Program Notes


BORN: February 14, 1956. Frankfurt, Germany. Now lives in Princeton, NJ


WORLD PREMIERE: At these performances. Portals, Scenes and Celebrations was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and composed in honor of Michael Tilson Thomas

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, almglocken, bass drum, bicycle horn, bongos, claves, compressed air, crotales, crash cymbals, Flexatone, glockenspiel, guiro, maraca (large), marimba, mark tree, nipple gongs, slide whistle, snare drum, suspended cymbal, 3 tam-tams, tambourine, tom-toms, tubular bells, vibraphone, Vibraslap, wine bottle, xylophone, harp, piano/celesta, and strings

DURATION: About 15 mins

Steven Mackey may have been born in Germany, but make no mistake about it: He and his music are all-American. In fact, his parents were Americans, and, after the family moved to England and then Guam, he did much of his growing up in Northern California, where he engaged in a favorite activity of teenage males—playing electric guitar in rock bands. His awareness of “concert music” developed a bit later, in the course of studies at UC Davis (from which he graduated summa cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa), the State University of New York at Stony Brook (where he took a master’s degree), and Brandeis University (from which he holds a doctorate). In 1985 he joined the faculty of Princeton University, where he continues to teach composition, music theory, and courses on twentieth-century music and improvisation. In 1991, he was awarded the first-ever Distinguished Teaching Award from Princeton.

About the time he joined the Princeton faculty, Mackey revived his interest in the electric guitar, the instrument that has become a signature part of many of his scores. “My past, present, and future,” he has said, “is checkered by the fact that the sound of the electric guitar is like mother’s milk to me and its iconoclastic milieu, between avant-garde experimentalism and libido-driven vernacular, was my grade school.”  Audiences have responded avidly to Mackey’s distinctive compositional voice, in which pop and rock styles rub elbows with more traditional sounds of concert music.  

Recent premiere highlights include One Red Rose (2013) for the Brentano String Quartet, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and Yellow Barn for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK; Mnemosyne’s Pool (2015), commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kennedy Center, Sydney Symphony, and New World Symphony; Triceros (2015), a trumpet concerto commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra for Håkan Hardenberger; Blue Notes and Other Clashes (2016) for PRISM Quartet and Sō Percussion, premiered at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia; and Orpheus Unsung (2016), his electric guitar opera, staged at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Mackey has been honored with a Grammy, several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, and many others. He has been the composer-in-residence at major music festivals, including Tanglewood, Aspen, and the Holland Festival. —James M. Keller

Steven Mackey offers the following on Portals, Scenes and Celebrations

Portals, Scenes and Celebrations is composed of five contrasting but connected tableaux. The joints within and between the scenes are effortless portals to other dimensions rather than logical consequences. The music is [an] energetic celebration of motion and color, occasionally pulling back to refresh and relaunch toward an ever brighter next quest, but never in search of serenity.

When Michael Tilson Thomas and I first corresponded about this new work, he suggested that the working title be “Easy Piece for Michael” . . . (and so it was). He quickly qualified that by saying that “easy has many meanings.” Other adjectives in that email such as “up tempo, joyous, dazzling” suggested that “easy” could refer to my job rather than to him and the players so I interpreted “easy” as license to indulge and enjoy my fantasies of lively content and playful continuity and trust my past experiences with MTT and the SFS that their nimble minds and agile hands would make joyous play out of demanding virtuosity.

Portals, Scenes and Celebrations is my gift to MTT at age 75. Over the past twenty-five years I’ve written more pieces—six counting this one—for MTT and the institutions he has been associated with than for anyone else. I am flattered that my work continues to interest MTT and I am grateful for all that I’ve learned from him about composing, performing and Music’s mission to facilitate song, dance and transcendent experience.—Steven Mackey


More About the Music

Recordings: This piece has not yet been recorded. However, an essential Mackey listening list should include at least Tuck and Roll: The Music of Steven Mackey, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony in the title composition as well as Mackey’s Lost and Found and Eating Greens (RCA Victor)  |  Lost & Found: Electric Guitar Music by Steven Mackey, featuring the composer in solo and chamber works (Bridge Records)  |  and Physical Property on Short Stories, with Mackey joining the Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch)

Online: Mackey’s website is a good resource for information on the composer:

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