The annual Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, which ran January 2529, introduced seven young composers whose works, chosen in a competitive screening, were poured over, polished, and finally performed before a paying public. All of these young men and women had something to say, but one in particular stood out.
Michael Gilbertson is a Juilliard grad currently working on his PhD [editor's note: DMA] in composition at Yale, where he counts Aaron Jay Kernis and Martin Bresnick among his teachers. His Sinfonia, based, as he describes it, on “motives and themes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons” and excerpted for the purposes of the Institute, combines multiple harmonic strains, in the early 20th-century jazz/impressionist vein, with a solid rhythmic core. Its canvas is vast, enriched with full but never overblown orchestral color. Lines are lyrical, subtly interwoven.
Small wonder that Music Director Osmo Vänskä chose it to close the program that bore the fruits of the week’s work. “Michael always has something to say,” offers Kernis. “There’s always a sense of a journey, of a point, of going somewhere and bringing things to light, and taking the audience along. He’s not a jazz composer, not a minimalist—he’s a synthesist and is already rightly well known for his natural lyricism and his strong orchestral craft.
The 28-year-old native of Dubuque, Iowa, came to composing through music theater. “I was in several regional theater productions as a kid,” he remembers, “and played [Anna’s son] Louis in The King and I when I was 12.” He studied violin, viola, and piano at his local community music school, the Northeast Iowa School of Music, “but I wasn’t particular good at any one of them.” He credits the school’s founder and executive director, Tracey Rush, with encouraging him to pursue his muse. “She was really supportive and helped me get opportunities through the Iowa Composers Forum and the Dubuque Symphony.”
Indeed, that orchestra, which Gilbertson defines as “one of the really strong regional professional orchestras that are all around the Midwest” (a comment this New Yorker found surprising—and heartening) performed his first piece when he was 15 years old. Since then, it has played seven of his works, with more surely to come.
Having had a professional orchestra at his fingertips early on, it’s no surprise that Gilbertson has honed his craft to the point where the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Juilliard Orchestra, New England Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, among others, have all performed his pieces.
He’s currently working on a concerto for woodwind quintet and orchestra, to be premiered by the Yale Philharmonia next fall, also when classical contemporary chamber group Sybarite Five premieres and tours with his string quintet Collective Wisdom. He’s also gaining quite a reputation for his choral and vocal works, to the point where he writes strictly on commission. Last year Musica Sacra premiered his Returning for double choir under Kent Tritle at New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, while the Philadelphia-based group The Crossing performed his Where the Words Go, and the Washington National Opera mounted his opera Breaking as part of the American Opera Initiative. Upcoming premieres include A Kings Prayer for SATB chorus at the University of the South, and Heat’s Memory for alto and chamber orchestra by the Albany Symphony.
“What I find interesting about the human voice is all those idiosyncrasies that make one voice different from another. I think classical music has forsaken the subtle, timbral, expressive things you can do with the voice, which pop music has been exploring extensively for the last 40 or 50 years.”
For Gilbertson, every commission is a collaboration. “I care deeply about connecting to the musicians who are playing my music,” he says. “It helps a lot if I know the ensemble and the conductor, and I would never write for a solo vocalist without hearing them sing and trying things out on them individually.”