance, "shows a real curiosity, a real desire to do things not already done at Eastman" that he finds bold and appealing.

Fink confesses to harboring a deep affection for groups like this, with their anti-establishment tastes and democratic structure. Ossia is "a great model" as an ensemble that presents new music within a conservatory, he says, because its decision-makers are people in their 20s, people who will be spending most of their professional lives working in the next century rather than this one.

Eastman students have been welcoming, too. Numbers of them are now coming up to the six Ossia founders, asking how they can join its board. Already, these six are grappling with how to include more people in their "learning laboratory" and how to ensure a smooth turnover of roles and responsibilities as one group of students leaves and a new group moves in to fill their shoes.

It's sweet to dwell on these tangible signs of success, to take a short breather before resuming the discipline of producing the third and final concert for the season, scheduled for the end of the semester. Nobody knows what new problems will turn up between now and then. But these budding impresarios are up for whatever--as long as there's plenty of chips and salsa on hand.

Freelance writer Jan Fitzpatrick is a frequent contributor to Rochester Review.

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Rochester Review--Volume 60 Number 3--Spring-Summer 1998
Copyright 1998, University of Rochester
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