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Sustained success

OSSIA has been a student-run ensemble at the Eastman School of Music since the mid-1970's. Chances are, even if you've heard of it or gone to one of its concerts, you haven't been behind the scenes to learn that it is more than just an ensemble — it's an incubator in arts management. With our eye on the state of the classical music economy, we met up with Matt Evans, this year's president of OSSIA, to ask him how to sustain a successful classical music organization in the most challenging of classical genres: new music.

Ask Eastman School of Music student Evans why he plays new music, and his argument is a slam dunk. "I play saxophone and I don't play a lot of jazz," says Evans. "The saxophone was a late bloomer. Since it came about in the late 1800's, all the repertoire is new. I am a new-music native based on the instrument I play."

Evans became involved in OSSIA when his quartet was asked to play in an OSSIA concert. It was an opportunity to cross over into the world of "new music" among classical musicians, a place where Evans hadn't yet explored. In just one OSSIA concert, Evans was hooked, and now, two years and several job descriptions later, he serves as the group's president.

"OSSIA is the only ensemble in the music school that is really completely student run," says Evans. In addition to performing, OSSIA's board members handle day-to-day activities, board development, recruiting student performers, the commissioning of student composers to write new works, an international composition competition, and other duties.

The responsibilities are a busy fit for Evans, who is currently completing his DMA in saxophone performance and literature and his MA in music theory pedagogy at ESM. Evans also performs internationally and throughout the US and is a founding member of the Zzyzx Quartet and the Project Fusion saxophone quartet. Evans says that the workload is "not unmanageable, but does give a taste of what I'll have to do when I venture out into the world and I'm in a community that doesn't have a new music scene."

One aspect of OSSIA that is enviable, compared to the vast majority of classical groups, is that OSSIA has foundation funding through the Eastman School of Music Howard Hanson Fund. OSSIA is required to prepare an annual budget and go through a budget-approval process with ESM, but students are spared the rigors of budgeting based on fundraising and ticket sales. All of OSSIA's concerts are free and open to the public.

OSSIA is in its 17th season, with a four-concert cycle that was determined last year, each concert having works selected around a theme. "If you have a theme or an idea for a concert, let us know," says Evans. "We're trying also to think about ways to engage the Eastman community. There are a lot of students not going to our concerts."

Even the advertising for OSSIA concerts falls to its members. Evans says OSSIA's marketing campaign usually involves social media, including Facebook and Twitter, and entries are posted on institutional and personal levels. "The feed gets filled up daily," says Evans. Indeed, when looking up credentials for Evans and others at OSSIA, "views" on YouTube is part of the modern bragging rights of post-performance advertising.

Evans also puts an interesting spin onto the public-relations side of running OSSIA. "We have an obligation to present why the music we select should be listened to, especially because we put on music that's not being heard anywhere else," he says.

Evans points out that OSSIA "does some pretty hard repertoire." There's a real purpose to those selections. According to Evans, OSSIA fills a niche at ESM. He says the name means "the musical alternative." Evans says, "OSSIA asks questions like, What is the alternative? What can we hear on a very high level in the halls of ESM that otherwise wouldn't get programmed? Are we reaching our audience? What can we bring to the community? And can we offer experiences for the students at the school?"

For board member Daniel Pesca, OSSIA has offered an opportunity not only to learn about the functions of a music organization, but also to work as a commissioned composer. Last spring, before Pesca became a board member, he responded to and won OSSIA's call for new works. Pesca's composition "Examples of Confusion" will be part of the December 2 concert.

"The title is taken from a short story by Lydia Davis, and its structure also reflects that the short story is actually a series of 15 interchanged miniatures, which are interconnected and mutually dependent on each other," says Pesca, who is in his second year of his doctoral studies at ESM.

"Examples of Confusion" is approximately nine minutes long, and is written for an ensemble of nine players of high-register wind instruments, piano, and percussion. Pesca says, "It has a clear, ringing, bright sound because of the range of the instruments. It is specific and unique instrumentation. I don't know of another piece with this kind of instrumentation."

And within the sliver of new music, there is an even smaller sliver of new-music scores that look anything but conventional, two-staff, five-line scores. "You get a score where there is immaculate detail; you get another that features a lot of improvisation and you have to make it into something rather than simply execute it," says Evans.

Look no further than one of the pieces on the upcoming OSSIA concert to make the comparison between Pesca's piece and the types of other scores new-music performers can encounter. Among the pieces on the program for the December concert is "Mikrophonie I" by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). The score is written in German, and ensemble members had first to translate it before sitting down to rehearse and discuss it. In addition to tam-tam players, the work requires "an arsenal of people handling electronics and microphones," according to Evans. He says "it is meant to be a different listening experience every time it is performed."

Both Evans and Pesca consider OSSIA a vital part of developing their skills to advance within the new-music section of the classical-music world. Pesca says, "It's a very good way to start along that path to have experiences like this. With each ensemble you learn particular things. It adds to my craft as a composer. And it also adds to my experience on working with musicians in a collaborative setting on how to communicate with players and the conductor in a respectful and productive way, so that everyone feels valued."

As Evans puts it, "The very word 'musician' is synonymous with 'teacher' and 'entrepreneur.' As a musician, no matter where you go you have to create your own worth. You move into a community. You have to let people know that what you are doing is important and you have to draw them in. It's a thrill when you're on stage and it goes well."

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