Listen: Orchestra 2001 Marks 25th Anniversary

by Elizabeth Vogdes
Orchestra 2001
Orchestra 2001 conductor and founder James Freeman leads a rehearsal.

Orchestra 2001, Swarthmore's professional contemporary music ensemble-in-residence, has staged several major anniversary observances over the years. Conductor and artistic director James Freeman's 70th birthday was celebrated in 2009 with seven world premieres by Philadelphia-area composers written especially for the occasion. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Crumb's 80th birthday concert featured excerpts from his American Songbook series, which were all composed for O2001. This season's first Lang Concert Hall concert on Sept. 23 marked the centennial of composer John Cage's birth, showcasing a comprehensive selection of his transformative work.

But this year, the innovative orchestra will note its own quarter-century milestone with another season of pioneering programming devoted to its mission of "providing a major focus for the best new music of our time."

Founded in 1988 in Philadelphia by Freeman, the Daniel Underhill Professor Emeritus of Music, the Orchestra evolved within a few years to become the College's ensemble-in-residence. Freeman's early conviction - that integrating his contemporary music activities with his teaching life would be beneficial for all concerned - has proved to be remarkably accurate. The conductor has noted that he does not know of another liberal arts college that has a similar arrangement with a contemporary music ensemble.

Orchestra 2001's collaboration with the College occurs on many levels. In addition to the involvement of music department members and other faculty, students, and alumni also participate in O2001's work. The use of the Lang Music Building, which Freeman characterizes as "truly one of the great small concert halls in the world," has been central to the ensemble's success, along with the funding that enables both rehearsals and concerts at Swarthmore to be free to all.

Swarthmore music professors who have premiered multiple works with O2001 include Gerald Levinson and Thomas Whitman '82.  Freeman says that Levinson and Whitman are "among the very best composers I know," and much of their work has been played and recorded by the Orchestra. Swarthmore's Associates in Performance Marcantonio Barone, a noted pianist, and Andrew Hauze '04, conductor of the College orchestra among other roles, both perform with the ensemble.

Orchestra 2001
Mark Loria '08 (right) prepares for this season's inaugural concert.

Faculty members from other departments have also been involved with the Orchestra. Three operas by Whitman have been accompanied by librettos created by English professor and poet Nathalie Anderson, including A Scandal in Bohemia.  Dance professor Sharon Friedler choreographed Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" in O2001's earlier years and more recently, projections of studio art professor Randall Exon's work were among those that accompanied a concert of tone poems by Henri Dutilleux.

Students and alumni are often included in O2001's performances. The Cage concert includes pianist Mark Loria '08, who has also been acting as the ensemble's assistant conductor for the past two seasons. A dozen or so current students played radios-"a unique experience," Freeman says-in Sunday's concert, and others are expected to participate in spring performances of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony. Last year, the Swarthmore community group Gamelan Semara Santi (Balinese percussion orchestra) led by Whitman collaborated with the Orchestra in a concert focusing on Levinson's song cycle "Black Magic/White Magic. 

Just a few of the many alumni involved with Orchestra 2001 include composer James Matheson '92, from whom a new work was commissioned several years ago, Baird Dodge '90, principal Violin II of the Chicago Symphony, who has returned to play concerti, Sam Lorber '89, an outstanding saxophone player, and Serena Canin '88, a member of the famous Brentano String Quartet, with which O2001 collaborated a few years ago. 

In addition to College-based collaborations, many concerts present pieces by local, well-known composers such as George Crumb, Jay Reise and Andrew Rudin, and the concerts are always performed at least twice-once at Swarthmore and once in Philadelphia.  Longtime O2001 board member and former Swarthmore vice-president Ken Landis '48 feels that "Swarthmore's support of this aspect of Philadelphia's cultural scene is an unsung contribution."

Orchestra 2001
Students and alumni rehearse for the John Cage concert that marked the centennary of the composer's birth.

Orchestra 2001 has performed around the world, in such diverse places as Russia, Denmark, Cuba, and England.  And the ensemble has been able to bring the world to Swarthmore. Through funding from the William J. Cooper Foundation, O2001 has hosted a number of well-known musicians at the College, including soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianists Gary Graffman and Marian McPartland, and conductor-composers Gunther Schuller and Peter Schickele '57, among many others.

Freeman says that this collaborative effort "has been the very reason why I wanted Orchestra 2001 to have a connection to the College...Swarthmore has always been ...famed for its superb composers and thus its really unique emphasis on contemporary music.  So the fit seemed ideal in so many ways."  He goes on to say, "I hope every new program is a fresh exploration of music. Every collaboration with [the] College... represents a new way for all of us to play new music, to hear it, and to relate to each other as musicians."