Throughout its eighth season, Dolce Suono Ensemble has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy. This Sunday, the Philly-based chamber ensemble will close that celebration with a special gift to the late French composer: seven new works commissioned to reflect on Debussy’s songs and miniature works. The commissions are the result of Dolce Suono’s first Young Composers Competition, which called for scores from composers under 30 who are American or enrolled in a U.S. educational institution.
“There’s a lot of variety in the seven works,” says Dolce Suono’s artistic director, Mimi Stillman. “While they all reflect on Debussy, they do so in their individual voices, which range from sophisticated contemporary musical language to more popular-inspired tonality through to very ample use of extended techniques. It shows how fertile Debussy’s music is for composers today.”
Several of the composers hail from the Philadelphia region, including students at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, though they also range as far afield as Chicago, Michigan and Kentucky. The youngest is only 17 years old. The competition is in line with Dolce Suono’s ongoing effort to add to the chamber repertoire; in its eight years it has presented 31 world premieres, including commissions from emerging composers as well as Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winners.
For Stillman, a flautist who will perform on Sunday along with soprano Sarah Shafer and pianist Natalie Zhu, this season has been the fulfillment of a long-term engagement with Debussy’s work. She is also a historian who wrote her thesis on the Asian influences in Debussy’s music, as well as a book of arrangements of the composer’s songs which she’ll draw on for part of this weekend’s performance. “I’ve lived with and studied Debussy and his world for a long time,” Stillman says, “so I was really happy to have this anniversary opportunity to delve into his chamber and vocal music.”
With a program split between Debussy’s work and the new pieces inspired by it, Stillman hopes to spotlight his continuing relevance to contemporary music. “It’s always thrilling when you have new work, because you never know what people are going to take away. Every person in the audience will probably have his or her own experience, but I think people will be struck by how alive and modern his music still sounds.”