World-class composer visits, teaches

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Junior Esther Shim played “Brilliant Sky, Infinite Sky” on violin Thursday night with two other school of music students in concert — and for the first time in her life, played a song in front of its composer. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis is composer-in-residence for the School of Music’s annual “Music of the 21st Century” festival. Over the past week, he has been working with students to perfect his pieces to play in concerts.  There is a second student concert on Friday night, and the week will conclude with a final concert on Saturday night. 

“Its not often you get to do this — its kind of scary,” Shim said. “Most things like Bach or Beethoven you get to play and well, they’re never going to hear you or tell you what they think.” 

Shim played the last two movements of “Brilliant Sky, Infinite Sky” along with junior Peter Meyer on percussion, senior Brad King singing and associate professor of music Amanda Hopson on piano. 

“Professor [George] Smith approached a bunch of us to do some vocal stuff,” King said.  He agreed to perform, and asked Shim, Meyer and Hopson to help him with the piece, and they agreed. 

The group practiced themselves and had the opportunity to play in front of Kernis only four hours before they performed the piece.  During the hour with the composer, Kernis listened to the whole song, then chose specific parts to practice and tweak to his liking. 

During part of the song, Shim leaves the stage to play backstage, which she said is very unconventional. 

Along with winning many awards, Kernis is a widely sought-after composer among American groups like New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, and currently serves as Composer Institute Director for the Minnesota Orchestra. He also teaches composition at the Yale School of Music, a position he has held since 2003. 

The New York Times has called Kernis a “versatile American voice,” declaring that, “His music leaps athletically from style to style: one moment bitterly avant-garde, the next insouciantly pop; here reticence, there garrulous displays of virtuosity.” 

“Its fun to meet all of the students,” Kernis said. “But we’re doing this all at once, and there’s a lot going on. It’s like compressing a few months into a few days.” 

Music of the 21st Century, revived and re-named in 2002, has annually brought world-class composers for students to work with and learn from them. The composer stays with the school for a week to prepare students for their performances. 

During his time at DePauw, Kernis will spend time with students in master classes for composition, critique students’ performances of his own pieces and meet with many students to answer their questions. 

“It is definitely an experience,” Shim said, after her group’s session with Kernis. “It gives you a whole different perspective because you get the opportunity to decide what you want to do and then figure out what the composer was thinking when they wrote it.”