MusicNOW festival welcomes back founder Bryce Dessner after a year’s absence

Dessner, also MusicNOW’s artistic director, put together a program for the final two nights of the fest that has a sense of seriousness but also of exciting adventure.

click to enlarge Bryce Dessner - Photo: Shervin lainez
Photo: Shervin lainez
Bryce Dessner

“Bryce is Back!” appears nowhere on any advance publicity for MusicNOW, the annual festival exploring a vast spectrum of new music that is now an annual event presented by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. However, there’s obvious pleasure and relief that Bryce Dessner — the now-Paris-based Cincinnati native who has found international success as a member of Rock band The National and as a solo New Music composer, performer and creative entrepreneur — is on hand for this year’s three-day event. It occurs Thursday-Saturday. He wasn’t here last year, the first time he’s missed a MusicNOW since he started it in 2006.

Dessner is bemused by any hype. “I planned to be here last year,” he says, speaking by phone from Massachusetts the day before returning home to Paris. “But there was a last-minute conflict with (The National) that came up. Last year was the only one I missed in 12 years.”

CSO President Trey Devey sounds positively jubilant about Dessner’s return. “It’s phenomenal to have him back,” he says. “He has such presence and gravitas and having him here and on the ground is so important.”

Dessner, who is MusicNOW’s artistic director, put together a program for the final two nights of the festival at the Taft Theatre — Friday and Saturday — that has a sense of seriousness but also a sense of exciting adventure. It even has a sense of “Play.” On Thursday, the first evening of MusicNOW features Classic Rock/Americana hero Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and The Campfire Band at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.(Read more here.)

At the age of 40, Dessner commands respect across the music scene as a critically acclaimed composer, as a guitarist for The National and as a featured soloist on numerous recordings. He is also a sought-after curator for boutique festivals that create unique cultural experiences for a broad group of performing and visual artists. This burgeoning aspect of his career started in Cincinnati with a very modest MusicNOW in 2006.

The first MusicNOW was sponsored by Chamber Music Cincinnati and held at the Contemporary Arts Center. Dessner established the format for future series: new works by young composers, performers from across the musical spectrum, commissions and even works in progress. The lineup included Clogs, pianist and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music faculty member Awadagin Pratt, The Books, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, percussionist David Cossin and Burmese musician Kyaw Kyaw Naing. 

The following year, MusicNOW took up residence at Memorial Hall, often attracting sold-out houses for the eclectic schedule. Subsequent festivals drew increasing national and international attention as Dessner was evolving as a sought-after composer. 

Five years after MusicNOW’s debut, representatives from London’s The Barbican arts center, the Sydney Opera House and Knoxville, Tenn.’s AC Entertainment were checking it out for inspiration.

And so was the CSO. 

“They expressed interest early on but they didn’t have a music director to make artistic decisions,” Dessner says. “When Louis Langrée came along (in 2013), we met about it and found we had ideas in common.”

Devey adds that there was an immediate bond between the maestro and Dessner. “In addition to them both speaking French, there’s a friendship and mutual respect that grew exponentially with their collaboration over the past two festivals,” he says.

Langrée was unavailable for this year’s festival, which was not scheduled for March like previous ones. But German conductor and composer Matthias Pintscher was. 

In addition to the wide spectrum of music presented, there’s also what Devey diplomatically refers to as the spontaneity of the Indie Rock world when it comes to lining up the schedule, which wasn’t announced until mid-November. “It’s moved us into a new space in how we think about artistic planning and that’s had a profound influence on our organization,” he says.

Pintscher is a leading proponent of contemporary music as well as an interpreter of the Classical canon. He’s thus a perfect match for MusicNOW. Pintscher directs Ensemble InterContemporain, the Paris-based ensemble dedicated to the performance of 20th- and 21st-century music. He also holds conducting gigs with several European orchestras. He and Dessner have collaborated on several projects.

“This year, we’re focusing on the importance of the European tradition and how it’s evolved in the 21st century,” Dessner says. “Matthias is a good example. He’s versed in orchestral literature in such a profound way and the passion that he brings is really infectious.” 

Pintscher’s Cleveland Orchestra-commissioned idyll for orchestra, which will be performed on Friday, premiered in 2014. It’s an immersion into a sound world that Dessner describes as having “aglistening feeling with surprising surface textures and vertical chords.”

Friday’s opening performance of Andrew Norman’s Play, a three-movement symphony embodying the meanings of the word “play,” captures what Dessner believes is the essence of the festival’s focus.

Play seems to be where we are in terms of musical forms we inherited from Europe, and Andrew is a distinctly American voice writing for orchestra in such an interesting way,” Dessner says. “You hear a sound world you couldn’t have imagined existed, with this playful energy and his own musical vernacular.”

It also may be one of the more challenging works on the program.

“It just won a major award and got great reviews but it doesn’t get played that much because it’s long — 45 minutes — and hard to play,” he says. “But I thought the opportunity to do Play in Cincinnati was just too exciting to pass up.”

