Violist Isabel Hagen

Today I would like to introduce violist Isabel Hagen, the final musician whom I will profile in this space.  Isabel is an active chamber musician and an avid performer of new music, performing with new music ensembles such as Ensemble Signal and the Wordless Music Orchestra.  She frequently works with composers, and has worked with John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, and Steve Reich.  Isabel is currently an undergraduate student at the Juilliard School studying with Masao Kawasaki, where she was a finalist in Juilliard’s 2011 viola concerto competition and is a two-time recipient of the Rosemary Glyde Scholarship awarded by the New York Viola Society.  Isabel will perform in the string quartet at theImaginary Timescapes performance.

You can hear Isabel with the Wordless Music Orchestra when they perform John Cale’s Paris 1919 at BAM on January 18th & 19th (details at

(Originally published 12/15/17)


Vocalist and Composer Dennis Tobenski

I look forward to working with fellow Vocalist and Composer Dennis Tobenski for the first time on the Imaginary Timescapes performance.  He comes highly recommended for his skills as a tenor—including by the NY Times’ Anthony Tommasini, who called him a “dynamic vocalist.”—which will be his contribution to the concert, as he will sing in the vocal quartet.

As one would expect of a composer-performer, Dennis focuses primarily on performing works of the 21st and late 20th centuries.  Asked about how his experience as a composer influences or helps him as a singer, he insisted it was mostly the other way around: “Certainly, being a composer allows me to approach the music that I sing with an intimacy that I don’t know that I would have otherwise. Also, I tend to be a bit more….dare I admit….critical as a singer than I might otherwise be about scansion, text setting, and (un)prepared entrances. But I think that my training as a singer has influenced the way that I write much more significantly.”

Dennis is a prolific composer of acoustic new music that bears the influence of pop and Broadway, yet is rooted firmly in the tradition of concert music. Unlike most composers of concert music, however, Dennis has embraced the business side of music as well.  As Dennis explains, “Over the past few years, I’ve become fascinated with the business aspects of having a composing career. It started innocently enough: being hired as the assistant to a now-former teacher, overhearing his business-related phone conversations, filing his correspondence and commissioning agreements. What started as a way to make a few bucks planted the seeds that would become a full-blown obsession with contracts, copyright, and creative forms of fundraising and commission-seeking. As I’ve learned more and more, friends and colleagues have started asking my advice on business matters (none was as shocked as I!), and several insisted that I start writing everything down.”

Dennis continues, “Since I also love blogging and social media, I decided to write a book—humbly titled The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business—modeled on Kristine Katherine Rusch’s The Freelancer’s Guide, which was published chapter-by-chapter in blog form, then compiled into a book. As with Ms. Rusch’s book, there’s a real need for such information to be collected in one place where composers can come to learn and to realize that they can have a real career writing music—that there are tangible steps that they can take to turn their passion on which they’ve spent so much time honing their craft into a way to start supporting themselves. I think there’s a lot of frustration—particularly among younger composers—over the waning number of opportunities and sources of funding, and I’m trying to show that there are creative, interesting ways to create your own opportunities (much as you’re doing with this concert!).”

Look out for an EP recording of Dennis’ a cappella choral works with the ISU Madrigal Singers, which will be released in 2013 by his own label Tobenski Music Press.  You can also check out his music at

(Originally published 12/14/12)

Mezzo-Soprano Suzanne Schwing

If there’s a professional choral performance the New York area, chances are mezzo-soprano Suzanne Schwing is in it.  I’ve enjoyed working with her in C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, in which I appreciate her impeccable precision and artistry.  C4 is only one of many ensembles with which Suzanne performs; in December alone, she appeared with the New York Virtuoso Singers Sextet, the Collegiate Chorale, the Pro Arte Singers, and as soloist with the Choral Society of the Hamptons.  Suzanne will sing with the vocal quartet in the ImaginaryTimescapes performance.

As a frequent performer of contemporary music, Suzanne explains the unique challenges and pleasures she associates with singing this repertoire: “There’s a particular skill set that is required when performing contemporary music.  This isn’t to say that it’s a different skill set than is required when performing older, more mainstream works; rather, it’s that same skill set being taken into uncharted territory.  With contemporary music, there is little or no previous performance history from which to draw an example, and this requires perhaps a greater degree of focus during the preparation and performance of the piece.  The flip side of this is that there are also few, if any, expectations attached to the piece on the part of the listeners—there’s no-one in the audience saying, “But this isn’t the tempo that Muti took on his 2007 recording,” for example—and this offers the performers greater latitude to create the new reality of the piece.  The challenge of these pieces lies in their newness, which offers a heightened sense of freedom in return.”

