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Classical Youth 

An ear-pricking-up revelation may be in store for upstate music scene regulars when the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble performs short works by five promising young composers at Woodstock’s Colony Café on May 26. The program will be the culmination of the first Highpoint Composition Seminar—a forum for emerging talent brought into being by the effort and vision of acclaimed composer and Shokan resident George Tsontakis. “There is a paucity of this kind of music in Woodstock.” says Tsontakis. “I designed this as a new initiative for the Woodstock audience.”

According to Tsontakis, the world of popular song that Woodstock emblematizes was considered beyond the pale by his generation. Younger, 20-something composers, however, absorb influences such as Radiohead or Animal Collective without any ideological predisposition to reject them. “We didn’t accept the fact that we could use pop culture, but it snuck in anyway. Now they accept the fact.” One Highpoint fellow, Chris Kapika, plays in several rock bands and is premiering a piece written for baritone sax, bass clarinet, amplified cello, and electric guitar. This kind of cross-pollination may well be necessary if concert music is to remain vital and seductive, and not languish in the closed off realm of dusty marble busts. “Young people,” Tsontakis observes, “are not interested in dead composers.”

Tsontakis is helping ensure that the orchestral tradition in which he himself has made a significant mark (i.e., the tradition that originated with the liberating advances of Debussy and Stravinsky) stays alive and flourishes. He views Highpoint as a way “to give young composers a leg up.” He recalls his own feelings of discouragement early on, the years after receiving a doctorate from Julliard without getting a piece played. Rehearsing with musicians and preparing a work for performance is crucial to a composer’s education. The Highpoint fellows will not only have this opportunity, but will also benefit from the guidance of distinguished pros like Tsontakis and guest composer Sebastian Currier, who both happen to be recent recipients of the Grawemeyer Award, one of classical music’s most prestigious prizes. Grammy Award-winning percussionist and Woodstock Chimes founder Garry Kvistad is also on board. Kvistad will sit in with East Coast Contemporary Ensemble as a musician and also donate his sprawling studio as a rehearsal space. Tsontakis points out that the level of community support and generosity has been exemplary: the musicians are performing pro bono, each composition fellow receives a $500 stipend thanks to a grant from Bard College, and the Emerson Hotel in Mt. Pleasant is providing free rooms.

A three-day workshop takes place in Tsontakis’s home above the Ashokan Reservoir, a location as rich in natural beauty as any artists colony in the world, with a picture-perfect view of Highpoint Mountain, the famed inspiration of an Asher Durand masterpiece. Although Tsontakis is reluctant to generalize about the next generation, he suggests that the cerebral iciness that characterized much 20th-century music is melting away: “If you heard a sample of contemporary music before and didn’t like it, now is the time to check in again.”

The East Coast Contemporary Ensemble will perform the works of the composers in the Highpoint Composition Seminar  at the Colony Café on May 26, 7:30pm. Suggested donation $10 (students and seniors $8).


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