The evening concludes with Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dessner, Dessner’s twin brother as well as a member of The National, performing songs from their recent collaboration At Swim, with orchestral arrangements by Dessner and another MusicNOW guest, Timo Andres.

Saturday’s concert opener, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Reflections, is for violin, viola and cello. It just premiered in October. The 2015 recipient of the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award, Thorvaldsdottir’s work has been performed throughout Europe. 

“I love featuring chamber music because it gives a different sense of scale and architecture to the program,” Dessner says. “Anna creates compositions existing almost like installations, with beautiful surface qualities and complex orchestration and organization.” 

The festival’s compositional touchstone is the violin concerto by György Ligeti, whose works are considered among the most influential for modern composers. “He’s one of the giants, a gateway into this different kind of music,” Dessner says. “This concerto was written late in his life (1990-94) and it’s brilliant.” 

Described by a critic as “a wild collage of atmospheres and colors,” the concerto incorporates Balkan dance rhythms, Hungarian folk tunes, alternative tunings for strings and breathtaking changes in tone and texture. Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, the soloist, has performed the piece several times.

Another aspect of Saturday’s program is that composers are performing their own pieces. Andres’ piano concerto The Blind Banister was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in composition. 

“I was looking for an opportunity to present this great piece inspired by Beethoven,” Dessner says, “and I think this will be the first time he’s performed it.”

The evening ends with Dessner taking the stage to perform Wires, a chamber concerto for electric guitar and orchestra commissioned by Ensemble InterContemporain. Pintscher conducted the world premiere in Paris last September. Dessner took inspiration from Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter and Ligeti, as well as from the Ensemble itself. “These are pieces they play all the time and I was really excited to be onstage with the musicians,” Dessner says. “It’s a fun piece with a lot of new colors and uses the guitar in surprising ways.

“This orchestral program is the most exciting one we’ve done,” he continues. “It’s a fascinating meeting point of themes intersecting in Cincinnati: a great American orchestra with a great European conductor. It’s going to be really interesting.”

MusicNOW is now an established part of the CSO’s schedule. But Devey (who this year is leaving the CSO to become president of Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts) still calls it an experiment, although one that’s working. The audiences draw a noticeably young crowd along with followers of New Music who don’t usually frequent a CSO concert.

But an even more profound impact has been on the orchestra’s programming itself. “Bryce has exposed us to important musicians who we might not have known otherwise. These are relationships that we have and can cultivate in other parts of our organization,” Devey says.

“Our very first collaboration with MusicNOW led to our programming works by Nico Muhly and David Lang.”

Chris Pinelo, CSO’s vice president for communications, adds that in 2014 those composers were represented on Hallowed Ground, Langrée’s debut recording with the CSO. 

Looking ahead, Dessner hopes MusicNOW will continue to grow with full-day offerings, more new artists and new works. He’s working with Big Ears Festival producer Ashley Capps, of AC Entertainment, to explore new opportunities. That has led to widespread rumors that Capps will be taking over MusicNOW in 2018; he has been handling Thursday night’s concert at Aronoff Center with Bob Weir.

Dessner insists that’s not the case. “Ashley Capps and I have collaborated on many things together but (MusicNOW is) not going to be under the auspices of his company. He’s been working with me to think about where I could go.” 

Clearly, there seems to be a long future for MusicNOW in Cincinnati, which would mean the frequent return to town of Dessner.

“I’m passionate for it and I’m obviously optimistic,” he says. “There’s dedication on every level here that’s so infectious.” ©

MUSICNOW 2017 begins on Thursday night with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead performing music from his recent solo release Blue Mountain at Aronoff Center for the Arts. The Campfire Band, featuring The National members Aaron Dessner, Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf, along with others, accompanies him. 

On Friday, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will perform Andrew Norman’s 21st-century composition Play, followed by guest conductor Matthias Pintscher’s idyll for orchestra, originally commissioned for the Cleveland Orchestra. Finally, Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan will perform works from her new recording, accompanied by Aaron Dessner. A free youth concert will also be presented 10 a.m. Friday morning at Memorial Hall, including a reprise of the Cincinnati Ballet's world-premiere Garcia Counterpoint pas de deux and a performance by the MYCincinnati Ambassador Ensemble.

On Saturday, the CSO performs contemporary Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Reflections. Soloist Pekka Kuusisto debuts with the CSO playing György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. Composer Timo Andres performs his work for piano and orchestra, The Blind Banister, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. And then Bryce Dessner performs the U.S. premiere of his chamber concerto for electric guitar, Wires.

For more information and tickets, visit

About The Author

Anne Arenstein

Anne Arenstein is a frequent contributor to CityBeat, focusing on the performing arts. She has written for the Enquirer, the Cincinnati Symphony, Santa Fe Opera and Cincinnati Opera, and conducted interviews for WVXU's Around Cincinnati. In 2009, Anne was named an NEA Fellow in Classical Music and Opera Journalism...
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