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Conductor Chris Kim with violinist Maria Sampen.
Conductor Chris Kim with
violinist Maria Sampen.

Brave New Works

Fearless in the face of new music

In the reactions it elicits, the phrase "new music concert" most often seems to register somewhere between "You need a new transmission" and "The IRS called again." With rare exceptions, recordings of contemporary classical music don't go platinum (or even gold) – they go lead. Composers build fascinating, if not better, musical mousetraps, and the world beats a path away from their doors. Early in the twentieth century, composers – weary of hostile audiences, critical brickbats, and competition from the past for real estate on concert programs – learned to take a do-it-yourself approach. And so, like a strike force of instrument-wielding Martha Stewarts and Bob Vilas, the new-music ensemble as we know it was born.

In this spirit – a combination of necessity, adventurousness, and sheer enjoyment – Brave New Works was founded by three U-M music students in 1997. Since then, driven by the conviction that "if you play it, they will come," the ensemble – a flexible, ever changing body of performers – has proven itself to be one of the most vital and conspicuous forces for new music in Ann Arbor since the legendary ONCE Group of the 1960s.

You wouldn't hear the kind of music they play in an Andy Hardy movie, but the genuine let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm is the same. "I don't want to do a repertoire of the same twenty arias every week," says Brave New Works vocalist Jennifer Goltz. "I enjoy the excitement of creating a performance from scratch, without the baggage of performance practice."

Composers appreciate Brave New Works for its recognition of their own efforts and dedication to realizing them. All too often, notes composer Carter Pann, ensembles "give lip service to the one living composer in the room, as though they're doing you a favor, and they perform new music by the seat of their pants." He points to the ensemble's thorough preparation and rehearsals – the lack of which so often accounts for the poor reception of new works – as key to its appeal and artistic success.

Although Brave New Works maintains a cooperative relationship with the U-M – many of its performers are affiliated with the music school, and music by Michigan student and faculty composers is amply represented on its programs – all decisions are ultimately in the hands of the group itself. "Almost everyone contributes to the making of the program," says Chris Younghoon Kim, one of the group's founders and its conductor. Thanks to this democratic approach, notes composer Mark Kirschenmann, "the programming isn't driven by a particular agenda or school of thought."

Indeed, the programs for the ensemble's "Are You Brave Too?" festival (April 9 and 11-13) touch nearly all compass points of contemporary music, from Daniel Roumain's hip-hop-influenced X Quartet to Brian Ferneyhough's multilayered, fiendishly virtuosic piano work Lemma-Icon-Epigram to Evan Chambers's jiggy – in the Irish sense – Concerto for Fiddle and Violin.

–Michael Rodman




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© 2000 The Ann Arbor Observer