SPCO helps acclaimed composer document prize-winning music

George Tsontakis
George Tsontakis is the recipient of two of the richest and most prestigious awards in all of classical music: the international Grawemeyer Award and the Ives Living award.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

If a composer's importance can be measured by prizes, then George Tsontakis ranks as one of the foremost composers of our time.

He's the recent recipient of two of the richest and most prestigious awards in all of classical music: the international Grawemeyer Award and the Ives Living award.

Steven Copes
Concertmaster Steven Copes is the soloist in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's new recording of George Tsontakis's "Violin Concerto No. 2." The work won the 2005 Grawemeyer Award.
Photo by Sarah Rubinstein

But despite that recognition, the name George Tsontakis is unfamiliar to the general public.

"I think I'd like to write a memoir and call it, 'Unpopular music: My Life in the the Classical Music World,'" he jokes.

Tsontakis won the Grawemeyer Award in 2005 for his Violin Concerto No. 2, a work commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for concertmaster Steven Copes.

The concerto is the centerpiece of the orchestra's new CD of Tsontakis's music.

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The conductor is SPCO Artistic Partner Douglas Boyd. He was introduced to Tsontakis's music when conducting the premiere of the second violin concerto with Copes and the SPCO four years ago. That was the beginning of the recording project.

Douglas Boyd
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Artistic Partner Douglas Boyd conducts the music of George Tsontakis on the group's latest CD.
Photo by J. Keenan

Along with the violin concerto, the disc includes a work from 1987, "The Past, The Passion," and a composition the SPCO premiered in February, "Clair de Lune." Boyd says the three works give listeners a good idea of the wide spectrum of George Tsontakis's distinctive musical voice.

"It's quite complex music, but every note makes sense," Boyd says. "He has a kind of clarity and transparency in his music which is particularly stands out in 'Clair de Lune.' In a sense the composition is an homage to Debussy, but it has intricate workings and cross rhythms. I think it's an incredibly successful and beautiful piece."

George Tsontakis lives in New York State's Catskill Mountains and unlike many contemporary composers, he has little difficulty getting his music played. His publishing company reported over one hundred performances of his major compositions last season season alone. But Tsontakis says he doesn't care how many orchestras play his music.

CD Cover
The cover of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's latest CD.
Image courtesy of Koch International Classics

"I think composers waste a lot of time worrying about how many orchestras are going to play something," he says. "My principles are, first of all, who's going to ask me to write a piece? How am I going to get the next job? The second is: who is going to record it? Once it's documented and it's on CD, the heck with the rest of the world. It's done for me. It's a very important thing to me to have a good recording."

Tsontakis says he often feels shy sitting in the audience when his music is played. He knows that most people came to hear Beethoven or Tchaikovsky and he's the token modern composer.

Frank J. Oteri is the Composer Advocate at the American Music Center and the founding editor of its web magazine NewMusicBox. He says he loves live performances, but recordings remain the best way to get new music heard by a wide audience.

"A lot of the pieces that I love and treasure are pieces I've never heard live," he says.

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's latest CD features music by American composer George Tsontakis.
Photo by Ann Marsden, courtesy of SPCO

Oteri says a work like George Tsontakis's Grawemeyer Award winning violin concerto is a case in point.

"We've got to be so grateful that there's a recording of it because what orchestras are programming it? Now you might say that every orchestra in the country should be programming this piece. It won the Grawemeyer award and is an extremely moving work, but that's not happening."

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's new CD of music by George Tsontakis has just been released on the Koch International Classics label.

Tsontakis says his relationships with orchestras usually end with the completion of a recording project, but he hopes to continue working with the SPCO in the future.