Busy, Busy: Sitting Down with Two MAW Artists with Plenty on Their Plates

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 29, 2021

Juggling all the tasks and opportunities a fellow faces at the Music Academy of the West is a stiff if rewarding challenge in a normal summer, what with private lessons and sectional coaching, studying new pieces of repertoire, practicing as an individual and rehearsing for chamber, orchestra, and duo concerts, performing in master classes and concert halls, prepping for the new MAW Fast Pitch awards, and readying works for MAW’s annual competitions. Not to mention getting ready for auditions, for those about to enter the non-academic world.

It’s a wonder the young professional musicians manage to find time to sleep, eat, and relax, let alone spend time with their Compeers or each other just for fun. Now truncate the time allotted for almost all those activities from eight weeks to five. 

Welcome to the MAW Summer Festival 2021. 

We caught up with a couple of the instrumentalists over the phone this week (yep, they had to fit in time for interviews, too) to check in on their experiences so far this summer. Here are severely shortened excerpts from the conversations.  

Told as a child that she was too small to take up double bass, Cristina Cutts Dougherty settled for the cello then followed her older sister into playing the tuba. Good move. While her sister tossed the tuba for law school, by 16 years old, Cristina was the Young Artist winner of the International Tuba & Euphonium Competition and was unanimously chosen as the winner of the National Symphony’s Summer Music Institute concerto competition, resulting in her performing the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto as soloist in the Kennedy Center. A year later, she became the first tubist in the history of the Pasadena Showcase Instrumental Competition for woodwinds, brass, and strings to win the overall Grand Prize. Last year, after five tries, all she did after beating out about 50 or so other applicants for the coveted singular tuba position at MAW was claim both a Fast Pitch and Alumni Enterprise Award for The Resilience Project, a book profiling historic women in brass. 

On August 4, she’ll attempt to become the first tuba player since two-time winner Aubrey Foard to capture the Concerto Competition (this year transformed into a duo event). 

Q. May I ask: Why the tuba? 

A. People don’t really expect much from the tuba and I definitely like surprising them. The tuba can be a really melodic and beautiful instrument, and it can also be super powerful. I love being able to explore that range.

You’ll be playing Tomasi’s “Être ou ne pas être trombone quartet” on July 27. What’s exciting about that piece? 

It’s this really epic and strange low brass piece, and I get to be the soloist. So the trombone players will be all behind me and I’ll be playing the solo part in front of them. It should be pretty fun! 

What about the duo competition? That’s an important one. 

I’ll be playing a lot of non-tuba repertoire. My main piece is Schumann’s “Adagio and Allegro” originally written for horn, and I’ve arranged a piece by Florence Price (the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer), called “Elfentanz,” which I arranged myself because I really wanted to do one of her compositions. Also, “Ballade for tuba and piano,” composed by Jan Krzywicki, who is the brother of one of my teachers, so it’s very personal. It’s awesome, a slow lyrical piece that you can say a lot with. The last one is “Three Miniatures for Tuba and Piano” by Anthony Plog which is the one really serious piece from the tuba repertoire. 

You’ve got a lot going on. How do you find the time to prepare everything?

I am also doing the Keston Max competition for one of the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) slots which are orchestral excerpts at the same time. So, I have a little system where I make charts in my practice journal so that I practice a little bit of every piece every three days. That way it’s not too overwhelming to try to do all of them every day.

What do you get out of being a musician? 

It’s always been about being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. In an orchestra, it’s amazing to be part of a 60-person organism that becomes one in performance. I try to get that feeling even when I’m playing with a pianist, and to serve the music because it’s bigger than we are. I like the idea of being a vessel. 

Finally, do you think this is the right time to be a woman tuba player as there seems to be more awareness about equality?

Organizations are, out of necessity, programming more inclusive works, which is a great step forward. As far as a job, there’s only one woman professional tuba player in a major orchestra in the world (Carol Jantsch of the Philadelphia Orchestra). So, we’ve still got a long way to go. Hopefully I’ll be the second.

Google Alexander Agate and nearly every response on the first few pages is about the child actor. Incredibly, it’s not just a case of same name syndrome: the actor — whose career as a thespian by his own admission peaked at age five in How to Eat Fried Worms — is now an accomplished solo pianist back for his second in-person summer at MAW.

He was a semi-finalist in both the 2017 Naumburg International Piano Competition and the 2020 National Chopin Competition, and won first prize in both the Munz Chopin Competition and Artur Balsam Duo Competition at Manhattan School of Music. 

Agate will be playing a “Haydn B minor Sonata,” a variation piece by Chopin and “Fleurs du mal,” a contemporary work by Widmann, at the July 28 Solo Piano Competition. He’ll also perform Bartok’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” at the July 30 fellows recital. 

