When Curtis Stewart was tapped to be the new artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra (ACO), he had an epiphany. “It was a dream I didn’t know I had,” says the Grammy-nominated violinist and composer who started in the position last December. Yet the venerable ensemble—which has been dedicated to premiering and pushing the boundaries of orchestral music by American composers since its founding in 1977—has long played a role in Stewart’s life.
Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Stewart’s parents—pioneering jazz tuba player Bob Stewart and the late violinist Elektra Kurtis—took him to see ACO debut new works at Symphony Space. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, he noticed that some of his most-admired colleagues and coaches were workshopping pieces with the orchestra. And last spring, he joined ACO on stage at the Apollo Theater for The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout, inspired by a ritual created by enslaved Africans where exuberant participants stomp their feet and clap their hands in a circle. That’s when it hit him: “This is an organization that represents what I’m interested in,” Stewart recalls thinking. “ACO has helped define my perception of what new music needs to be next.”
ACO first appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1985. In its 185 concerts since, the orchestra has performed nearly 200 world premieres, plus an additional 37 US premieres and 134 New York premieres.
Although ACO’s current season was planned by his predecessor, Derek Bermel, Stewart immediately found himself scrambling when one of the commissioned works for the group’s upcoming concert at the Hall on March 16 fell through. “I ended up programming Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, which takes Beethoven’s Seventh and kind of twists and turns it using a similar harmonic language,” Stewart says, noting that the title is actually taken from the iconic composer’s journal, in which he quoted Homer’s Iliad. “But Fate now conquers; I am hers; and yet not she shall share / In my renown; that life is left to every noble spirit / And that some great deed shall beget that all lives shall inherit.”
“Beethoven was referring to his health, his own fight against fate and how he chose to move forward making music,” Stewart explains. “I love that idea—this program is kind of a meditation on how we use music to attempt to sculpt meaning in our lives, both when we have control and when we don’t.”
When Stewart was tasked with updating the lineup at Carnegie Hall—which also includes Floodplain by Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Reid and DJ Sparr’s orchestral renderings of music by guest guitarist Kaki King from her lauded album Modern Yesterdays, after which the evening is named—he turned to conductor Daniela Candillari for her input. Another rising star on the classical scene, Candillari made her Carnegie Hall debut last December. Like Stewart, she comes from a musical family: “My grandmother was an opera singer. At five years old, I was in the theater every single day.” While her resume includes music from all eras, she particularly enjoys collaborating with contemporary composers. “I’m interested in the varieties of styles that they write in, the different backgrounds that they come from, and how they bring all of that to their work,” she says. “Right now, it’s such an exciting time because there are so many influences coming into classical forms.”
Stewart is also inspired by the mixing of styles, and he plans to encourage that type of innovation through ACO’s various composer advancement initiatives. “There’s a sense of distinction that I’m looking for, in addition to excellence of score, preparation, and harmonic ingenuity,” he says.
“I just gave a talk called ‘Genres Aside’ about the limitations that have been passed down, both in the industry and institutionally in the schools. There’s a fear of addressing sound in general, of listening to the music of other cultures, other genres. I have a lot of ideas for people in many spaces of music—making classical, jazz, electronic, hip-hop, and beyond— and figuring out how to create that interactivity between the composer and the orchestra.”
“I think these crossings that happen—this sort of cross-pollination between what might be rock music branching into a classical music style—are extremely exciting and really interesting,” Candillari adds. “I really do love working with composers. And I love hearing what they have to say. I think they are the creative channels of our time—they really depict the philosophy of our time, of our lives. They can depict situations and put emotional context to it.”
Stewart also talks passionately about “the whole debate about excellence versus diversity” and wanting to “demolish that false binary.” Both he and Candillari point out that for centuries, the folks who determined the core classical canon did not look like either of them. Stewart feels it’s high time to expand it. “That’s my vision for ACO,” he says. “I’ll be pushing as hard as I can because I know at the beginning is when you have the most sway.”