When it comes to getting their music heard, aspiring songwriters have it fairly easy. They can just pick up a guitar and start playing. It’s a lot tougher for an up-and-coming composer — the creative process is time-intensive, not to mention that staging a performance involves countless logistical and financial hurdles.
So imagine composer Sean Shepherd’s surprise and elation when he learned that he’d won a high-profile commission from the New York Philharmonic. On April 16 at Manhattan’s Symphony Space, a scaled-down version of the orchestra will perform his piece These Particular Circumstances as part of its new music series, Contact! Shepherd’s music will be featured alongside works by six other composers, all of whom represent the leading edge in contemporary classical music.
“It really is a rare opportunity for someone my age,” says the 30-year-old composer, who is completing his doctoral degree at Cornell University. “[In the last few years] I feel like I’ve gone from being a student in a cocoon to stepping out of my safety zone. I’ve never been commissioned for a piece this big, and at 15 to 20 minutes long, it requires a certain level of commitment: I have to make every minute that I add to piece even more interesting, as if it were a movie.”
This isn’t Shepherd’s first performance by a major American orchestra: Already in the past year, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra have presented his works. But in many ways, this latest commission represents a big step forward.
“The N.Y. Phil has taken it upon themselves to celebrate every one of the composers taking part in Contact! I wished that happened more often. Orchestras can’t just keep looking at the past, which is one of the reasons this project has been so admirable. The more that organizations like the N.Y. Phil promote new music, the more it will be possible for other orchestras to take risks — and for members of the audience to embrace what they hear.”