For its annual Performing Arts Series, the Cleveland Museum of Art regularly brings artists from around the world into town to perform at the museum. This year, the program gets even more adventurous as it will incorporate a major commissioning program featuring six internationally acclaimed composers into the mix. In the series, co-sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation's Creative Fusion program, the composers will appear in Cleveland over the next two years. They'll take inspiration from a piece or exhibit at the museum that piques their interest, return to their respective homes and compose a piece based on whatever inspired them.
"For the first time ever, the Cleveland Museum of Art is launching a committed, top-level commissioning program," says Thomas M. Welsh, the museum's director of performing arts. "In 100 years of concerts and a wonderful, rich tradition of music at the museum, there's always been one missing component. The museum has not commissioned new works by living composers in a globally ambitious way. That changes this year as we jump in with both feet. We identified six composers to invite to the Cleveland Museum of Art to find something here that inspires them after they immerse themselves in our collection and our works. Out of that will spring six new compositions. It's a grand adventure. Each work will undoubtedly be different because each artist has a unique voice."
It all starts with CMA's popular series of chamber music in the galleries featuring young artists from the Cleveland Institute of Music and from Case Western Reserve University's early and baroque music programs. They're slated to perform in the museum's galleries on the first Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. (Oct. 3, Nov. 7, Dec. 5, Feb. 6, March 6, April 3 and May 1). "It's a pleasure to feature the rising stars of the classical field in the intimate settings of our galleries," says Welsh.
Led by founder and artistic director Lionel Meunier, the Belgian early-music vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, which performs at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24, gives over 60 concerts a year. The group has played in Belgium and across Europe, releasing 12 albums during the course of its career. The CMA show will feature special guests Anthony Romaniuk (organ) and Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda (viola da gamba). "This is one of the finest choral music groups bringing a program of Bach," says Welsh. "They're absolutely wonderful. In the last several years, we've had some of the greatest choral groups come through, and we're excited to add Vox Luminis to this list with their first performance at the museum."
Regulars at the museum, the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble returns to perform at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11. Timothy Weiss conducts the group that features guest pianists Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff and includes works by composers-in-residence at Oberlin. "This is one of our ongoing series," says Welsh. "I believe that Tim Weiss and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble are among the finest new music ensembles of our time. This group plays as well as any of them, and Tim is a major force. Presenting them over the course of the season greatly expands the repertoire offered to Cleveland audiences."
Another ongoing series comes from a relationship that the museum has with Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. The cathedral regularly hosts organists from Europe and then sends them to Cleveland to participate in the Performing Arts Series. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9, Paul Goussot from the medieval Abbey of St-Croix in Bordeaux, France, will perform. He recently won first prize for improvisation at the 26th International Organ Festival in Saint Albans. "This is a nice partnership for us because the New Orleans cathedral has a channel to the great organ conservatories of Europe and with them we get a first look at some young stars of the organ world," says Welsh. "They're typically playing not only their first Cleveland concerts but their first U.S. concerts."
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016, composer Henry Threadgill has been called "perhaps the most important jazz composer of his generation." He and his ensemble Zooid will team up with the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble for a world-premiere performance of an "expanded and improvising" chamber ensemble. Part of the Creative Fusion-sponsored commissioning series, the concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 11. "The plan with Henry is that given this wide opportunity, he wanted to have his band Zooid, an extraordinary five-piece ensemble based in New York, be expanded or attached to a chamber music ensemble and have this flexible chamber music group that's neither classical nor jazz but living in a new form. Tim Weiss and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble are the perfect collaborative partners. By commissioning artists, it's like a high wire act with no net. I know about his work, and I have an understanding of the music he has made in the past, but we don't know what this piece will sound like because we'll hear it for the first time in January."
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 3, conservatory musicians from the Cleveland Institute of Music's Organ Studio will present an afternoon recital of works for solo organ on the museum's McMyler Memorial Organ.
"In conjunction with the two young artists coming from France, we have a regular and ongoing commitment to presenting organ recitals including young artists from the studio of Todd Wilson at CIM," says Welsh.
Another composer in the commissioned series, Japan's Aya Nishina will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 8. She will debut "Symphonia," a multi-movement work inspired by the "opened-mouth creatures" she found throughout the museum's collection. The work is for choreographed voices and mixed large ensemble. "For many years, she has split her time between Tokyo and New York," says Welsh. "She's currently back in Tokyo and has visited us and has fallen in love with the museum's collection, particularly in the Korean and Japanese collections."
German violinist Carolin Widmann will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 29. She rarely performs in the States and will deliver a solo performance of old and new pieces in a program that has yet to be announced. "She's a German violinist who's a star in Europe as a soloist and has had violin concertos written for her. She's doing a rare short tour in the U.S. in the spring and was gracious enough to accept our invitation to play a solo violin program."
French organist Emmanuel Culcasi, a guy who began his musical studies at age 6 in Aix-en-Provence, will perform a free show at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 31; and Tim Weiss will again conduct the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble when it performs at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 7.
Avi Avital with Omer Avital, a jazz-meets-world-music duo, will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10. Mandolinist Avi Avital comes from a classical tradition while bass and oud player Omer Avital is an acclaimed jazz performer and composer. When the two perform at the museum, pianist Omer Klein and percussionist Itamer Doari will join them. "It's a quartet and a world-music inflected jazz band," says Welsh. "They're from the Moroccan Jewish diaspora so the music has all the flavors of Middle Eastern jazz."
Turkey's Cenk Ergün, an improviser whose work has been performed by So Percussion, JACK Quartet, Alarm Will Sound and Yarn/Wire, concludes the series with a performance that takes place in the museum's atrium in May (the exact date hasn't been announced yet). "Cenk is also part of the composer series," says Welsh. "He is Turkish but has lived in New York for many years. I think he's one of the most unique and singular voices in his generation. Nobody sounds like him in the current generation of composers. His music is marked by long duration and slow-moving soundfields, often microtonal. He will do a large immersive event in the atrium with musicians scattered throughout the space so that the audience can move through it or simply sit — almost like a sound installation, or a sounding event."
Welsh says the museum also hopes to host pre- or post-concert talks with the Creative Fusion composers.
"I intend to organize some events in October and November when the next three composers will come through," he says. "The next three composers will have their premieres in the 2020 season, so the whole thing happens over a two-year arc. One of the crucial things to do is to give people access to young living composers. That's a rare thing, and it also humanizes the entire experience."
Learn more at clevelandart.org.