For 25 years, Kansas City’s newEar contemporary chamber music ensemble has been performing brand new music — some of it by composers who live here — in what has become a long and productive conversation between area musicians and composers.
When newEar holds a quarter-life celebration this weekend, for example, among the pieces it performs will be “The Road is All” by Ingrid Stölzel, who is now an assistant professor of composition at the University of Kansas. Stölzel was a young composer, just out of school, back in the 1990s when she got involved with the eclectic group of musicians eager to play cutting-edge music by brand new composers.
The premiere of “The Road is All” ten years ago was an important musical moment for Stölzel, who benefited from the ensemble's loyal audience.
“As I was growing up with newEar, there would be people in the audience who had heard new pieces of mine being performed every season,” Stölzel says. “And I remember very specifically, an audience member coming up to me afterward and saying, ‘This is it.’”
That audience filled a void in Kansas City and still does, she says.
“Two, three hundred people coming to a newEar concert (to hear) contemporary music and the ink was sometimes barely dry," she notes.
Obviously, newEar isn’t so new anymore. James Mobberley, now a retired professor at UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, worked closely with the ensemble as composer-in-residence in the late ‘90s. newEar commissioned Mobberley’s “A Hint of Mischief,” in 1999.
“You got to be good friends with them because it was always the same group of musicians you were working with,” Mobberley says. “You knew what made them smile when you wrote for them. So there’s kind of a camaraderie and closeness. That simultaneously makes the writing process more intimate, more effective and even more interesting.”
The group has premiered more than 80 works over the years. The number of musicians and instruments varies with every performance, all of which are unique collaborations between composer and musicians.
“Music being a fairly imprecise language despite the specificity of what goes into a score, there’s still an enormous amount of room,” says Mobberley. “I learned not to go into the rehearsal with expectations of what it should sound like, but rather to listen and be occasionally shocked — but more often just interested in and intrigued with the way in which pieces are interpreted.”
These days there are many new faces. Pianist Charles Dickinson, who came onboard in February, says he’s often nervous when the ensemble rehearses with a composer.
“I don’t know about other musicians, but I become very self-conscious," he says. "And usually the first time I’m performing for a composer is not the best because it just makes you second guess everything.”
But after that initial first step, he says, "it just becomes very inspiring. And then usually by the end of my time with that composer, it’s just so much easier to play. And I feel like I understand the music so much more.”
It’s a process that has specific rewards for musicians.
“Nothing is more exciting than getting a brand new piece of music and just having the chance to have a go at it and just hear the new sounds that have never been heard before,” Dickinson says.
For this weekend's performance of “A Hint of Mischief”, that means his part involves not just playing the piano keys but reaching into the instrument and plucking a string to create a moment that resounds with metallic reverberation.
“You know, I love going to see a Beethoven symphony," he says, "but 'Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony' is always going to sound like 'Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.'
And maybe someday, audiences will remember a composition premiered by newEar like they remember Beethoven's symphonies.
NewEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble presents “Happy Birthday, newEar!” at 8 p.m. Saturday, December 2, at Central United Methodist Church, 5144 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64112.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.