It’s always difficult to pinpoint where a composer is on the spectrum that runs from “emerging” to “emerged.” But wherever Sean Shepherd is in the process, he’s moving quickly.
Shepherd, 33, a native of Reno, has had a number of high-profile premieres over the last year, including performances by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Just weeks ago, he became the first recipient of the Kravis Emerging Composer award, a $50,000 commission from the New York Philharmonic. The commission will be his second work for the Philharmonic; he is also in the midst of writing his second piece for the Cleveland Orchestra.
Shepherd also has significant ties to Massachusetts, and three of his works will be performed here over the next week and a half. His “Trio” is on a Claremont Trio program at the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, and two pieces — “Quartet” for oboe and strings, and “These Particular Circumstances” for chamber orchestra — will be played at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music.
“Tanglewood is just one of those special places,” Shepherd said by phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a Music Center fellow in 2005 and “like a lot of us who’ve ever been to Tanglewood, we’re all sort of itching to get back.”
This year’s contemporary music festival is being directed by Oliver Knussen, who has become, Shepherd said, “one of my most fervent champions, which I can never be too grateful for.” Shepherd gave a nervous laugh, as if a bit amazed that Knussen, a hugely influential composer and conductor, had taken up his cause.
Shepherd rarely begins a piece with preconceived musical material. More often, he starts with a visual stimulus: an image of the notes on the page or of the music being enacted on stage. A striking example of this is “Trio,” which was composed for the opening of the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall earlier this year. Shepherd didn’t know exactly what the hall would look like, but he could make out its dramatic cube shape from early construction drawings.
“My impression was going to be that it was a tremendously vertical world,” he said. “You were either looking up or looking down, and listening up and listening down. So in the second movement, ‘Calderwood,’ there’s a lot of upward motion.”
“These Particular Circumstances,” an energetic, virtuosic piece suffused with color and vivid textures, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its new-music series Contact!, and premiered in 2010. Shepherd said he felt a great connection with the players and with music director Alan Gilbert. Still, it was a shock when, in June, the orchestra presented him with the Kravis award. “The fact that they came back to me and said, ‘Let’s continue the relationship’ — it’s one of those feelings to savor.” He also knows he will take a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the orchestra’s inner processes into the second piece, which is scheduled to premiere next year. It’s something he’s seen while working on his second Cleveland Orchestra commission.
“It’s not necessarily like a second date — it’s more like the second decade of marriage,” he said. “There’s an entirely different level of commitment. I’ve toured with [Cleveland]. I feel that I understand the ethos of that ensemble. Cleveland and New York are so different — the way that they act on stage, the way they interact. It comes from the inside. And I have so much respect for those kinds of interactions — they’re to be savored, but they’re also to be nurtured and cradled.”
“I like thinking about a commission; it’s like they’re inviting me to their house,” he said later in the conversation. “And I like thinking about the piece as, well, the least I can do is bring a nice bottle of wine. The least I can do is think about what they do well, as a way to unlock some kind of creative idea in myself.”
Variety in Rockport season
Performances by German pianist Lars Vogt and the East Coast Chamber Orchestra highlight the classical offerings in the 2012-13 Rockport Music season. The season, announced earlier this week, also includes jazz, world, and folk concerts as well as broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and England’s National Theatre, all at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.
Vogt gives a recital of works by Bartok, Schubert, Brahms, and Thomas Larcher (April 26). The East Coast Chamber Orchestra, made up of string players from a variety of orchestra and chamber groups, offers a program stretching from Purcell to Stravinsky (March 15). Rockport will also host a variety of local groups, including the Boston Chamber Music Society (Oct. 12), Radius Ensemble (Feb. 2), and Blue Heron (March 24). Tickets go on sale Aug. 1.
BCMS does Debussy
The Boston Chamber Music Society is spending the summer celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth. The group’s annual series of August concerts will offer a tour through the French composer’s all-too-brief output, as well as music of his contemporaries and predecessors. Saturday’s concert, which opens the series, brings together piano works and a very early piano trio by Debussy with a piece by Ernest Guiraud, his teacher, and Franck’s popular A major Violin Sonata. Concerts continue on successive Saturdays, at the
Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. www.boston
Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival
Music of Mozart, Shepherd, and Brahms
At: Cotuit Center for the Arts, Cotuit, Tuesday,
Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $15-$35. 508-247-9400,
Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music
At: Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox
Thursday, Aug. 9, at 8 p.m. Music of Bedford, Birtwistle, Carter, Castiglioni, and Shepherd
Sunday, Aug. 12, at 10 a.m. Music of Benjamin, Birtwistle, Castiglioni, Del Tredici, Epstein, Grime, and Shepherd Tickets: $11. 888-266-1200, tanglewood.org