Q. What does acting have in common with music for you? 

A. They’re connected in the element of getting into a mood or character in performing. I’m not making up experiences when I’m playing music, but I try to amplify ones I’ve had the way I was trained in acting class where they teach you to apply something in your own life to the script to make it a little more relatable to the audience. Now my script is the score. The composer has all these very detailed markings, but there’s still lots of room to bring yourself. If he writes “Angrily,” is it bitter anger or rage or what? I want to find the emotional tone on my own. 

What is it about the piano that fulfills your creative desire?

In high school, I was one of the winners who got to play with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic. Being on the big stage and feeling this moment where you really just communicate exactly what you feel was amazing. And afterwards having people tell me that it brought back memories or that they were touched, that was the moment when I decided this is what I want to do. Music is something that I feel directly connected to when I’m trying to express myself in a way I didn’t with acting because something was always in the way of really just letting go. Maybe I was never able to say someone else’s words in a convincing way. But it’s different with music. Whatever emotion I have I can communicate it. Hopefully it comes off that way. When I’m on stage it feels like utter freedom. Everything else fades out and I just play whatever I’m feeling. 

What’s next for you after this summer?

I’m working on my doctoral degree, the ideal safety net because I can apply for a university teaching position. In the meantime, there are competitions, and I’m in the biggest one in Asia, the Seoul International, which has kept getting postponed because of the pandemic. There are a lot more to apply for, because the age cut off is 32. But I don’t personally want to stay in the competition circuit that long. 

You seem so lighthearted about all of this, like you don’t take yourself too seriously. 

I think you need to in this field. It helped that I started so late, because it was completely my choice to go into music. With some colleagues I get the sense that they just became very good at it so young that they got pigeonholed and now it’s “What else can I do at this point?” But I really love it. At least for now — talk to me in five years.


With the COVID restrictions having been dramatically curtailed, MAW continues to add or modify programs to bring more music live to the masses. Tonight’s “Renaissance to the 19th Century” X2 chamber concert, a series that is supposed to feature faculty and fellows performing on stage together for every piece on the program, has not only shifted from a streaming-only event at 5 pm to one that will welcome an audience in Hahn Hall later in the evening, there’s also been a program change. Italian Renaissance composer, organist, and teacher Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Sonata pian’ e forte” still opens the concert, with trumpet faculty Paul Merkelo joining six Academy fellows. The “Wind Quintet in G Minor” from Claude-Paul Taffanel, the founder of the French Flute School that dominated much of flute composition and performance during the mid-20th century, still holds down middle position, although it appears that the roster features only fellows with nary a faculty member slated to play. In the anchor position, however, Beethoven’s “Septet in E-flat major” for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass has taken the place of Stravinsky’s “Octet for Winds,” with the players to be named later (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10 & $55). 


Tyshawn Sorey is scheduled to perform via video in Hahn Hall

Fear not, those who fear change: tonight’s Mosher Guest Artist recital with Newark-born composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey is still slated as a video screening premiere in Hahn Hall, with the 2017 MacArthur Fellow and 2021 MAW composer-in-residence collaborating on an improvisation with composer Paula Matthusen. Sorey, celebrated for his virtuosity, mastery, and memorization of highly complex scores and an extraordinary ability to blend composition and improvisation in his work, has drawn strong praise from critics across the land. The New York Times noted that Sorey “plays not only with gale-force physicality, but also a sense of scale and equipoise,” and The Wall Street Journal called Sorey “an extraordinary talent who can see across the entire musical landscape”. Sorey, who has released a dozen albums, has composed works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the International Contemporary Ensemble, soprano Julia Bullock, PRISM Quartet and JACK Quartet, among others, and has performed nationally and internationally with his own ensembles, as well as artists such as John Zorn, Vijay Iyer, Claire Chase, and Anthony Braxton, among many others (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10 & $40). 


The program for MAW’s Chamber Community Concert II — think of it as a sequel if you like, although the concert is just the result of pandemic protocols disappearing — had yet to be announced as of our deadline. But the one work already on the bill of fare is reason enough to attend, as French composer and conductor Henri Tomasi’s “Être ou ne pas être” (To Be or Not to Be), is a highly unusual and modern composition for trombone quartet that exploits tonality, rhythm, and structure, among other musical aspects. See above for an interview with tuba player Cristina Cutts Dougherty (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10).


León Bernsdorf, Nan Ni, Hsin-Hao Yang, and returning 2019 alumni Alexander Lee Agate and Arthur Wang — that would be the five solo piano fellows for 2021 — have got to like their chances at capturing the prestigious Solo Piano Competition given that the normal complement of fellows in their department runs to at least eight in a normal summer. The pianists will have ample time to demonstrate their prowess and virtuosity on the Steinway in the competition’s new venue of the Granada downtown as each fellow will have a 40-minute time slot spread over two sessions. The keyboardists will be hoping to impress a few key people in the audience, namely the members of the esteemed jury who will choose the pianist to receive not only a $5,000 cash award, but also a work commissioned specifically for him or her by Mosher Guest Artist Tyshawn Sorey to be premiered in a Santa Barbara recital early next year. See above for an interview with Agate (4 pm; Granada Theatre; $10 & $40).


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