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Charles Ives Living Prize Awarded

Maybe you've never thought about it before, but, as many composers can tell you, it's hard to make a living at turning out scores for orchestras and chamber musicians.

Which makes the Charles Ives Living award a sweet drop of water on a parched landscape. More than a drop, really. James Matheson is the winner of the Charles Ives Living this time, and will receive $200,000 over the two-year period of the award, beginning in July, announced its giver, the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The selection committee: John Corigliano (chairman), Martin Bresnick, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke, and Tania León.

Some of you may remember Matheson from his time with Swarthmore College and Orchestra 2001. Here is an excerpt from a 2003 concert reviewed by yours truly.

"...The centerpiece of the weekend's program was the first performance of James Matheson 's The Paces: Concerto for Piano and Chamber Ensemble, with pianist Charles Abramovic as its masterly soloist. Matheson, born in 1970, studied with Gerald Levinson at Swarthmore College, and later with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. His new piece (commissioned by Swarthmore's Gilmore and Mary Roelofs Stott Fund) is stylistically unusual. For one thing, it isn't afraid to be quiet. For another, it does not fear beauty. Think about how unusual that is among new works today.

"Its form is, loosely, theme and variations, starting with a shapely melody, and going on to explore one lovely harmony after another. It is dissonant, but doles out dissonance in carefully calculated doses.

"Most impressive, it always makes the unobvious aesthetic choice. It is prone to turn a melody in an unexpected direction, or color a harmony with a subtle surprise. All in all, no composers today aim for this kind of music - calm, confidently unresolved - except the French.

"The piano gets an extended solo section that acts, spiritually, as the piece's cadenza, and, rather than becoming the usual chance for virtuosity, it once again defies what the ears expect. In it, Matheson gives the concerto its most achingly tender moments."