You can hear Suzanne on 2 recordings released in 2012 in which she is a soloist—…With Peace in Mind (Choral Music of Nancy Wertsch) with the New York Virtuoso Singers and as Alto soloist for Messiah with the Choral Society of the Hamptons.  Also look out for a CD of 25 world-premiere compositions with the New York Virtuoso Singers in conjunction with their 25th-anniversary celebration concerts in Merkin Hall, which she will record in early 2013.


Violinist and Soprano Elizabeth Derham

Today I would like to introduce violinist and soprano Elizabeth Derham, who will be performing in both the string quartet and the soprano duo (with myself) in the Imaginary Timescapes performance.  Before I composed Nigun for the two of us, I had the pleasure of singing with Liz, as she is known, in the soprano section of C4: the Choral Composers/Conductors Collective.  She’s the kind of singer who wants to hang back after rehearsal to sing through a particularly exposed soprano part and discuss strategies for getting the intonation just right in a tricky spot.  Add that to the fact that she has a clear tone and a voice that easily and evenly jumps around from below middle C to As and Bs above the staff, and you have your ideal new music singer.  That she also has perfect pitch is a bonus!

In November Liz and I premiered Nigun, my work for two sopranos and electronics that we will reprise on February 16th.  About the experience, Liz had the following to say: “Working on Nigun was a fantastic experience for me, both because it was my first time working with tape and because Karen’s writing is so wild. I have always loved music with electronics, so singing along with the taped voices was a real thrill, especially when we got to do it in the hall with the tape at full volume. After the experience of performing Nigun’s complex whirl of vocal textures, I can’t wait to do it again, and to perform more music of this genre.”

Like the rest of the Imaginary Timescapes string quartet, Liz is pursuing her Masters degree at Juilliard.  She studies violin there with Joseph Lin and Naoko Tanaka and plays frequently with the New Juilliard Ensemble and AXIOM.  Liz is an avid performer of new music, having worked with artists such as David Lang, Magnus Lindberg, Robert Wilson, and Bill T. Jones; and she has premiered numerous works by composers at Juilliard, Aspen, and Fontainebleau, as well as works by freelance composers around New York City.  She has been concertmaster an co-concertmaster of numerous orchestras.  Career highlights include soloing with the New York Young Musicians Ensemble on tour in Italy, playing the American and Israeli national anthems for the Pave The Way Foundation 2004 Annual Dinner at the Harmonie Club in Manhattan, winning the 2007 Abraham Katz Memorial Award in the Friday Woodmere Music Club Young Artists competition, and giving the Western Hemisphere premieres of four new string quartets at the MOMA’s Summergardens outdoor concert series.



Violinist Alex Shiozaki

It’s great to perform with musicians who are in love – the two violinists in the quartet are soon to be married, but as they are quick to point out, not to each other.  Alex Shiozaki is marrying a fellow musician, the pianist Nana Shi, with whom he frequently collaborates.  The couple made their Carnegie Hall debut in Stern Auditorium with Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra. As a duo, Alex and Nana have given many recitals across the country, performing repertoire from Beethoven to Schoenberg to Satoh. They can be heard often in NYC, concertizing in venues including the Juilliard School, WMP Concert Hall, and the Roerich Museum.

Praised by The New York Times as “spellbinding,” violinist Alex Shiozaki regularly premieres new works between performances of more traditional repertoire. Equally at home with music new and old, he has appeared as a soloist on stages from Carnegie Hall to Harvard University’s Paine Hall. For several summers, he has been invited to Tanglewood as a New Fromm Player, specializing in contemporary music.

Described by conductor David Effron as “a natural leader,” Alex has led as concertmaster the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Juilliard Chamber Orchestra, New Juilliard Ensemble, Harvard Bach Society Orchestra, and more. He has also performed with Ensemble ACJW, Le Train Bleu, and Second Instrumental Unit in NYC, and with the New World Symphony in Miami. In the summer of 2011, Alex joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on their tour to Japan.  Highlights of his appearances a chamber musician include being featured on the Wednesdays At One concert series at Alice Tully Hall, in the Focus! Festival at the Juilliard School with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and in a New York Times multimedia feature performing Stravinsky’sL’histoire du soldat under the baton of Alan Gilbert.

Alex is currently pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Juilliard School as a C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellow, stududing with Ronald Copes and Joseph Lin of the Juilliard String Quartet.  I look forward to working with Alex for the first time in the Imaginary Timescapes concert, where he will be performing the song cycles Reflections on Espionage and October in Galicia for voice and string quartet.

