Wesleyan’s vibrant new-music scene
opens both ears and minds
An essential mission of Illinois Wesleyan’s School of Music has long been to support and perform the music of living composers. As part of its annual New Music Series, dozens of student and faculty performances, guest concerts, and symposia and lectures are scheduled each year. The series has brought recognition to Illinois Wesleyan for promoting one of the most active new-music scenes among liberal arts colleges in the country.
A series highlight is the annual Symposium of Contemporary Music, inaugurated in 1952. Bringing prominent composers or performers to campus each year for a two-to-three-day residency, it provides School of Music faculty and students a rare chance to discuss theory and practice with composers in preparation for performing their works in concert, or to learn from established professionals in the performance of recent music. Guests also teach master classes with student composers and performers and participate in panel discussions that often include IWU faculty from other departments.
The iconic American composer Aaron Copland was an early symposium participant, visiting campus and receiving an honorary degree in 1958. More recent guests include Grammy recipients Libby Larsen and John Corigliano; two of Europe’s most widely celebrated composers, Arvo Pärt and Louis Andriessen; and two of the United States’ most acclaimed contemporary-music ensembles, Milwaukee’s Present Music and the New York New Music Ensemble.
In March, the symposium hosted Pulitzer Prize winner Shulamit Ran. A former composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ran also appeared with IWU professors Marina Balina, Irving Epstein and Gordon Horwitz on a panel discussing Jewish culture and arts.
Guided by David Vayo, who serves as IWU’s coordinator of New Music Activities, international music has become a vital facet of the New Music Series. In 2011, the University hosted visitors from the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, who performed and spoke about new-music trends and musical education in China. In 2009, the Onix Ensemble — Latin American musicians who also teach at the National Autonomous University of Mexico — gave concerts that included a performance of Enlightenment, a composition written for the group by Vayo.
Last year, Yang Wei also performed a composition specifically written for him by Vayo. A master of the pipa, a lute-like Chinese stringed instrument, Wei is a past soloist with the National Shanghai Orchestra who has toured with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
“I am a firm believer in active collaboration between composers and performers,” says Vayo. “One of the most exciting things about contemporary music at IWU is that it gives students and faculty insights that can only happen when working with a living and breathing composer.”