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George Manahan Named ACO Music Director

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NEW YORK -- George Manahan, who has been a fixture in the pit of New York City Opera for the past 12 seasons, will add a more visible podium in 2010-11, as music director of the American Composers Orchestra.

In signing a three-year contract, Manahan, 58, will front an ensemble whose mission has changed little in 33 years: to foster new, recent and overlooked works by American composers. He will become the orchestra’s third music director since its founding in 1977, following Dennis Russell Davis, who led from 1977 to 2002 and is now conductor laureate, and Steven Sloane, the group’s principal conductor. Robert Beaser remains the group’s artistic director.

Manahan, who has previously conducted ACO new music readings, will lead the orchestra’s three subscription concerts at Carnegie Hall and have a hand in its smaller programs like the Composers OutFront! series, which spotlights composer-performers, and the Underwood New Music Readings, an annual roundup of emerging composers. (The main subscription season will be unveiled next week as part of Carnegie Hall’s 2010-11 season announcement).

While a longtime advocate of 20th-century and American music, Manahan believes that the position will allow him to reconnect with his professional roots working in new-music ensembles.

“When I came to New York as a student in the early ‘70s I quickly became very involved in the Group for Contemporary Music and the scene at the Manhattan School of Music,” he explained on the phone from Portland where he was rehearsing “Così fan tutte” with the Portland Opera. “This was when Boulez was at the New York Philharmonic. I went to the American Composers Orchestra regularly as a young man when they were first starting. I’ve always had a special love for them.”

Manahan chose not to talk about programming except in general terms. He said that he would like to see greater diversity in concert programs, including a stronger emphasis on established composers, from Charles Ives to Jacob Druckman and John Luther Adams. “I feel like it’s still important that we broaden the horizons of our audience but we still must remember that we are entertainers; we want the concerts to be fun and exciting and diverse.”

He also expressed interest in works that link non-classical styles and genres, citing his collaborations with Joe Jackson (on “Will Power,” the pop singer’s album of orchestral works) and with composer Laura Karpman, who has written both concert works and music for film, television and video games. Manahan added the average orchestral concert still reflects little of the diversity on the new-music scene today. “Orchestras around the country tend to play it safe,” he said. “They are sometimes hesitant to give a new commission to an unknown composer and that’s where we feel we have a special niche.”

Manahan also cautioned, colorfully, against an overly intellectual approach. “There are two ways you can reach the audience: one is the brain. The other is the crotch. Like the ‘Rite of Spring.’ The ideal concert should have both. If the concert is just an intellectual experience, it’s missing something. If it speaks to you on a gut level, that’s what I’m looking for.”

In recent years, the ACO, has branched out considerably in its commissioning agenda, by emphasizing music with a Latin American, Asian and African bent. The orchestra has also developed an initiative focusing on artists who both write and perform. Many events feature a scaled-down, chamber-size orchestra. Manahan said that the ACO’s flexibility has enabled it to stay relatively financially stable at a time when many orchestras are struggling.

In addition to his posts at the ACO and New York City Opera (which share many of the same musicians), Manahan will join the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music as the director of orchestral studies in the fall. This marks a return to the school where the Atlanta native (and former rock keyboardist) received his Bachelor of Music degree in piano and Master of Music in conducting. He previously joined the school’s faculty after his graduation in 1976. Around the same period, he was active as conductor the venerable Group for Contemporary Music, and toured Europe conducting the Steve Reich Ensemble.

During the 1980s, Manahan built a parallel reputation as an opera conductor, receiving a fellowship to The Juilliard School as assistant conductor of the American Opera Center. He conducted regularly at the Santa Fe Opera, with the New York City Opera National Company (the company’s touring arm), was acting music director of Opera/Omaha, principal conductor of Minnesota Opera (1988 to 1997) and music director of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra (1987 to 1998). He became director of New York City Opera in 1998.

Last year, Manahan led the Carnegie Hall premiere of “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” an ambitious piece by Karpman based on the Langston Hughes poem, with Jessye Norman, Cassandra Wilson and hip-hop act The Roots. “He’s one of the clearest and most concise conductors I know,” said Karpman. “It required a lot of him. The Roots had never worked with a conductor before. And in a piece of this complexity, he had to negotiate a plethora of different styles.”

“One of the things that’s very gratifying is to have a live composer in the rehearsal,” said Manahan. “So many times I want to get a sense of what the composer is after in terms of the meaning and feel of the piece, and if I can reflect that in my interpretation, that’s what I find gratifying. My job is to believe in the piece and give it the most convincing performance I can.”

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