You can hear Alex on Dec. 13-15 in Cosi Faran Tutti, a new opera by Jonathan Dawe that “celebrates multiple permutations of love by pulling the covers off the seemingly random combinations of desire to which all are subject,” directed by Ryan McAdams  (Teatro Theatre, the Italian Academy, 118th St. and Amsterdam, NYC, 8pm).  Other performances can be found at, and I recommend listening to his recording of Jones’ Night Music, among his recordings you can stream at

Please visit the RocketHub campaign site for this performance  to learn more about the performance and find out how you can become involved.

Bass Phillip Cheah

When Tania León encouraged me to produce this performance, and I started putting it all together, Phillip Cheah was the first person I called. One of his many talents is an ability to sing in both the bass and the soprano register, and his involvement enables us to perform one of my choral works, Signifying Nothing, with only four people even though it calls for a three-part soprano divisi at one point. But that unique ability aside, Phillip’s musicianship is an invaluable asset to the vocal quartet for the Imaginary Timescapes performance. I worked with Phillip in C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective from its founding in 2005 through 2010, when he left to take a position as Music Director of the Central City Chorus. (Coincidentally, Phillip conducted C4’s premiere of Confessions from the Blogosphere, one of the works he will sing with the vocal quartet.) Whether singing under his baton or alongside him, and especially when he is conducting one my compositions, I always appreciate his heartfelt expression and exacting ear.
Phillip’s voice, praised for its “particularly potent contribution” (New York Times) and a “warm tone and stately presence” (paterre box) with a three-and-a-half octave vocal range that “defies the laws of nature” (Time Out New York), has made him in high demand as a singer and inspired song cycles written for him by Patrick Castillo, Jonathan David, and Frank J. Oteri. Phillip has sung with too many professional choruses and orchestras for me to list them all here, and he is currently a member of the professional choir at the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. I’ve enjoyed hearing some of his recitals—Phillip collaborates regularly with pianist Trudy Chan in performances at the Tenri Cultural Institute (the Imaginary Timescapes venue), the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields, and the Cornelia Street Café (as part of the 21st Century Schizoid Music Series).
In addition to Phillip’s accomplishments as a singer, his conducting has been hailed by the New York Times for the “warm tone and carefully calibrated blend” elicited from his choirs. Phillip has conducted New Music New York, Cerddorion, Amuse, the Amato Opera, and well as being a founding member of C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective with me, as I mentioned. He is presently the Music Director of the Central City Chorus and the staff accompanist at The Brearley School.
Can’t wait until Feb. 16th to hear this vocal phenom?   Check out the “Quire of Cheahs,” a series of all-Cheah choral recordings, or recordings from Phillip’s recitals at

Free Concert Tonight: Cellist Sofia Nowik

Over the next week or so, I would like to introduce you to the talented musicians who will join me for the Imaginary Timescapes performance. Your contributions to this campaign are primarily going to them. I will start with the cellist Sofia Nowik, who you can hear in a free solo recital tonight at the Juilliard School (8pm, Paul Hall, 65th & Broadway, no ticket required). Tonight Sofia will play works by Bartok, Faure, Janacek, Martinu, and Poulenc.

Sofia studies with Darrett Adkins at Juilliard, where she is a graduate student and a principal cellist in the Juilliard Orchestra. She also plays as a freelance musician throughout the tri-state area, performing in orchestras and as both a soloist and a chamber musician for numerous concerts, recitals, and recording projects. Sofia premiered Tim Keyes’ The Mighty Mississippi, a concerto for cello and large-scale orchestra and choir with the Tim Keyes Consort, and she also appeared as a soloist with the Manalapan Symphony Orchestra, Central Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and the Livingston Symphony.

Sofia has served as both principal and assistant principal with the New Jersey and New York Youth Symphonies, respectively, and as well as with the Plainfield Symphony. As one of the musicians chosen to represent the Juilliard Orchestra , she was invited this past summer to co-lead the cello section in a special joint project with the Royal Academy of Music (London) under the direction of composer and conductor John Adams. This collaboration produced two performances, one in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Summer Festival and a culminating performance in London at the BBC Proms Festival. Sofia is also a cello mentor and coach at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division, a member of the Juilliard School’s contemporary ensembles New Juilliard Ensemble and Axiom, and a Teaching Assistant for the Liberal Arts Department at the Juilliard School.

Can’t make tonight’s recital? You can hear Sofia again this coming Monday, Dec. 10th, when she will perform with Juilliard’s contemporary group Axiom in a program featuring Toru Takemitsu’s Archipelago S for 21 players and John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music (8pm, Alice Tully Hall, free tickets available at the Juilliard Box Office.)

(Originally posted Dec 6th, 2012 at 10:25 AM EST)