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While the great composers like Bach and Beethoven may still reign supreme in classical circles, a generation of new young composers are challenging its traditional boundaries. From the haunting ‘indie-classical’ sounds of Missy Mazzoli to Judd Greenstein’s post-genre adventures, we profile 10 innovative composers bringing new life to classical music.
Hailed by The New York Times as one of the “more consistently inventive and surprising composers now working in New York,” Missy Mazzoli is an American composer and keyboardist based in Brooklyn whose works straddle the line between classical and indie with a haunting, innovative sound. Her debut opera Song from the Uproar premiered in 2012 to rave reviews. Moreover, her works have been performed worldwide by the New York City Opera and Sydney Symphony, to name a few. Currently working as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia and Gotham Chamber Opera, Mazzoli’s future projects include Breaking the Waves – a chamber opera based upon Lars Von Triers 1996 film of the same name due to premiere in 2016.
Hailing from Bulgaria, Dobrinka Tabakova displayed prodigious talent from a young age, winning the “Jean-Frédéric Perrenoud Prize” at the 4th Vienna International Music Competition before she turned 14. She has been hailed by esteemed composer John Adams as “extremely original and rare.” A graduate of King’s College London, where she received her PhD in Composition, Tabakova’s works have been described as “thoughtful and approachable” by Gramophone Magazine, with a sound that is at once both familiar and new. Her critically acclaimed debut full album String Paths was released in 2013 and went on to receive a Grammy Award nomination for “Best Classical Compendium in 2014.
British composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad began her prodigious career when she took up the cello at the age of six, before studying at the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School and winning the “BBC Young Composer” Competition in 1996 at 15 years old. Now a seasoned chamber composer, Frances-Hoad’s works have been performed at preeminent chamber music venues including London’s Wigmore Hall and The Purcell Room. Her 2014 commission, Five Rackets for Trio Relay was praised as “fresh and funny” by BBC Music Magazine, while her debut opera, Amy’s Last Drive – based on pioneering female aviator Amy Johnson – premiered at the Yorkshire Cultural Olympiad Program in 2012 in conjunction with the London Olympics.
Known for pushing the boundaries of what constitutes contemporary classical music, Irish composer Ann Cleare has combined her traditional education studying for a PhD in Composition at Harvard University with a stint studying electronic music at Paris’ IRCAM. Perhaps atypically for a classical composer, Cleare cites indie rockers Arcade Fire and The Pixies among her influences and takes an experimental multi-instrumental approach to her music, combining electronica with more classical instruments. Her 2007 composition Dorchadas (the Irish word for ‘darkness’) was described by Mic as a multi-instrumentalist exploration of “the primal fear of the dark.” Future projects include a commission for the 2015 MATA Festival in New York.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1981, Angélica Negrón was educated at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico where she studied piano, violin, and later composition under acclaimed composer Alfonso Fuentes before relocating to Brooklyn, New York. Invested in creating a sound that is at once both intricate and simple, traditional and progressive, Negrón melds, as seen in her 2011 composition Bubblegum Grass/Peppermint Field, conventional chamber instruments with new instruments like the Gamelan Elektrika. The Puerto Symphony Orchestra and Iktus Percussion Quartet are among the ensembles to perform Negrón’s works and the composer regularly writes music for Puerto Rican experimental theater group Y No Había Luz.
A graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, Nico Muhly is the darling of the contemporary classical music circles with BBC Music describing his sound as “youthful, no-rules classical, full of cross-genre inventiveness.” An accomplished composer working across chamber and orchestral music, ballet, and opera, Muhly’s notable works include the 2011 opera Two Boys, a tale of a dark internet romance hailed by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini as “ambitious and innovative.” His collaborations with bands include The Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons alongside frequent collaborations with avant-garde Icelandic record label Bedroom Community, who released his debut CD Speaks Volumes in 2006.
Icelandic talent Daníel Bjarnason honed his skill studying piano and composition at the Reykjavik College of Music before leaving for Germany to study orchestral conducting at the Freiburg University of Music. The release of his debut album Processions in 2010 established him in the international classical music scene, and the album was praised by Time Out NY as “eerily close to defining classical music’s undefinable brave new world.” He also took home the Best Composer/Best Composition award at the Icelandic Music Awards. Outside of the classical music world, Bjarnason has collaborated with Icelandic rockers Sigur Rós and contributed to the score of critically acclaimed Icelandic film The Deep.
A native of New York City, Judd Greenstein’s work is firmly rooted in the post-genre sensibility with a sound that never shies away from mixing different styles and instruments. His music remains wholly open to many different influences – reflected in the diverse bodies that have commissioned his work and range from the experimental NOW Ensemble, to more traditional bodies like the North Carolina Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra. An entrepreneurial soul with a true passion for music in all forms, Greenstein is also the brainchild behind genre-bending record label New Amsterdam Records and the curator of New York’s Ecstatic Music Festival, which showcases cross-genre collaborations.
Born in London in 1971, Thomas Adès is one of the most revered composers of his generation. Following his education at London’s Guildhall School of Music, Adès went on to study piano in chamber music under esteemed Hungarian composer György Kurtág. At the age of 25, Adès wrote his first opera, Powder Her Face, an ambitious work chronicling the rise and fall of notorious British socialite Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyle. This project drew upon various musical styles including early 20th-century classical and cabaret. The opera has been hailed as a modern classic, and his work has been performed worldwide at venues including London’s Royal Opera House and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Regularly hailed as one of the contemporary classical music world’s most innovative composers, Mason Bates is known for his fusion of orchestra and electronics. In 2012, he became one of the youngest recipients to be awarded a Heinz Medal, with founder Teresa Heinz stating that Bates’ music has “moved the orchestra into the digital age and dissolved the boundaries of classical music.” Typified by an avant-garde approach to orchestral composition and narrative with respect for musical styles as diverse as jazz and techno, Bates’ works have been performed by orchestras including the San Francisco Symphony and the London Symphony.